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924: Greek Melkite Catholic Church, Bethlehem, Palestine
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Greek Melkite Catholic Church, Star Street, Bethlehem, Palestine
Mystery Worshipper: Iconoclast.
The church: Greek Melkite Catholic Church, Star Street, Bethlehem, Palestine.
Denomination: Greek Catholic.
The building: Attractive from the outside, iconic-style frescoes inside (including a "different" version of the well-known Rublev icon), quite light and airy.
The church: Some members of the church are active in local peacemaking.
The neighbourhood: The church is in the beleaguered West Bank town of Bethlehem. There is high unemployment in a tourist town without tourists; even those who do have employment with the municipality had not, in July, been paid for six months and were on strike – so rubbish was piling up in the streets, smelling in the hot weather. The municipality had no money to pay its workers because residents had not been paying their bills. The residents had no money to pay their bills because they hadn't been paid... Thoughts of vicious circles arise, and chickens and eggs.
The cast: Rev. Wandile Kuse, an Anglican priest from South Africa, assisted, but I don't know the name of the local priest.
What was the name of the service?
Sunday morning mass.

How full was the building?
More than half full, about 70 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was made very welcome by everyone.

Was your pew comfortable?
Moderately comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Friendly and chatty.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
There was a welcome to the group I was with, in English, but from my seat near the back I couldn't hear it properly. The acoustics were great for the singing, but not so good for hearing spoken words from the front.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We were given booklets and cards with the liturgy in English, which meant we could just about follow the service. The local congregation had similar items in Arabic.

What musical instruments were played?
None that I remember.

Did anything distract you?
Plenty of activity, people arriving late, etc. I was happily distracted by the frescoes and by the unfamiliar priestly activities at the front.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
"Bells and smells" liturgical style, with lovely robes.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
7 minutes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I had just about decided there was no sermon (though with the liturgy mostly in Arabic, I wasn't sure whether it might have passed me by) when it happened right at the end of the service, and a brief English translation followed which again I couldn't hear very well, but I think was about our light shining. The priest told our group that our voice for justice was much needed. He finished by saying, "Please pray for us, and thank you."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I don't do numinous spirituality, at least not in church! But the singing, which was reminiscent of Orthodox rather than Catholic singing, was wonderful. And the warm welcome was great. This is a part of the world thought to be too dangerous for tourists, which is simply untrue (you are more likely to be injured in a car accident in the UK than by a bomb or gun in Israel or Palestine), so when visitors come, they are much appreciated.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I'm sorry, but apart from not understanding most of the service because of the language difficulty (do you think hell might be like that?), I can't think of anything.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance of embarassing silence. We were all taken off to coffee to which everyone seemed to stay, and mini-Snickers (ubiquitous it seems) were handed round in celebration of a young person's recent academic success. This seems to be a Palestinian custom – you get sweets or cakes from complete strangers on public transport.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Sweet and Arabic, and in dainty china cups.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, I think so, because it felt good to belong to a worldwide fellowship.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
As a non-Catholic, being welcomed to participate fully in a Catholic mass, and the (for me) strange experience of having the dipped wafer put straight into my mouth by the priest.
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