Arab Christians try reviving town of Jesus miracle

Kufr Kana, Israel - In this small Galilee town where tradition says Jesus turned water to wine, an ambitious priest hopes to perform his own miracle - revive a shrinking flock.

Father Masoud Abu Hatoum, nicknamed "the bulldozer" for his enthusiasm, has come up with a few ideas, like re-enacting the New Testament story of Jesus transforming the water for guests at a wedding in the Galilee hamlet of Cana, now this northern Israeli town of Kufr Kana.

"We have to attract people," said Abu Hatoum, who looks as much rock star as priest with his trim beard and large wrap-around sunglasses.

But he will have a tough time slowing the hemorrhage of Christians from this bleak, economically depressed town, as the young move away to cities like nearby Nazareth, which offer bigger Christian communities, more jobs and better marriage prospects.

"Our youths leave the village, they tell us: 'We don't want to die here.' We get old, and they leave," said 65-year-old Said Saffouri, a parishioner whose two sons have moved out of town.

Migration and low birth rates have diminished Christian populations across the Middle East. Israel's community of 123,000 Arab Christians is one of the few in the region whose numbers have held steady - it grew slightly by 2,000 in 2009. But it does face a problem of rural flight to big cities, which leaves traditional small Christian towns like Kufr Kana to waste away.

Kufr Kana was entirely Christian at the beginning of the 20th century, but Muslims began settling in the village first as traders, and then as refugees fleeing fighting during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, locals said. Now the village is home to 16,000 Muslims and 4,000 Christians.

The remaining Christians are already discussing what happens when their community dies out completely: Would local Muslims one day have to oversee the Christian holy sites or would members of the clergy stay behind to do so?

Relations with Muslims tend to be cool but polite. Some Christian residents describe warm friendships with Muslims - while others claim Muslims want them banished from town. Mostly, Christians said they just felt outnumbered.

From a distance, the town reflects its overwhelmingly Muslim population. Visitors can see three minarets spiking up amid the jumble of concrete block houses, with not a church spire in sight.

On a recent Sunday, the Roman Catholic service at the stone-and-marble Cana Wedding Church only drew about 20 worshippers, most of them middle-aged. Another couple of dozen turned out at the smoky, dim and ornate Greek Orthodox church nearby in the old village center, where volunteers built a display for stone jars the church says held the water Jesus turned into wine.

Abu Hatoum's Greek Catholic church attracted some 40 worshippers. That turnout is a tribute to the energetic priest. Before he was sent to the village from Nazareth in the summer of 2009, the church had about 10 regular worshippers, residents said.

Since taking the job, Abu Hatoum announced a series of events he hopes will revive community spirits and encourage the young to stay in town.

For Christmas, Abu Hatoum erected a scaffolding strung with blinking lights around 90 feet (27 eters) high over his church and he billed it the tallest Christmas tree in the Holy Land.

"I would have made it higher," he said laughing, "but I would have needed a license for that."

The gimmick was enough to attract an Israeli television crew, and a spot for the priest on local radio, pleasing parishioners who said nobody had expressed interest in their church before.

In July, Abu Hatoum plans to put on a play depicting Jesus' miracle at Cana. He hopes to pull off a Cana marriage miracle of his own in October with a mass wedding ceremony.

But the grim economics of the town work against his bid to resuscitate the community. With no local industry, the few jobs in Kufr Kana are in schools, the municipal administration, grocery stores, hair salons and mechanic shops.

A few souvenir shops stocked with wine cater to the thousands of Christian tourists who breeze through every year. But the village is only a brief stop on most itineraries, and tourists contribute little to local coffers, said Islam Amara, of the Kufr Kana municipality.

Most Arab towns in Israel have the same concrete-block bleakness and appear impoverished compared to Jewish communities nearby - a legacy of decades of budgetary discrimination by Israeli governments and mismanagement by local municipalities.

Christians are a tiny part of Israel's Arab minority of some 1.4 million, or 20 percent of the country's population of 7.4 million. Another 50,000 Christians live in the West Bank and Gaza, among nearly 4 million Muslims.

The relatively more prosperous cities of Nazareth and Haifa, both with large Christian minorities, give Kufr Kana's young Christians an escape route from boring village life.

The more they leave, the stronger the feeling of isolation among those who remain.

"We just don't feel welcome here," said Janette Elias, 60. Two of her three sons now live in Nazareth, Jesus' traditional boyhood city, about a 10-minute drive away.

Church volunteer Ihab Mukabal, 31, says his brother hopes to find an apartment in a nearby Jewish town. "There's nothing to attract people to stay here," Mukabal said.

The unkempt cemetery behind Abu Hatoum's modest church highlights the community's decline.

The oldest marked graves belong to twins Fadel and Fadil Dbayeh, born in 1899 when Kufr Kana was entirely Christian. By the time they died, in 1965 and 1966, Christians and Muslims were equally numbered, locals say.

The number of those buried in the cemetery was double those who attended church that Sunday.