Orthodox oasis in West Bank

NABLUS, West Bank (Reuters) – In a matter of weeks, once the bells are in place and the marble tiles laid, the final chapter in a century-long saga over a Greek Orthodox monastery in the middle of the West Bank may finally be written. The monastery at Jacob’s Well, on the edge of the Palestinian city of Nablus, stands at the site where the Bible says Christ stopped on his way through Samaria 2,000 years ago and asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. Construction of a church at the well began under Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD but it wasn’t until 1908, under the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, that the monastery that now stands here, surrounded by olive trees, began to take shape. It was an ill-fated beginning. Funded largely by the Russian branch of the Orthodox Church, the money dried up with the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and almost nothing more was done to the monastery for the next 80 years as it fell victim to the region’s politics. Only in 1998 did the Palestinian authorities give final approval for work to be completed. Worthwhile wait For Ioustinos Mamalos, the priest who has overseen the monastery for 26 years and lives there alone, it has been a worthwhile wait, even if it has been accompanied by tragedy, including the murder of his predecessor. «It’s been a long time, so it’s a very good feeling to see it finished,» he said, sitting in the garden in front of the white stone building, drawing patiently on a cigarette. «I think in three to four months it will all be done, after 100 years. Although a church is like a house – it’s never completely finished,» he added wryly. Mamalos says the work was held up for decades because the Israelis, who have occupied the West Bank since 1967, did not want a Greek Orthodox church built on a site that some Jews consider sacred. Many believe the grisly murder of Mamalos’s predecessor in the monastery’s crypt was linked to this dispute, although Israel has not elaborated on why it opposed construction. Today, the monastery looks complete, until you step inside where two rows of gothic columns supporting the domed roof rise over an uneven dirt floor. There are no pews and very little religious ornamentation. Tiles for the floor, which are being imported from Greece, have been held up at a port in Israel, while the cast-iron bells that will eventually be installed in the towers over the stained-glass doorway are sitting on the ground gathering dust. Only the underground crypt, site of the well that Jacob purchased for 100 pieces of silver 4,000 years ago, feels fully imbued with a sense of history and religious significance. The crypt’s walls are decorated with icons, while tall candles sit in the corners and chalices hang from the low ceiling. In the center stands the plain stone well, with a modern metal bucket on a long rope hanging above it. At 40 meters (130 feet) deep, clean and cool water can still be drawn from the spring. «It’s good water, very healthy for everyone,» says one of two Palestinian boys who help look after the monastery. Murdered priest It was here in the crypt that Mamalos’s predecessor, Archimandrite Philoumenos, took shelter in November 1979 when a group of people, believed to be fanatical Zionists, broke into the monastery and attacked him with hatchets. According to Orthodox websites, his face was cleaved in two, his eyes plucked out and the fingers of his right hand, used to make the sign of the cross, were chopped into pieces. No one was ever arrested for the murder, which took place a week after a Zionist group had come to the monastery claiming that it was a Jewish holy place and demanding that all the crosses and other religious iconography be removed. For Mamalos, who has spent 46 years in the Holy Land, it is a harrowing memory. «They murdered my predecessor, so it hasn’t always been a calm or peaceful life,» the 65-year-old priest said of his time in Nablus, a place he now thinks he will never leave. Locals say his perfect Arabic is littered with clever Nablus slang. An amusing raconteur with a long white beard tinged with nicotine stains, Mamalos speaks six languages and is quick to jump into a political debate. And he does not shy away from criticizing Israeli authorities. «The Israelis are always coming here to check on us, to harass us. Sometimes they think Palestinian fighters are hiding here,» he said. «Once they destroyed one of our gospel books because it was in Arabic, but I give the services in Arabic.» His latest beef with the authorities is over the tiles, which have been stuck at customs for weeks. When they are released and the bells are finally hung, he plans to hold a special service of commemoration. «It will be nice to perform a special ceremony here,” he said, admiring the monastery from the garden. «It’s a piece of the Holy Land. A small piece maybe, but a piece all the same.» (Additional reporting by Atef Sa’ad.)