Unique shop brings Holy Land art here, sustains Christians there

Popular Bethlehem Handicrafts opens store in Aurora

Roxanne King

It’s the only one in the United States and it’s located in the Archdiocese of Denver. The well-known and respected Bethlehem Handicrafts, which imports carved olive wood items from the Holy Land to sell here at parishes and mall kiosks and internationally online (bethlehemhandicrafts.com) opened a store April 2, Easter Monday, in Aurora.

Located at 4114 S. Parker Road, the well-stocked store offers an array of exquisite olive wood items ranging from religious statues, crucifixes and rosaries to jewelry and kitchen items crafted by over 400 Holy Land artisans, providing them with a means to support their families.

“We are the only store in the United States that does this,” said George Bannoura, 40, a co-owner of the family business.

Bethlehem Handicrafts was born 15 years ago when Bannoura, a native of Beit Sahour (Shepherds Field), which is located just east of Bethlehem and is home to the largest Christian community in the Holy Land, brought goods from there to sell in Denver to keep his family and fellow artisans from poverty after tourism tanked due to escalating violence in the Middle East. The vast majority of Christians living in or near Bethlehem depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Their numbers have steadily declined due to unrest and lack of work.

We are proud to be considered part of the living Christian heritage of the Holy Land. Our local Christians go back to Christ’s time. We are the first believers of the Lord.”

“Twenty years ago in the city of Bethlehem, Christians were 85 percent of the population. Now, we are only 15 percent of the population,” said Bannoura, whose family still maintains both their workshop and homes there.

Numbers for the larger Holy Land are even more telling. In 2014, Israel had just over 8 million people, the Palestinian Territories 4.5 million and Jordan 6.5 million. Christians were estimated to make up from 2 to 3 percent of those totals (2-plus percent in Israel and Jordan, and about 1.25 percent in Palestine).

“Our main mission [at Bethlehem Handicrafts] is to help ourselves as a community,” Bannoura said. “We want to help our livelihood so Christians can stay there. I always ask, If there are no Christians left in the Holy Land, what will happen to the sacred sites?”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, recognizing the importance of a Christian presence in the land where Jesus walked, has periodically sent letters to parishes urging prayers for Holy Land Christians and support for Bethlehem Handicrafts.

“Our faith was born in a land that is both holy and often in turmoil,” he wrote last April. “Our brothers and sisters in Christ who live in the Holy Land undergo many hardships to practice their faith, but they remain committed to the land where Jesus lived, preached, died and rose from the dead…. Your parishioners’ support of the Bannoura’s business can help maintain their presence in Bethlehem.”

Father James Spahn, pastor of St. John Paul II in Thornton and Immaculate Heart of Mary in Northglenn, has visited the Bannoura family’s workshop in Bethlehem.

“They use the olive wood from the area and carve religious items from it,” he said. “[The work] helps the Christians there who have a hard life with very little opportunity and it brings beautiful religious items here for people’s homes and for our parishes. It’s a win-win situation.”

To be a Christian in the Holy Land facing the circumstances they do today has been described as a vocation and as a mission. The Bannoura family has embraced that vocation and mission wholeheartedly.

“We are proud to be considered part of the living Christian heritage of the Holy Land,” Bannoura said. “Our local Christians go back to Christ’s time. We are the first believers of the Lord.”

Committed to offering the highest quality wood and artistry possible, Bannoura said the family opened their store because they can only take a limited number of their 800-plus items to display at parishes and at seasonal mall kiosks. And while people can view items online, it’s not the same as viewing them in person.

The newly-opened Bethlehem Handicrafts storefront in Aurora features hand-carved statuettes and crosses made our of olive wood from the Holy Land. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

“We recently added hand-painted ceramic items, olive soap, icons, kitchen utensils and silver jewelry,” Bannoura said, motioning to shelves lined with colorful plates and cups, fragrant soaps and eye-catching jewelry. “A good number of women make the rosaries and bracelets.”

Bethlehem Handicrafts also leads pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which Blessed Paul VI called “the fifth gospel,” to enliven one’s faith, and to support and encourage Christians there. Bannoura said he’s always asked if such journeys are safe. Despite hotspot instability, pilgrimages to the Holy Land are remarkably safe and have recently seen increased numbers.

“If it weren’t safe,” Bannoura declared, “I wouldn’t take my wife and children there.”

Reflecting on the newest venture in the family business, opening the store, Bannoura said he is filled with gratitude for his home here and the warm support the Catholic community has given to Bethlehem Handicrafts.

“We love Denver, we love Colorado,” he said. “This is my second home. I thank Archbishop Aquila, Bishop Jorge Rodriguez, Bishop Michael Sheridan, Bishop Stephen Berg and all the priests and faithful who have been great supporters of us.”
Bethlehem Handicrafts
Store: 4114 S. Parker Road, Aurora, CO 80014
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays
Online: www.BethlehemHandicrafts.com
Phone: 720-201-7193 or toll free 844-999-4659

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA