Help Mideast Christians: Give a piece of Bethlehem this Christmas

Archbishop encourages support of faithful in the Holy Land

With Christmas drawing near, there will be many depictions of the Christ-child laying in a peaceful manger in Bethlehem. But Bethlehem native and Aurora Catholic, George Bannoura, wants to remind the faithful that life as a Christian in the birthplace of Jesus is difficult—and this population needs the support of the global Catholic community.

The area’s Christian population, once a majority, now numbers only 1 percent. There is “a lot of fear for the future,” he said, and “a lot of political conflict.”

More than 300 years ago, Christian families like the Bannouras, began producing artwork and handicrafts from Bethlehem olive wood. Today their company, Bethlehem Handicrafts, makes the distinct wood available worldwide, while supporting artisans in the Holy Land.

“Christ was born in Bethlehem and Christmas is about Christ,” he told the Denver Catholic Register Nov. 14. “We have a small piece of Bethlehem here in Denver with the olive wood from where Christ was born.”

“We love keeping this (tradition) alive,” he said, “by also keeping the Christians alive.”

Bannoura’s father, brothers, uncles and cousins living in Bethlehem work in the business, as well as an additional 420 artisans that contribute work to the collection which includes statues, figurines, crucifixes, angels, rosaries, nativity scenes, ornaments, candle holders, bracelets, and the recent additions of kitchen utensils such as spoons, trays and salad servers—among other items.

“Our mission is to collect from more people,” Bannoura said, which helps provide a living for more Christians in a region where they face discrimination—and the tourism industry is struggling.

Bannoura, born and raised in Bethlehem, travels there every summer.

“People are afraid to go there,” he said. “They want to go to a safer place.”

However, he encouraged pilgrims to consider visiting the Holy Land. Archbishop Samuel Aquila led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land last month.

“The outlook for those Christians who remain in the land where Jesus walked is bleak,” the archbishop wrote in a recent letter to priests. “And we must support our brothers and sisters with our prayers and, when possible, with our financial support.”

Bannoura drew the comparison of Coloradans hosting out-of-town guests.

“If you have a guest coming from a different part of the country, you think of where you want to take them,” he said. “You’re not going to take them to dangerous places, places known for crime. You’re going to take them to the best places, places you know are safe.”

Similarly, Bethlehem locals take pilgrims to safe areas and the best hotels and restaurants.

“In my memory, I have never heard that tourists got injured while on pilgrimage,” he added.

Those unable to travel to Bethlehem can still bring a piece of this sacred land to Colorado through companies such as Bethlehem Handicrafts.

“The olive tree is the number one famous tree in the Holy Land,” Bannoura said, clarifying that his family’s company does not kill olive trees to make the products, but uses wood trimmed from the trees every October.

Following the olive harvest, considered a holiday, the trees are pruned to prepare for the windy season. That is the wood used for art and handicrafts, as well as for building fires and heating homes.

“In our family, we have trees over 800 years old,” he said. “There is a 4,000 year old tree in Bethlehem.”

Bethlehem Handicrafts items are available at parishes and online at www.bethlehemhandicrafts.com; and during the holidays at kiosks at Colorado Mills in Lakewood, Flatiron Crossing in Broomfield, Town Center at Aurora, Park Meadows Mall in Lone Tree and Mesa Mall in Grand Junction.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.