Visiting priest says Arab Christians’ experience is overlooked

COLUMBIA — Recent reports about the escalating conflict between Israel and Hezbollah have had a special impact for one South Carolina-born priest.

Father Rick Vanderwater, affiliated with the Diocese of Jerusalem, spent the past 32 years serving as a teacher and parish priest in Israel. During that time, he learned about the vibrant but difficult history of Arab Christians.

Father Vanderwater was in Columbia and Charleston recently, visiting family and friends before starting a new assignment in California. He will serve at St. Thomas More Church in San Francisco, which has about 800 Arab Catholics in the congregation.

“I’ll be working to try to increase awareness about what Palestinian Christians are dealing with, and try to get more information about their lives to the Arab Christian community here,” he said in a recent interview with The Miscellany. “I want to let other Christian brothers and sisters know about how the Christians in the Holy Land have really suffered over the years.”

Father Vanderwater first went to the Holy Land in the early ’70s to learn about the region and pursue studies in Biblical history. He met a priest who asked him to return to the region to teach English at a Catholic-run university in Bethlehem. Father Vanderwater accepted the job and soon found he was teaching classes populated mainly with Palestinian Christians. He said the experience opened his eyes to a religious community that many people don’t equate with Israel and the Holy Land.

“I really didn’t have the clear idea that there were Arab Christians before going over there,” he said. “I was really inspired by working with them.”

Father Vanderwater took his first job in the area in 1974. When it came time to go home, he felt torn.

“I asked myself how I could go and leave the Christians living in the homeland of Jesus,” he said. “I also began to think about my life and felt a calling to the priesthood. I felt God was calling me to be a priest and help them spiritually.”

He continued to teach and study in the area and was ordained in 1982 on Mount Zion on the feast of Pentecost.  From 1982 to 1996, Father Vanderwater served in four parishes in the area, including assignments in Jordan and in Ramallah. His most recent assignment was at a parish in Jifna, a town of about 1,200 about 20 miles north of Jerusalem.

He said the town never received damage from bombs, but his parishioners experienced the difficulties of being Palestinian Christians after the second Intifada began in 2000.

“They are Christians, but also Palestinians, and they suffered the same way as the Muslim Palestinians do under the effects of occupation,” he said. “Travel is very difficult for them — many people can’t even visit Jerusalem — and the economy has been devastated.”

He said Christians in Israel don’t experience persecution for their beliefs as others do in some predominantly Muslim areas. The worst problem is that often the Christian community is ignored because many people only consider the Arab and Jewish experience in the Holy Land. Most Christians in Israel, he said, are either Roman Catholic or Orthodox.

“One of the hardest things about working over there was that you had to be the one everyone looked to for encouragement, and sometimes it seemed you couldn’t scrape up any more encouragement,” he said. “The Palestinians were living without so many things that are part of a normal society. There’s not a real government there right now, and various things we take for granted are missing. People turn to the church for help to borrow money to pay debts. Many people are unable to work.”

He said much of the Palestinian community is “operating on credit,” and described grocery stores where shopkeepers keep running lists of what people have bought, hoping they will be able to pay the bills in the future.

The 2005 election of a government led by Hamas has caused more economic difficulty, he said, because a great deal of aid from the United States and other entities was cut off.

As a result, he said, the Catholic church and other Christian groups are doing “a lot of social work.” He said a great deal of aid comes from Catholic Relief Services and other Catholic relief groups. The ongoing violence and conflict in the region has also caused many Palestinian Christians to leave the area, Father Vanderwater said.

“I feel like I’ve spent most of my adult life over there, and people got used to me encouraging them spiritually,” he said. “I really feel how easy life is over here in comparison to what they’re going through. I also have a deep sense that this new assignment is what God wants me to do.”