Sabt El Nour: The Miracle of Light

VIVIEN SANSOUR, IMEU, April 22, 2014

Palestinians who trace their ancestry to the first Christians in the holy land consider Easter one of the most important holidays of all because of its symbolism of new life and the perseverance of their community through time and occupation. Holy Saturday or Sabt El Nour in Arabic, Saturday of Light, sometimes known in English as Holy Fire Saturday, is one of the most beautiful traditions in Jerusalem and cities and towns around it such as Bethlehem.

For many years, tradition has held that the light comes from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and is brought to Bethlehem and its surrounding parishes in a parade of drumming scouts, holy chants, and flower-decorated crosses that celebrate yet another year of new life and “the miracle.” “The miracle” refers to the belief that every year, the Orthodox priest sits in the cave of the tomb of Jesus and waits three days until fire comes out on its own from holes in the wall of the church.

Nour, pictured here, is a thirty-year-old woman who is keeping these traditions. She accompanies the people gathered in the streets with candles she carefully picks out from the local Beit Jala candle factory. With a joyous smile, she assures me that “life is a miracle and this is what we celebrate every year. Being alive and being grateful for another day.” Perhaps with her strong belief it is no coincidence that her name is Nour, Arabic for “light.”

“I like Sabt El Nour, Saturday of Light,” she says. “Everyone greets me and wishes me a happy year because my name is Nour.” When asked why she was named Nour, she replies, “not because of this holiday but because my mother loved the actor Nour El Sherif!”

Spending time with this vibrant woman, one might think that perhaps her mother called her Nour as a premonition that she would bring light wherever she goes. Walking through crowds she stops and greets dozens of people. “Another reason I love this Christian tradition in my town is because it is a social gathering. We keep Christianity alive here despite all hardship, by being loving and committed to our community,” she tells me.

Yet even in the midst of this joyous occasion, Palestinians are reminded of their lack of freedom. Widad, a woman from Beit Jala, tells me, “We used to go to Jerusalem and join the crowds welcoming the patriarch carrying the light but this year, for example, my daughter didn’t get a permit and I did. Why would I go celebrate without my daughter? Besides, the humiliation at the checkpoints, even when you have a permit, kills the thrill of Easter. The Israeli government claims that they give some Christians permits because they respect the right of religious practice but this is not true. If they respected our rights to pray in our churches, they would not confiscate our lands and deprive us from being together for the holidays.”

Defying circumstances, Widad insists that miracles are real and that she believes not only in the miracle of the holy fire but also in the dream that perhaps like Jesus, who suffered and then rose from the dead, that one Easter, justice for Palestinians will prevail and that there will be peace among all people. When looking at the faces of children like eight-year-old Sharbel, with their excitement and eager hearts, it’s difficult to disagree.

PHOTOS: Vivien Sansour/IMEU



Easter in Iqrit

In November 1948, soldiers from the state of Israel, created months earlier in May, ordered the inhabitants of the Christian Palestinian village of Iqrit in the Galilee near the Lebanese border to leave their homes. They were told it was only a temporary measure due to military operations in the area and that they would be allowed to return home in two weeks. After the evacuation, the Israeli government broke its word and refused to allow them to return. The people of Iqrit, who are Israeli citizens, appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court and in 1951 the court ruled that they should be allowed to return home. The Israeli government ignored the ruling, and on Christmas Eve 1951, the Israeli army destroyed the entire village except the church and cemetery. 

Nearly 66 years later, Israel has yet to implement the Supreme Court decision, despite the persistent efforts of the people of Iqrit, who have never stopped struggling for the right to return home. In 1970, the government granted them permission to resume burials in Iqrit’s cemetery, and in 1972 the people of Iqrit renovated the church, which they have used since for worship, to conduct marriages, and to christen their children. In recent years, they have expanded their campaign to return home. 
The people of Iqrit were among approximately 750,000 Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed from their homes during Israel’s 1948 creation in order for a Jewish majority state to be created in more than three quarters of historic Palestine. Today, there are approximately 7.1 million Palestinian refugees and displaced persons, including 427,000 internally displaced inside Israel. 
PHOTOS: Christopher Hazou/IMEU


Thousands of Palestinians demonstrated across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories yesterday during several Land Day events. One of the demonstrations, pictured here, was held near the eastern boundary of Gaza City in the “buffer zone” or no-man’s land, which Israel enforces along the wall inside Gaza. This land covers approximately 17% of Gaza’s land area, including 35% of its agricultural land, and Gazans are prohibited from accessing it.

Land Day is held annually by Palestinians to commemorate the events that took place on March 30, 1976. On that day, many demonstrations and a general strike were held in Arab towns inside Israel in response to an Israeli government plan to expropriate large amounts privately-owned land. Six unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed, about one hundred were wounded, and hundreds of others were arrested. 

PHOTOS: Jehad Saftawi/IMEU