Uncertain Christmas season affects Bethlehem Christians - Catholic Courier
A student writes an icon at the Bethlehem Icon Centre. A student writes an icon at the Bethlehem Icon Centre in Bethlehem, West Bank. "Christmastime at the center before the pandemic was full of people and tourists, we used to have groups coming to visit the center and support it in many ways. Also many international students joined our icon painting courses and teachers from abroad came to share their expertise and help the students," said Mina Khader, director of the center. (CNS photo courtesy Mina Khader)

Uncertain Christmas season affects Bethlehem Christians

“When you look at an icon, it is a door to heaven.”

With this sentence, Muna Khader, who took up the position of director of the Bethlehem Icon Centre just as the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, explained why she decided to move away from the field of business marketing and into the world of art and icon painting.

“I thank God that he took me from that place, to this place,” said Khader, who has both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in business marketing, as well as a diploma in cooperative organizational management.

In 2018 she also received a diploma in icon painting from the Bethlehem Icon Centre in a special program that had been offered in association with the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts in London.

“I took up icon painting as a hobby. I had no background in art but I wanted to take a course to learn more about art, and the icons and their symbolism. It is my passion,” she said. “When you look at an icon you can meditate with it, it is a spiritual experience. You want to know more about what it symbolizes and the story of each icon; to understand and pray.”

Founded in 2011 by British iconographer Ian Knowles with the aim of restoring iconography as a vibrant part of Palestinian Christian culture, pre-COVID-19 the center offered subsidized short and long courses in iconography for local Palestinians, as well as workshops for pilgrims and visitors whose tuition helped support the center.

Top students at the center also worked on commissioned icons such as the Our Lady of Palestine icon that was designed by Knowles for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and a commissioned icon for the Lichfield Cathedral in England. Knowles and a team of three students installed the icon in the cathedral in August 2016.

As was Knowles’ intention, the school has become a local nonprofit organization under the direction of a local board of directors and Knowles is no longer associated with the school. The school now also offers art lectures and different workshops, including mosaic making.

“Our mission is to provide Palestinian Christians with valuable professional opportunities to help them stay in their homeland,” said Khader. “We want to be a Christian economic oasis.”

While commissioned icons are still possible and courses for local students continue, the pandemic threw everything off track and the school is struggling with its fundraising, she said.

Foreign students who helped offset the costs for local students are not yet arriving. Bethlehem’s economy depends on tourism and most Christian families have been severely affected by the lack of visitors.

“During the pandemic people in Bethlehem did not have money so I had to reduce costs for students because we wanted them to continue coming,” she said. “But the situation is not stable and we are facing a lot of money problems.”

There are now seven local students taking the long course and five local students taking the short course under the tutelage of local artist Marc Amiah and Greek iconographer Zarifis Zarifopulous who currently lives in the Holy Land.

Khader too is continuing her iconography studies, and after she completes her workday at the center, she joins in the evening classes. She is one of the lucky students who was able to study both under the current teachers as well as Knowles, she said, and learn their differing techniques.

Part of the curriculum now also includes teaching students how to continue creating icons to help support themselves financially, and the center has plans to sell their works with the majority of the money going to the students, said Khader.

“For us as Palestinians it is so important to help Christians remain in their homeland and to give them a more spiritual connection,” she said. “With the situation we are facing people are struggling and under a lot of pressure. When you are painting an icon in prayerfulness, it helps release all your stress. Maybe in this oasis we can bring them back to their roots.”

“Christmas time at the center before the pandemic was full of people and tourists, we used to have groups coming to visit the center and support it in many ways. Also many international students joined our icon painting courses. and teachers from abroad came to share their expertise and help the students,” said Khader.

This Christmas season remains uncertain as fewer tourists are arriving despite the opening of the borders and easing of restrictions to travel.

“We pray that many tourists will be able to come to Bethlehem this Christmas season and to support the center through buying our icons,” she said.

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