MIDNIGHT arrived in Ramallah, but the children at the Anglican summer camp were still full of energy. More than 40 of them, aged 11 to 13, in maroon T-shirts, were gathered in the hall, where, for several hours, they had been singing worship songs in English and Arabic, dancing, and playing games.
Amid the high-octane activities that evening, they had also spent some time putting questions to the priests at the camp: Why didn’t God give Adam and Eve another chance? Why did God create the world? What should I do to strengthen my faith?
The Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East runs three camps in the summer, each lasting a week and catering to different age groups. They have to be held in the West Bank to be accessible to children in the diocese: those living in Palestinian territory, or in the Arab countries immediately to the east of Israel, face huge difficulties in getting permits to enter Israeli-held territory, including East Jerusalem.
Tarasa, a 13-year-old from near Jenin who volunteered as my translator for the evening, told me that she had been denied a permit five times when trying to visit her grandparents near Nazareth, even though they were less than 20 miles away.
The theme of this summer’s camps was “Build together”, from Ephesians 2.22: “And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”
The Vicar of Christ Church, Nazareth, the Revd Nael Abu Rahmoun, emphasised the need for young people in Palestine and Israel to be “living stones” in the land that is home to the physical stones on which Jesus trod. “I want them to be committed to the community of their own churches, not just turning up at the youth camps,” he said.
Wadie Naoum, who, at 18, has only just changed from being a participant in the camps to a leader, told me that the young people in his group had “really connected” with the theme, as evidenced by a play that they had devised and were performing the next evening. “They want to build a sense of belonging to a group and a community, and they really got that message through the idea of belonging to the Church, and belonging to Christ,” he said.
For Wadie, the camps are also something of a family affair: his uncle, the Revd Fares Naoum, who is the Rector of Emmanuel Church, Ramleh, was leading the question-and-answer session, and Wadie’s father, Dr Hosam Naoum, is the Archbishop in Jerusalem.
It was uncertain, however, whether Dr Naoum would be able to attend. As Archbishop of the diocese, Primate of the Province, and now also vice-chair of the Anglican Consultative Council (News, 23 February), he has many demands on his time, but he had expressed his desire to visit when I had seen him that morning at the 7 a.m. communion service at St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem.
It seemed, as the evening went on, that he was not going to make it, but then I noticed him enter, as unobtrusively as possible for a tall man wearing a purple shirt, and, taking a seat by the door, watch his son lead the children in song.
Before long, Dr Naoum was at the centre of things, leading a chorus of “Praise ye the Lord, hallelujah!” and coaxing the young people on to their feet to roar out the lines.
Afterwards, he gave a short talk, encouraging those attending to deepen their commitment to the Church, and reminding them that it was not just about summer camps, but regular attendance at church throughout the year.
Tarasa, who was translating as he spoke, added her own reflection on the message: the Archbishop was right, she whispered, and her experience at the camp had inspired her to start attending church during the week as well as on a Sunday.
THE next morning, back in Jerusalem, Dr Naoum explained why, amid all the pressures on his time, he had made the hour’s drive to Ramallah, returning home at 1 a.m. “I’m not shy about this: youth ministry is at the top of my priorities,” he said.
“Any aspect of ministry is important; so why youth ministry first? It’s because that’s the only hope we have for the future.” He referred to the marked decline in the Christian population in the Holy Land over the past century, decreasing from 27 per cent in Jerusalem 100 years ago, to less than one per cent in the city today.
“Together, we are investing in making the Church thrive and continue to exist,” he said, “and so that’s why we are empowering [young people], giving them what we can in terms of education, raising the sense of belonging, and letting them see that being a Christian in this place is a calling to continue the story of Jesus where it first began.”
Khaled Dally and Saba Kerry, both of whom are postulants at St George’s Cathedral, were at the heart of the action at the youth camp, playing drumkit and baglama — similar to an oud but with a longer neck — in the worship band, and leading the children through a set of songs, the actions for which were too fast and too complex for me to mimic.
Mr Dally told me that it was when he attended a youth camp and listened to a talk on discipleship by Dr Naoum that he first felt a pull towards ordination — or, rather, a push: “I felt a push on my back and turned around, but there was just the wall behind me.”
And some of the young people at this year’s camp were similarly moved: Canon Wadie Far, who serves as pastor to the Arabic-speaking congregation at the Cathedral, and who travelled with me to the camp, told me that he’d received an email from the parent of one of the children, saying how much her son had been inspired by the experience.
“Sam came home and could not stop talking about the camp . . . His experience in the camp has touched his heart, and we can feel how affected he is by it,” the message read.
Mr Kerry and Mr Dally are both in their early twenties, and will begin ordination training in the next few months. Anglicans might be a small, and still shrinking, minority in Palestine, but, with young people as bright and committed as Saba, Khaled, and Tarasa, it was hard to see how those “living stones” could ever completely crumble into dust.