JERUSALEM – Father Rafic Nahra is the new Coordinator for the pastoral care of migrants and Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics of the Vicariate of St. James in Israel. In an interview with TerraSanta.net, he speaks about his career and his new responsibilities.
Within the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Father Rafic Nahra has recently assumed the responsibilities of the pastoral coordinator of migrants and Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics (which refers to the Vicariate of St. James). He has lived for years in Jerusalem, and succeeds Father David Neuhaus, who resigned after twelve years of service.
Father Rafic, born in Egypt in 1959 into a Lebanese family, emigrated in his twenties to Paris, where he worked as an engineer and started on the road to the diocesan seminary. He continued his theological studies in Rome and on June 27, 1992 he was ordained to the priesthood in the French capital. He led a study visit in Jerusalem bonding him with the Holy Land, where it is also entered the Catholic Hebrew-speaking community. In Israel he completed a Masters in “Jewish Thought” and obtained a doctorate in Judeo-Arabic literature. For three years, he is responsible for the Kehilla Catholic Hebrew-speaking Jerusalem.
Since September 2, Father Nahra is the pastoral coordinator of migrants of the Latin Diocese of Jerusalem. On October 21, however, he received the Holy See’s consent to his appointment as Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics. We met up with him to learn about his history and to know what he proposes for this new service.
Father Rafic, did you expect to receive these two positions?
No, because I had not expected the resignation of Father David. Those who know Father David know he worked night and day, and has therefore resigned because of the accumulated fatigue. Knowing how demanding these two charges are, I will try to find the necessary support in order to continue.
Do the two responsibilities always go together?
No. They are two different positions, but the link between the two is born from the fact that we have begun to work with migrant children, who attend Israeli schools, they speak Hebrew and have a mentality similar to that of Israeli children. Their parents, particularly mothers, are working a lot and they need support. In Jerusalem, a Filipina mother came to us three years ago and told us: “My three children out of school about three o’clock and I work until six. Can you please go and take them to school and then I come to pick them up at six?” We agreed and … it all began. A similar request came from a second family and then others. Thus the project developed.
The work for migrants is not directed only to children, but to all. Almost all migrants live in Israeli society. It is therefore necessary that the pastors who work with them know Israeli society, customs, mentality. It is important to know how to communicate. This is why many priests of the Vicariate of St. James help migrants.
Do the two positions have a recent history?
The coordination of the pastoral care of migrants began a few years ago. The head was Father David, the Vicariate of St. James for the Hebrew-speaking Catholics, however, it has a history that dates back to the sixties. It all started with the mixed couples living in Israel: one spouse was Jew, the other Christian. In the meantime, religious men and women and volunteers arrived. So it all started as a work, the St. James Work, which had its own statutes. The first monks began to translate the prayers in Hebrew. Today we have complete missal in Hebrew version. The history of the Vicariate of St. James began this way and then developed over the years.
And how have you approached the Vicariate of St. James?
I arrived in Jerusalem for the first time in 1993: it was a stay of eight months to study and visit the Holy Land. I lived with the Jesuits, and studied with the Dominicans. I had some contact with the Christian communities of Jewish expression. I already knew the situation in the Middle East, the mutual hostility and ignorance about each other. I was very touched by this as a priest and then I felt the need to do something. I was never interested in politics, but from a human standpoint and a Christian, I met people and developed friendships in the country and this matured in me the desire to return. I wanted to bring people together: Christians with Jews and Arab-speaking Christians of Arabic with Jewish-speaking Christians. I was appointed three years ago as a priest of the Jerusalem community and one of the first things I suggested was to go several times a year to visit the Arabic speaking churches. We did that and Arabs welcomed us very well. I did not imagine that right away everything would be better, but we had to approach slowly. The difficulty communicating between the Christians of the two parties is not primarily political in nature, but it is a language problem and a cultural difference. We do not speak the same language and not everyone speaks English. The pastor’s job is to lead by example: those who serve on the one hand and those who serve on the other must help the faithful live together. We are all Christians and politics should not touch this aspect.
After being in the Holy Land for the first time, how did your dream of returning come about?
When I was a priest in Paris, I spoke to Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who was my archbishop, of my willingness to return. He explained to me the need to frame my course in a very specific mission. So I gave him my willingness to engage in projects that concerned the relationship between Jews and Christians. I went back to Jerusalem to pursue a Master’s degree in ‘Jewish Thought’ and then I continued with a PhD in Judeo-Arabic literature. Arriving in the Holy Land, I helped whenever needed. For two years here in Jerusalem I helped Palestinian children studying in the old town in the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Also I celebrated Mass in the Maronite Church in Jerusalem (being myself of Maronite origin). I then began to work in the Kehilla of Jerusalem initially translating prayers then celebrating Mass every day. Three years ago I became responsible for the Kehilla, composed of eighty people … a diverse community that is Jerusalem.
What are the difficulties of Hebrew-speaking Christians in Israel and what would you do for them?
Being a Christian and living in Israeli society is not a problem per se. There are difficulties, but it is possible to integrate into society, if one has the strength and courage.
One of the important things is to continue the work with young people. We have a group that has already participated in the World Youth Days, and which meets every month. Among young people, we have the largest and the smallest. We want to train them and help them find a strong identity, because, when you are a minority, it is easy to lose your identity. Israeli society is very secular. We experience the same difficulties that we have in Europe, secularism is a very strong temptation. Secularism in the sense of living without finding room for God in their lives. Instead we would like to strengthen the relationship between these young people, train them as Christians and ensure that in the future they will engage in parishes. But it’s a long road.
The young people of our communities are also supported when they have to do military service. This is a very delicate stage and we want to help them remain Christian and to live as such. It is a great responsibility. Young Israelis are obliged to do military service, you cannot ask them to leave the company. We must be close to them so that they do not lose faith. We have to leave out politics from our action: we want to help our young people to be true Christians, while living in Israeli society. Working with children of migrant must also continue. Today in
Israel, and perhaps many of them decide to stay.
Interreligious dialogue must be developed, as we are already doing. We have two projects in Jerusalem, and in other parishes there are similar initiatives. We have a very open group of Jews attending, who come to study with us the Torah. Secondly we have a charitable group that includes Jews, Muslims and Christians, we collect used clothes and give them to the poor. Charity has no religion. This project can help to make it clear that there are not only political problems. We can do things together. It all ends by saying “I am a Christian,” “I am a Muslim,” “I am Jew”. We can do things together and this project is proof.
How is the coordination of pastoral care of migrants?
The largest immigrant communities in Israel is that of Filipinos, but there are also many Indians, Sri Lankans, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Poles and others. In the past I have worked with children of migrants and now I’ll have to discover all the different communities. I will visit them one by one, participate in the celebrations and get to know their problems. My work is not be a parish priest in the place of the parish priests, but I will be a coordinator who will help them unite and create a bond with Israeli society.
I’ll have a team who will support me in this work, so as to create a link with the local Church.
You immigrated to Paris and toured many countries. Your personal experience can help in the relationship with migrants?
Yes, I arrived in Paris at age twenty, I lived in different places and in my family there are Orthodox Christians, Maronites, and Protestants. I returned to faith with the Protestants, I am Maronite and was then ordained a priest of the Latin rite. Borders attract me, I like that. I always felt good at the border and then life has brought me here. In 1993 I arrived without expecting anything. And this mutual discovery of ignorance and hatred among people, touched me deeply. From there everything changed.
Why do Christians support the reception of migrants?
In the Bible it is so: even the Jewish people have an experience that would help them understand. They were foreigners (migrants) in Egypt and have suffered much. The Lord delivered them. This is the founding experience of the people of Israel who were slaves and were freed by God to remain free. God gave them the Law of life and a road. Many times in the Bible, God tells His people to be good with migrants: “Remember that you were foreigners in Egypt.” Jesus himself in the Gospel also says: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Jesus has opened borders. The way we are organized today, with identities, nations, and borders, is not a definitive criterion to look at the world. People’s fear is understandable, but when a stranger comes knocking at the door, we cannot tell him: “You belong to the category of those who are a danger.” If we meet poor people, Jesus tells us to help them.
Working with migrants is, therefore, to support them, without being naive. The media makes much of foreigners who create problems, but there are also local people who cause problems. We must tell the truth: in all countries we need migrants because they are, regrettably, paid little and do jobs that no one else does. Looking at them as if they were a problem, is not fair. Already they live in difficult conditions: they do not speak the language, do not have medical insurance, they do not work. As Christians, the Pope invites us to open the doors and to help them.
Beatrice Guarrera for TerraSanta.net