For Galilee Catholics, Soccer Scores Higher Than the Pope's Visit

The upcoming World Cup is more likely to be the subject of conversation in two unique Arab towns than this weekend’s visit to Israel by the pope

Gil Eliyahu

MI’ILYA, Western Galilee – Argentinean flags are hoisted on many rooftops in this Catholic village, some draping down multistory buildings. A special tribute to the Argentinean-born Pope Francis, due to arrive on his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land this Sunday? Not exactly.

This is a town of diehard soccer fans, and the flag displays are their way to advertise which team they’ll be rooting for in the World Cup that starts in Brazil next month. To be sure, it’s not only the hard-to-miss, light-blue-and-white horizontal stripes that decorate homes and shops in town (though they tend to dominate the landscape); the Brazilian, German and Italian colors are well represented here, too.

“I guess you could say we’re more focused on the World Cup than on the pope’s visit,” says Aiman Dahbor, 26, who, with his two brothers, runs the local franchise of Café Café, one of Israel’s largest coffeehouse chains.

Not that he’s completely indifferent to the fact that the leader of the Catholic Church will be popping into Israel for the day. “Of course I’m excited,” says Dahbor, who wears a big golden cross around his neck and a faux-diamond stud in his ear. “His visit shows he cares about us. And that’s important for people like us, who are a minority within a minority within a minority.”

Mi’ilya is one of two Arab villages in Israel populated entirely by Catholics. The other is Fassouta, a 15-minute drive away. The residents of both villages are members of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Although it is an eastern church, its members consider the pope their spiritual leader. Altogether, about 65,000 Melkites live in Israel, among them 3,000 or so in each of these two Western Galilee villages.

It’s no coincidence that the first Arab-owned franchise of Café Café opened last year in Mi’ilya. Located near the ruins of Monfort, a 12th-century Crusader castle, it happens to be an unusually affluent Arab village for Israel. According to its newly installed mayor, Hatim Arraf, about 30 percent of Mi’ilya’s adult residents are university-educated, and 70 percent of the local women work outside the home – exceptionally high rates compared with those prevailing in the Israeli-Arab sector. And although Catholicism rules here, the birthrate is relatively low, with an average of 2.4 children per family.

Café Café is one of about half a dozen trendy cafes operating in Mi’ilya. If that weren’t enough to set it apart from other Arab villages in the area, it also has its own hotel, hospital, high school and a Belgian-style chocolaterie that advertises its chocolate-making workshops on posters around town.

Exterior shot of the church in upscale Mi'ilya. Photo by Gil Eliyahu
Flagging up the World Cup in Mi'ilya. Photo by Gil Eliyahu
The parish church in Fassouta. Photo by Gil Eliyahu

“There’s no reason to leave this town because we have everything we need here,” Dabhor notes. “And that’s why most young people, once they’ve completed their studies, come back here to live.”

The lunchtime rush hasn’t yet begun, so there’s only one server on duty at the coffeehouse. The blond, bespectacled young fellow is part of another phenomenon that makes Mi’ilya quite an anomaly: It is one of the few places in the country where local Arab establishments employ Jews, rather than the reverse. This particular new hire happens to live in Kfar Vradim, the upscale Jewish town located just a few kilometers down the road.

To quote the mayor, the residents of Mi’ilya are not “fanatically” religious. “They go to church on holidays, some of them fast on Lent, but that’s about it,” he observes. Even so, religious symbols abound. Just outside his office, a small statue of the Virgin Mary is perched on a windowsill. Crosses adorn the exteriors of many homes in town – both the old stone houses, with their classic archways, and the newer, ritzier McMansions – and artwork devoted to religious themes peeks out from interior walls.

Arraf is one of five Christian mayors in Israel who will be attending a reception for the pope hosted by President Shimon Peres on Monday. His wife, he said, had considered participating in the Sunday morning Mass in Bethlehem with the pope, but decided to pass after she learned all the rooms in town were booked.

At one spot in town at least, there is a palpable sense of excitement over the papal visit. This is at the home of the local priest, Father Nadeem Shakour, where a poster Scotch-Taped to the door, featuring a large photograph of the pope set against the background of Jerusalem’s Old City, announces the dates of his visit.

Shakour, who already met the Bishop of Rome at a convention held in November at the Vatican, says he will not join him for Mass on Sunday morning. “I need to run services at the church here,” he apologizes. Seated in his salon next to a photo of Pope Francis, Shakour says the pope’s visit nonetheless carries a very important message for Christians in Israel. “Christians all over the Middle East, including here, are moving to other places,” he notes. “By coming here, he is signaling that it is important for Christians to remain in the Holy Land.”

According to Elias Abu-Oksa, a local tour guide, about two-dozen residents of Mi’ilya have organized buses to take them to Amman, Jordan, where they plan to attend the Mass service being led by the pope there tomorrow afternoon. Other individuals, he says, are driving on their own to Bethlehem to attend the Mass at Manger Square. Although Abu-Oksa won’t be joining them, he attaches great importance to the papal visit.

“It comes at a time when Christianity is under attack throughout the Middle East – in Syria, Egypt and Iraq, and even in Israel with recent hate crimes,” he says. “So this empowers us.”

The size of the population and the terrain of Mi’ilya and Fassouta are very similar. The locals also practice (or, in many case, don’t practice) the same form of Catholicism. Yet at least some of the residents of Fassouta compare themselves to their high-living cousins over in Mi’ilya. “They’re rich city people, and we’re poor country folk,” as Yousef Dakwar, 39, a local handyman and cousin of the mayor, puts it.

A shrine to the Virgin Mary in Mi'ilya. Photo by Gil Eliyahu
Hail Mary ... another shrine in Mi'ilya. Photo by Gil Eliyahu
The 100-year-old church in Mi'ilya. Photo by Gil Eliyahu
A close up of the church altar. Photo by Gil Eliyahu

Even though he’s no longer as religious as he used to be, Dakwar says he’s “90 percent” sure he will go see the pope in Bethlehem on Sunday. “Why’s he important to me? Because there’s God, and there’s the pope. There’s no one alive above the pope,” he states.

At his small luncheonette in the center of Fassouta, Suleiman Hallak asks a customer if he knows when the pope is coming to the Holy Land. “On Sunday,” responds the customer. “You mean this Sunday?” repeats Hallak, sounding genuinely surprised.

Just finishing her shift as a nurse at the local health clinic, Josephine Benawi stops to chat with a friend near the 100-year-old church. Does she plan on joining any of the local groups traveling to Amman and Bethlehem to see the pope? “I’ll watch it on TV,” she says. “That’s what I did last time.”

Back in Mi’ilya, the lunchtime rush is beginning at Menches, a restaurant that specializes in Dutch cuisine with a Middle Eastern twist. It’s probably the only restaurant in Israel where diners can find shawarma (a national specialty) made with pork. On a redwood table outside, Nidal Bishara, 33, a “born-again” Catholic as he identifies himself, is sitting with a group of friends, who will be traveling with him to Bethlehem on Sunday. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m crazy about soccer,” he says, “But to me, the pope is more important than soccer.”

That’s definitely not case for the proprietor, Moeen Arraf, who opened the place four years ago after spending 30 years in the Netherlands. “I could care less about the pope coming,” says the chain-smoking 63-year-old, who dyes his frizzy hair blond and wears it over his ears. “To me, religion is hypocrisy. What’s important is that people of all religions and races learn to live together.”

And with that, he waves over the server, a young Jewish woman from the nearby town of Ma’alot, and orders another espresso.

Gil Eliyahu