By Gordon Nary
Gordon: When did you and you family join St. Robert Bellarmine Parish?
Awad: We go to St. Robert Bellarmine since 2010, when we moved to Omaha. Before we were going to Our Lady of Assumption in Beloit, WI since 2001. My father, the founder of Blest Art, still goes there. We moved to Omaha in 2010 because my wife Started her PhD program in Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Gordon: It must be a difficult time for your wife, Rula Jabbour and you with all of the pain and suffering in Syria and the challenges faced by Syrian refugees.
Awad: We ask for daily prayers to protect and assist all Syrian refuges and all those suffering from the daily violence in Syria.
Gordon: When did you and your father, Jeryes Qumsey, launch Blest Art?
Awad: We started in 2003 in the U.S.
Gordon: I was introduced to Blest Art at a display of your carvings and other art at Assumption Church, I was overwhelmed with their beauty and then learned about your mission and the continued challenges to Christianity in the Holy Land, and how Blest Art is helping address these challenges with financial aid as a result of, your sales of these works.
Some of our readers may not realize that for centuries Christians in Bethlehem have earned a living by carving religious art to sell to pilgrims. The continued violence in Palestine has severely reduced pilgrimage and, as a result, sales of their art, and we are losing many of the artisans. Blest Art is helping to keep this important tradition and art form alive.
Blest Art has been profiled by Catholic News Service and Blest Art has been praised by bishops throughout the United States and other faith leaders in other countries..
Please give our readers some background information on Blest Art
Awad: Blest Art is honored to represent Christian families from Bethlehem District of Beit-Sahour the Shepherd’s field. Most of these families rely on selling their olive wood carvings as the main source of income. However, in the year 2000 violence erupted again in the Holy Land. Consequently, there was a great decline in the number of pilgrims coming to purchase these beautiful works of art resulting in a severe reduction in income for our families. This lack of income has led to miserable living conditions. Therefore, many of our families were forced to flee and go anywhere else were they could afford to feed their children and have a more secure life.
Lead by Jeryes Qumseya, the Deputy Chairman of the Palestinian Traditional and Tourism Industries Association at the time and renowned Christian figure and carver, Blest Art came to the United States in an effort to sell the olive wood carvings and send the money back to the Holy Land. This has now become the main source of income for many Catholic and Christian families in the Bethlehem area. It has also given the Christian communities the opportunity to live and work with dignity in the midst of ongoing conflicts. Mr. Qumseya and his noble cause enjoy the largest support among their people. Since its creation, Blest Art’s has enjoyed the largest support from many of the Christian leaders plus most of the U.S Diocese, and many other Cardinals, Bishops, and Christian leaders around the world who are greatly aware of the Christian society needs and Blest Art’s great contribution to meet those needs and enforce the Christian overall presence in Bethlehem, the Holy Land.
Blest Art does not request or accept any donations. Rather it accomplishes its goal by giving our Catholic and Christian brothers in the U.S the chance to help the Christian families of Bethlehem area through purchasing a unique gift of religious art from the Holy Land. Doing so; it provides a direct tangible support to the Christian families in Bethlehem and help build awareness of their existence and their needs. Blest Art’s noble mission gives Catholics and other Christians in the U.S the opportunity to help the Christian families in the Holy Land. Blest Art’s noble cause, strong Christian faith, and that of the Artisans shine through the beautiful artwork. There are always good causes, but this one is especially important as it gives each of you a way to be in solidarity with the oldest Christian community on earth.
Blest Art’s work brings to you the advantage of being able to reach out beyond your borders with uniquely, real, tangible, and effective help. It is more than a handout, as a collection would be; it is a hand-up for the Christians who want to live in peace; and support their families with a centuries-old trade and way of life. Your support for these craftsmen and hard-working Christian artists helps to ensure a viable Christian presence in the land where the Gospel was first preached.
This call to welcome Blest Art and help us in our efforts is not a petty request, but rather an obligation.
“If we are taking Holy Communion and yet doing Nothing to relive the pain of our brothers and sisters whom we know are suffering, then are we not among those guilty bystanders? Unless we share what we have, our brothers and sisters will be hungry, and their children will have no medical care or access to education.” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington DC: To the Martyrs, A reflection of the Supreme Christian Witness.
Gordon: Nearly all countries provide various forms of support to endangered species. However, Christians are rapidly becoming an endangered species in the Holy Land and Blest Art is providing critical assistance to inform others of this challenge and providing assistance. In addition. your work in providing disabled people at the Almalath Charitable Society with training is inspirational
Approximately how many disabled people has Blest Art trained?
About 50 people and we hope to continue and grow. Plus many other needy families, students, hospitals, and many other NGOs
We have also proudly supported and continue to do many social and religious organizations in the Bethlehem area, for example
Clinics: including the Beit-Sahour Cooperative Society for Health Welfare.
Other Charitable and Social organizations: including Al Malath Charitable Society; Al Awda Youth Activities Center;, Arab Orthodox Culture Club ; Arab Orthodox Charitable Society Alternative Tourism Group, Palestinian Woman Association for Development; Arab Women’s Union Society; Elderly Care Center-Beit Sahour.
Gordon: In approximately how many parishes in the United States has Blest Art been displayed
Awad: I cannot give you an exact number but more than a thousand parishes.
Gordon: How can parishes arrange for a display of your work to support your mission?
Awad: We usually get the diocese approval first, then contact the parish and arrange a visit were we can display our work and sell directly to those who are interested in the wellbeing of Christianity in the Holy Land and worldwide. People have to understand that Christians in the Holy Land and in the Middle East in general are just the very first line of defense of the Christian faith and existence. The dangers and threats that we face their Like ISIS are worldwide threats and it is a matter of time that they target other communities all over. Thus, we should stand united and make sure that we do the least to support those who are giving up everything they have to protect our faith and our heritage. Christian solidarity among all Christian denominations is much more needed than it was ever before.
“The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard by everyone who can still distinguish between good and evil. It makes no difference whether the victims are Catholic, Copt, Orthodox or Protestant. Their blood is one and the same in their confession of Christ. Today the church is a church of martyrs: They suffer, they give their life and we receive God’s blessings for their witness”. Pope Frances, Tuesday April 21, 2015.
However, I want to make sure that I am not misunderstood. This is not a call for war, yes it might be easy to be carried away, especially when others use violence, to respond in a like way, but we should not. We always have to remember who we are as followers of Jesus and respond with the speaking the truth in love, as Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington D.C, puts it in his new book: To the Martyrs, A reflection of the Supreme Christian Witness.. This is by the way a wonderful book and I encourage everyone to read it. It is very well written and very enlighten.
Gordon: Could you provide our readers with an overview of the decline of the total number of Christians in the Holy Land since 1949?
Awad: In 1948 we were about 30% of the population and currently we are less than 1%.
Gordon: Catholic Charities has also been very active in addressing some of the challenges that has resulted from the violence . In January 2016. Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the apostolic nuncio heading the Holy See’s permanent observer mission to the U.N. also spoke our for the need for peace between Israel and Palestine. Approximately how many artisans have left Bethlehem in the past twenty years?. .
Awad: Unfortunately, hundreds, but in the last 10 years or so, things have been getting a little better, especially for the artisans, as the U.S market, as we planned to start with, provided them with a continuous and staple source of income.
Gordon: These carvings have traditionally been made from olive wood since the 4th century. Could you explain why olive wood has been used?
it is the most available due to the nature of the land, plus and most importantly because it is the most beautiful and long lasting. It has a texture that is next to nothing and last for centuries. So anything that you might buy, you do not only get something special, handmade in the Holy Land, support a great cause, but you also acquire a family treasure, and heirloom that you can pass down for generations and generations and it would still look beautiful.
Gordon: in closing, we encourage all parishes to consider arranging for a display of your beautiful art treasures and our readers to visit your Facebook page and to consider purchasing your beautiful art on line to participate in Blest Art's remarkable assistance to so many organizations in the Holy Land, and to pray for all the refugees from Syria that they may be treated with compassion, dignity, and assistance.