Handicrafts from the Holy Land

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — There isn’t much good news coming out of the Middle East at this time, especially if you are a Christian.

Wars and the rise of violent Islamic movements have caused widespread death and destruction among the ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria.

Other Christian communities in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, North Africa and South Asia also face unrelenting economic and social pressure and occasionally violence.

Awad Qumseya knows this well. He was born near the same city where Jesus was born: Bethlehem.

In 1947, the Christian population of Bethlehem was about 85 percent. Now, it’s about 15 percent — and dropping.

All the lands where Jesus walked have experienced a similar or worse decline. In some places, only the ruins of Christian churches survive. Christianity in those places is extinct.

“For a very long time, Christians in the Holy Land depended on tourism, by making olive wood carvings and selling them to the pilgrims who visited the sites,” said Qumseya, a Christian.

Elias Jabbour (left) and Awad Qumseya, Omaha-based sales representatives of Blest Art, meet with archdiocesan vicar general Father Gary Pennings at Savior Pastoral Center in Kansas City, Kansas. Blest Art has been authorized by the archdiocese to visit parishes and offer heirloom-quality, olive wood carvings made by Christians in the Holy Land. Sales of this art is one of the few sources of income for the shrinking Christian population. Leaven photo by Joe Bollig

“Unfortunately, in the past few hundred years and for many reasons — mainly war, violence and persecution — many of our families were forced to flee the Holy Land,” he continued, “and go to parts of the world where they could feed their children and have a more secure life.”

Qumseya’s father, Jeryes Qumseya, was a master carver and artisan from Bethlehem. He came to the United States in 2000 to establish a company that would help Christian artisans sell their religious goods to American Christians.

For Holy Land Christians, the art they sell gives them the dignity of supporting themselves through work and the ability to remain in the Holy Land — not only to live, but to safeguard the Christian heritage in the land of Jesus as “living stones” of the church.

Americans, on the other hand, have an opportunity to do something practical for their Christian brothers and sisters — and to hold in their hands a tangible connection to the land of Jesus.

The company’s name is Blest Art, a subsidiary of Blest Art Ltd. in Bethlehem, Palestine, the West Bank. In the United States, the company has eight full-time employees in its Omaha office and about 25 representatives who visit Catholic parishes in a 16-state sales region.

Most of the items they bring are carved out of olive wood, but Blest Art also has icons and jewelry. They have been bought for a fair price by Blest Art from Christian Holy Land artisans.

“Most of the olive wood comes from olive trees in the Holy Land — some very old, hundreds and thousands of years old,” said Qumseya. “Of course, we do not cut down the trees, we just trim them and use the branches.”

Recently, Blest Art representatives have been visiting parishes in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. Their heirloom quality items for sale after Masses include many depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Family, crucifixes in many styles, Nativity sets, rosaries and other items.

“So why are we here? To promote these articles, to create a new source of income for our families so they can continue to work and live with dignity in the middle of the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land and not leave home,” said Qumseya.

“And we do so by vising parishes every single weekend and talk to the people and try to sell these items,” he continued. “Only sell them. We never take any kind of donations. We do not accept them. People ask us why, and we explain to them. It’s very simple. It’s not a dignified source of income. We want our people to be able to work. . . . We are not trying to create a welfare community.”

Blest Art carvings are made by people of faith for people of faith. The money produced by these sales uplifts the entire Holy Land Christian community.

“We are not complaining,” said Qumseya. “This is our destiny. We are so proud that the Lord Jesus and God the Father have chosen this land to reveal his Gospel and build his church.”

“We think the day will come when [God] will come on the final day and ask us, ‘What did you do with my heritage, what did you do with my church? Did you do due diligence to protect it or not?’” he added.

“We will stand and say, ‘We tried our best.’ We have great faith [God] will not let us down, we have great faith that we will succeed,” he said. “And we have great faith that the Middle East that was once flourishing with Christianity will be again.

“It seems hard, but what is hard for humans is not hard for God. Our crucifix is big, but Jesus has set us an example. He carried it all the way along and died for us. If it comes that we have to die for him, we will do it — bottom line.”

 

Updated 

Rula Jabbour tells of how her father fled Syria when he was tipped off that a terror squad was on its way to kidnap and behead him.

Months later her cousin, pregnant with twins, was obliterated by a terrorist rocket fired on Syria’s capital city.

So Jabbour’s emotions run high when she hears politicians saying the United States should slam the door on refugees fleeing such violence and brutality. Or that only Christians should be allowed in.

“When you turn your back on these refugees,” Rula Jabbour said, “you make ISIS win.”  - RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD

To her, those aren’t the ideals of America — the country that the Syrian immigrant now proudly calls home. The America she loves is not driven by irrational fear. It does not discriminate. And it does not turn its back on people in desperate need.

“The refugees escape the hell of ISIS, and we say we are afraid because they are ISIS,” said Jabbour, a 32-year-old doctoral student who has lived in Omaha for the past decade. “It’s just very shortsighted, it’s abusive to human rights and it’s very insulting to our reputation as an American nation.”

Politics has swirled around the future of Syrian refugees after terrorist attacks in Paris left at least 130 dead, injured scores more and revived post-9/11 fears across the country.

But the debate strikes a particularly emotional chord with the dozens of former Syrians who now live in Nebraska. Many remain concerned about the plight of family and friends who are still in Syria. And many have been touched by the violence the refugees are seeking to escape.

Rula Jabbour and her husband, Awad Qumseya, play with their daughter, Sama, at their Omaha home. Sama was born in the United States. - RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD

[Refugee data: How many refugees have come to Nebraska and the U.S.?]

The terrorist group known variously as the Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. One of the attackers reportedly entered Europe in October posing as a Syrian refugee, using a fake Syrian passport.

That prompted Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad to join dozens of other governors in calling on President Barack Obama to suspend all plans to resettle Syrian refugees. The U.S. House last week overwhelmingly passed legislation to create more stringent vetting procedures that would effectively halt the admission of any refugees from Syria or Iraq. Some Republican presidential candidates have suggested only non-Muslim Syrian refugees should be admitted.

[Where the 2016 presidential candidates stand on Syrian refugees]

Obama has stood firm behind his previous commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States over the next year. His administration has defended the extensive and sophisticated refugee screening process that’s already in place.

Most of Nebraska’s Syrians have been here since long before the civil war that led to the rise of the Islamic State and the refugee crisis. None of the Nebraska Syrians are refugees, although a few did flee the violence there and were able to obtain travel visas and make their way to the United States on their own. Jabbour’s father and mother have both settled in Omaha and were recently granted political asylum.

Rula Jabbour's home village of Kenseba, Syria. - RULA JABBOUR

Yara Haddad is not a refugee, but says she might as well be. The 24-year-old college student was in Omaha visiting her brother a year ago when her father encouraged her to stay because of the deteriorating security back home. She has remained in the United States under temporary protected status.

Earlier this month she was reminded of the kind of violence that caused her father to fear for her safety. A rocket fell on the campus of her former university in Latakia, killing 23 and wounding dozens of others.

“They were happy and walking around on a sunny day, and they did not come home,” said Haddad, who, like Jabbour, comes from a Christian family. “Even when I’m talking about it, I feel it’s impossible that it happened. But it’s real.”

She worries most about her 13-year-old sister, still living with her parents in Latakia.

Chafik Barbar, a Syrian native who has lived in Nebraska for nearly two decades, has horror stories, too, including an uncle felled by a sniper in Syria. Barbar returned last week from a trip overseas to visit relatives who have fled Syria for Dubai.

“It’s a survival game,” said Barbar, 32, who works for an Omaha software company. “It’s one thing to read it in the news, but it’s another thing when your cousin sits down and tells you what they went through.”

He said he understands U.S. concerns about security. But he said it’s also easy to dismiss the refugees when talking about them in abstract terms. If Nebraskans actually had a chance to meet the families that have fled Syria, they would surely welcome them into their homes.

“That guy who walked across the desert into Jordan is not bringing his wife and two children here to destroy the United States,” Barbar said.

Jabbour said slamming the door on Syrian refugees will actually harm U.S. security. It only plays into the Islamic State recruitment narrative that the United States and the West are hostile to Muslim people.

“When you turn your back on these refugees,” Jabbour said, “you make ISIS win.”

Jabbour first came to the United States on a student visa in 2004 to attend the University of Nebraska at Omaha, completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. Now she commutes to Lincoln to work on her doctorate in international relations, with a focus on Middle East studies and security and strategic studies.

Given that background, she has kept close tabs on the humanitarian crisis that’s arisen in her former homeland.

Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the Syrian people in 2011 rose up against the authoritarian regime of Bashar Assad, seeking democracy and political freedom. Peaceful protests descended into violence and then escalated into a civil war between Assad’s government and rebel fighters.

The Islamic State, which originated in Iraq, took advantage of the vacuum of power to move into Syria, soon controlling vast swaths of the country. The al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, also rose up, like the Islamic State harboring dreams of creating a radical Islamist state in Syria.

Like many Christian families, Rula Jabbour’s parents decided their best hope for the future lay in staying loyal to Assad and his secular government. They lived in Latakia, a government stronghold.

But Rula’s father, Gabriel Jabbour, was also a community leader in Kenseba, a Christian village of about 5,000 some 25 miles outside Latakia. He was the patriarch of a large extended family there and owned a large house and farmland.

The village in 2012 came under control of Islamist militants originating in Libya. As a local leader who was Christian and supportive of a secular government, Gabriel was targeted by the invaders.

“They wanted to send a message to the whole village,” his daughter said.

The family’s house and farms were burned to the ground. And then the militants tried to lure Gabriel into town, suggesting others needed help. The calls were coming from a foreign phone number, so he ignored them.

But then one night in July 2012, Gabriel received a phone call from a villager loyal to him, offering a warning: They are coming to your house to seize you, put you on public trial and then behead you.

Gabriel wasn’t sure what to believe until he received another call an hour later, this time pleading. “Please, please, get out of there. They are coming to your house tonight.”

Within an hour, he and his wife gathered some belongings into a single bag and fled.

Refugees In Midlands:

The Jabbours had already obtained visas to visit their daughter in Omaha for the birth of her child. The couple fled to Lebanon, where they waited for their daughter to send them airline tickets to fly to Omaha. They’ve been here since.

“My father is in very deep depression all of the time,” Rula Jabbour said. “He is a very proud man. He feels like he turned his back on his family in Syria.”

One month after her parents fled, Jabbour’s 26-year-old cousin was standing on her balcony in Damascus talking to a neighbor. A rocket suddenly roared from the sky, striking her directly.

“They were not able to find her body,” Jabbour said.

A distant cousin was kidnapped and never heard from again, Jabbour said. She still fears for the safety of all her relatives who remain in Syria.

“My cousin was killed on her balcony,” she said. “I can’t tell you they are in a safe situation.”

Barbar said his family also quickly became engulfed in the conflict. Homs, the central Syrian city where he was born and where he still has many relatives, became a center of clashes between government troops and rebel militants.

His uncle was leaving work one day, just miles from the Christian neighborhood where Barbar lived as a child, when he was shot by a sniper. Barbar said he’s not sure why his uncle was targeted.

“In a war zone, killing is a game for a lot of people,” he said.

Barbar, Haddad and Jabbour all have family members who have joined the millions fleeing Syria. They are now scattered across the globe, from Dubai and the United Arab Emirates to Germany, France, Austria and the United States.

Having left her own parents and sister behind, Haddad knows the pain of seeing family scattered by conflict.

“My father said, ‘I love my kids, but loving you means I want you to stay away from me.’ ”

Haddad and other Nebraska Syrians have watched with great interest the past week’s debate over the plight of overseas refugees.

Haddad agreed the United States needs to make sure that refugees coming here have no hostile intent.

But she noted that the prospective refugees being considered by the United States have spent years in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. They’ve endured month after month in tents during the heat of day and cold of night. She sees it as hardly the most likely way a terrorist would seek to scheme his way into the country.

“That’s impossible,” Haddad said. She also has faith in the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to screen out potential terrorists.

Jabbour noted the screening process for refugees is already so stringent and lengthy that it takes years for anyone to get through. Even after her parents arrived in 2012, it took more than three years for them to be granted permanent asylum.

“When my father is 60 years old and it takes three years, it does not mean it is an easy process,” she said.

Barbar, who’s lived in the U.S. since age 14, grew up in Lincoln. Now a U.S. citizen, he doesn’t think last week’s debate well represented what his country is about.

“The easiest thing is to get scared and slam the door,” he said. “But it’s against everything this country stands for and all the things I love about this country.”

Jabbour shared similar feelings. Her 3-year-old daughter, Sama — Arabic for “Heaven” — is already an American citizen by birth. She and her husband, a Palestinian Christian, look forward to the day three years hence when they will be able to take the oath of citizenship. As much as she loves her adopted country, she doesn’t think the refugee debate has brought out America’s best.

“I hate to see America turning into a scared nation,” she said. “I refuse to let the fear of a bomb lock me in my house. ‘In God We Trust,’ after all.”

Amid the refugee debate, officials with Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska revealed last week they had previously agreed to help settle up to 100 Syrian refugees in Nebraska.

Officials with the agency have said that once security concerns are cleared up, they expect to follow through with that pledge. They would become the first Syrian refugees to land in Nebraska.

Upon hearing that news, Jabbour’s emotion betrayed just how deeply the plight of the refugees touches Syrian Nebraskans.

“Oh my God, thanks God,” she said, gasping and clasping her hands close to her chest. “That is great news. I cannot be more happy for hearing such news.”

Refugees Opinion:

Contact the writer: 402-444-1130, henry.cordes@owh.com

 

BELOIT, Wis. (CNS) — For parishioners and pastors in the Diocese of La Crosse, Jeryes Qumseya may not be a household name, but his products are doubtless in more than a few households in the diocese.

Even as the number of Christians living in the Middle East, and especially the Holy Land, continue to dwindle, Qumseya hopes to be able to get into even more households with religious artwork, including statues and other religious objects, hand-carved from olive wood and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, silver-faced icons and hand-made rosaries.

By selling these products to Catholics, he also hopes to help alleviate the plight of Holy Land Christians.

Jeryes Qumseya, owner of Blest Arts religious goods company of Beloit, Wis., is pictured in a May 20 photo. Qumseya, a native of Beit Sahour near Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, said he is proud of work that artisans from the Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society produce and sell through his company. (CNS photo/Joseph O'Brien, The Catholic Times) See BLEST ART June 3, 2015.

Jeryes Qumseya, owner of Blest Arts religious goods company of Beloit, Wis., is pictured in a May 20 photo. Qumseya, a native of Beit Sahour near Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, said he is proud of work that artisans from the Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society produce and sell through his company. (CNS photo/Joseph O’Brien, The Catholic Times)

The founder and owner of Blest Art religious goods company, Qumseya has built up a business based on trust and dignity for his family and countless families back in his native Palestine.

Originally hailing from Beit Sahour (Aramaic for “Shepherd’s Field”) near Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, Qumseya has been a wood carver since learning the craft in the early 1960s. He also serves as deputy chairman of the Traditional Industries Association in Palestine and founder of the Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society in 1979.

The cooperative was formed as a way to benefit Christian workers in the country and more efficiently sell their wares on the world market, and from it sprang his U.S. business: Blest Art.

Receiving the goods from Christian woodworkers in Palestine, Qumseya sells them for the craftsmen in the United States by setting up a display table with products for sale in parishes and for other Catholic groups and organizations.

In the 1990s, Qumseya came to the United States and settled in southern Wisconsin to be near his son, who was attending college in Beloit at the time.

In the 2000s, a new cycle of violence in the Holy Land caused the tourism industry to collapse, leaving many Christian families with no source of income and no choice but to leave.

Crafted by one of the many Catholic Palestinian carvers who work with Blest Art, a religious goods company in Beloit, Wis., this replica of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem carved out of olive wood is among artwork available for sale through Blest Art's founder Jeryes Qumseya. (CNS photo/Joseph O'Brien, The Catholic Times) See BLEST ART June 3, 2015.

Crafted by one of the many Catholic Palestinian carvers who work with Blest Art, a religious goods company in Beloit, Wis., this replica of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem carved out of olive wood is among artwork available for sale through Blest Art’s founder Jeryes Qumseya. (CNS photo/Joseph O’Brien, The Catholic Times)

“The main idea was to start a new and reliable market for our products away from the Holy Land, which would serve as a substitute market to the local one in times of instability,” Qumseay told The Catholic Times, newspaper of the Diocese of La Crosse. “In this way, they could protect the very last Christian minority in the Holy Land … the very first defense line of the Christian faith worldwide.”

According to Qumseya, the United States was the most likely choice for a foreign market because he found a strong Catholic identity here.

“I came to the U.S. because with a stronger faith, there is a stronger market,” he said.

Qumseya is passionate about his art — and about making clear that Blest Art is not charity organization — but strictly business, although certainly a business with a good cause attached.

By hawking the carvers’ wares in the United States, Qumseya is privileged not to give handouts but to lend a hand up to the world’s “original Christians,” that is, his fellow Christians of the Holy Land, exchanging rewarding and edifying work for a just wage whereby these carvers can support themselves and their families.

“We need to live in dignity,” he said. “We don’t take donations. You work, you get something for your work; you give something, we give something. Yes, I need everyone to understand that we don’t accept donations.”

Now-retired Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah sent a letter of recommendation on Qumseya’s behalf to bishops in the Unites States, who in turn received the carver and recommended him to their pastors and other fellow bishops.

When Blest Art is invited into a parish, with the permission of both the bishop and the pastor, Qumseya said, the sales representative introduces the program after Communion during Mass with a brief letter written by Qumseya, outlining the dire situation of Christians in the Holy Land, who now make up less than 1 percent of the population there.

“For the Palestinian Christians living in the Bethlehem area in Jerusalem, the land is very tight and there is no land left after all the settlements are built, and there’s no place even to do agriculture,” he told The Catholic Times. “After the 1967 (Six Day) War, the land has become like a desert on the West Bank, especially in the Bethlehem area. It became a desert, in general; the trees bring water, but we don’t have any trees left because of the wars — war after war after war.”

The impact on the region’s Christian population is dramatic, Qumseya said.

“In 1967, we had 75,000 Christian people living in Jerusalem,” he said. “Shouldn’t this number go up in almost 50 years — to perhaps 300,000? The church’s statistics put the people left in Jerusalem at about 10,000 in 2009. Today, how many do you think we have today? We have, in fact, only 4,000 people.”

Pruned from olivewood trees after harvest time, the olivewood products are examples of a craft which can be traced back centuries among Bethlehem’s Christians, Qumseya said. Many of the other materials used in the crafts are also native to the Holy Land too, he added.

While customers might pay more for Blest Art products than they would otherwise for religious artwork, Qumseya said the Catholicism, craftsmanship and commitment that inspires each piece is a far cry cheaply made products, like items made in China.

The bottom line for Blest Art is the security and happiness of the families who carve the work, Qumseya said.

“Our concern is the common good of our families, which means paying them what they deserve for their time and compassion and not taking advantage of their need,” he said. They are our most valuable, irreplaceable asset.”


Profiles in Catholicism
 
An Interview with Awad Qumseya


by Gordon Nary


 


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Gordon:   When did you and you family join St. Robert Bellarmine Parish?
     
Awad:
 
  We go to St. Robert Bellarmine since 2010, when we moved to Omaha. Before we were going to Our Lady of Assumption in Beloit, WI since 2001. My father, the founder of Blest Art, still goes there. We moved to Omaha in 2010 because my wife Started her PhD program in Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
     
Gordon:   It must be a difficult time for your wife, Rula Jabbour and you with all of the pain and suffering in Syria and the challenges faced by Syrian refugees.
     
Awad:   We ask for daily prayers to protect and assist all Syrian refuges and all those suffering from the daily violence in Syria.
     
Gordon:   When did you and your father, Jeryes Qumsey, launch Blest Art?
     
Awad:   We started in 2003 in the U.S.
     
Gordon:









 
 

I was introduced to Blest Art at a display of your carvings and other art at Assumption  Church, I was overwhelmed with their beauty and then learned about your mission and the continued challenges to Christianity in the Holy Land, and how Blest Art is helping address these challenges with financial aid as a result of, your sales of these works.

Some of our readers may not realize that for centuries Christians in Bethlehem have earned a living by carving religious art to sell to pilgrims.
 The continued violence in Palestine has severely reduced pilgrimage and, as a result, sales of their art,  and we are losing many of the artisans. Blest Art is helping to keep this important tradition and art form alive.

Blest Art  has been profiled by Catholic News Service  and Blest Art has been praised by bishops throughout the United States and other faith leaders in other countries..

Please give our readers some background information on
Blest Art

     
Awad:
























 
 

Blest Art is honored to represent Christian families from Bethlehem District of Beit-Sahour  the Shepherd’s field. Most of these families rely on selling their olive wood carvings as the main source of income. However, in the year 2000 violence erupted again in the Holy Land. Consequently, there was a great decline in the number of pilgrims coming to purchase these beautiful works of art resulting in a severe reduction in income for our families. This lack of income has led to miserable living conditions. Therefore, many of our families were forced to flee and go anywhere else were they could afford to feed their children and have a more secure life.

Lead by Jeryes Qumseya, the Deputy Chairman of the Palestinian Traditional and Tourism Industries Association at the time and renowned Christian figure and carver, Blest Art came to the United States in an effort to sell the olive wood carvings and send the money back to the Holy Land. This has now become the main source of income for many Catholic and Christian families in the Bethlehem area. It has also given the Christian communities the opportunity to live and work with dignity in the midst of ongoing conflicts. Mr. Qumseya and his noble cause enjoy the largest support among their people. Since its creation, Blest Art’s has enjoyed the largest support from many of the Christian leaders plus most of the U.S Diocese, and many other Cardinals, Bishops, and Christian leaders around the world who are greatly aware of the Christian society needs and Blest Art’s great contribution to meet those needs and enforce the Christian overall presence in Bethlehem, the Holy Land.

Blest Art does not request or accept any donations. Rather it accomplishes its goal by giving our Catholic and Christian brothers in the U.S the chance to help the Christian families of Bethlehem area through purchasing a unique gift of religious art from the Holy Land. Doing so; it provides a direct tangible support to the Christian families in Bethlehem and help build awareness of their existence and their needs. Blest Art’s noble mission gives Catholics and other Christians in the U.S the opportunity to help the Christian families in the Holy Land. Blest Art’s noble cause, strong Christian faith, and that of the Artisans shine through the beautiful artwork. There are always good causes, but this one is especially important as it gives each of you a way to be in solidarity with the oldest Christian community on earth.

Blest Art’s work brings to you the advantage of being able to reach out beyond your borders with uniquely, real, tangible, and effective help. It is more than a handout, as a collection would be; it is a hand-up for the Christians who want to live in peace; and support their families with a centuries-old trade and way of life. Your support for these craftsmen and hard-working Christian artists helps to ensure a viable Christian presence in the land where the Gospel was first preached.

This call to welcome Blest Art and help us in our efforts is not a petty request, but rather an obligation.

“If we are taking Holy Communion and yet doing Nothing to relive the pain of our brothers and sisters whom we know are suffering, then are we not among those guilty bystanders? Unless we share what we have, our brothers and sisters will be hungry, and their children will have no medical care or access to education.” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington DC: To the Martyrs, A reflection of the Supreme Christian Witness.

     
Gordon:



 
 

Nearly all countries provide various forms of support to endangered species. However, Christians are rapidly becoming an endangered species in the Holy Land and Blest Art is providing critical assistance to inform others of this challenge and providing assistance. In addition.   your work in providing disabled  people at the Almalath Charitable Society with training  is inspirational

Approximately how many disabled people has Blest Art trained?

   

          

Awad:  

About 50 people and we hope to continue and grow. Plus many other needy families, students, hospitals, and many other NGOs

We have also proudly supported and continue to do many social and religious organizations in the Bethlehem area, for example

     
Gordon:   In approximately how many parishes in the United States has Blest Art been displayed
     
Awad:   I cannot give you an exact number but more than a thousand parishes.
     
Gordon:   How can parishes arrange for a display of your work to support your mission?
     
Awad:











 
 

We usually get the diocese approval first, then contact the parish and arrange a visit were we can display our work and sell directly to those who are interested in the wellbeing of Christianity in the Holy Land and worldwide. People have to understand that Christians in the Holy Land and in the Middle East in general are just the very first line of defense of the Christian faith and existence. The dangers and threats that we face their Like ISIS are worldwide threats and it is a matter of time that they target other communities all over. Thus, we should stand united and make sure that we do the least to support those who are giving up everything they have to protect our faith and our heritage. Christian solidarity among all Christian denominations is much more needed than it was ever before.

“The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard by everyone who can still distinguish between good and evil.  It makes no difference whether the victims are Catholic, Copt, Orthodox or Protestant. Their blood is one and the same in their confession of Christ. Today the church is a church of martyrs: They suffer, they give their life and we receive God’s blessings for their witness”. Pope Frances, Tuesday April 21, 2015.

However, I want to make sure that I am not misunderstood. This is not a call for war, yes it might be easy to be carried away, especially when others use violence, to respond in a like way, but we should not. We always have to remember who we are as followers of Jesus and respond with the speaking the truth in love, as Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington D.C, puts it in his new book: To the Martyrs, A reflection of the Supreme Christian Witness.. This is by the way a wonderful book and I encourage everyone to read it. It is very well written and very enlighten.

     
Gordon:   Could you provide our readers with an overview of the decline of the total number of Christians in the Holy Land since 1949?
     
Awad:   In 1948 we were about 30% of the population and currently we are less than 1%.
     
Gordon:

 
 

Catholic Charities has also been very active in addressing some of the challenges that has resulted from the violence .  In January 2016.  Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the apostolic nuncio heading the Holy See’s permanent observer mission to the U.N.  also spoke our forthe need for peace between Israel and Palestine.  Approximately how many artisans have left Bethlehem in the past twenty years?.    .     

     
Awad:
 
  Unfortunately, hundreds, but in the last 10 years or so, things have been getting a little better, especially for the artisans, as the U.S market, as we planned to start with, provided them with a continuous and staple source of income. 
     
Gordon:   These carvings have traditionally been made from olive wood since the 4th century. Could you explain why olive wood has been used?
     
Awad:

 
  it is the most available due to the nature of the land, plus and most importantly because it is the most beautiful and long lasting. It has a texture that is next to nothing and last for centuries. So anything that you might buy, you do not only get something special, handmade in the Holy Land, support a great cause, but you also acquire a family treasure, and heirloom that you can pass down for generations and generations and it would still look beautiful.
     
Gordon:

 
  in closing, we encourage all parishes to consider arranging for a display of your beautiful art treasures and our readers to visit your Facebook page and to consider purchasing  your beautiful art on line to participate in Blest Art's remarkable assistance to so many organizations in the Holy Land, and to pray for all the refugees from Syria that they may be treated with compassion, dignity, and assistance.