St. Nicholas

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Stories from Beit Jala


When Nicholas visited Palestine he is believed to have lived for three to four years in a small cave in Beit Jala. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church is on the site of the cave. In Beit Jala today there are innumerable stories about Saint Nicholas.

Fr. George Shawan, Beit Jala's senior Orthodox priest says, "For us he is not Santa Claus but like our great great grandfather. We feel we know him personally. In the year AD 305, several monks from Anatolia in Asia Minor came here and established a small monastery with a church named in honor of the Great Martyr George. This was before St. Sava’s Monastery was founded in the desert east of Bethlehem on the Kidron Gorge near the Dead Sea. The monks in Beit Jala had a few caves and several houses. In the years 312-315, St. Nicholas was here. He came as a pilgrim to visit shrines in the Holy Land. A text written in his own hand is still in the care of the Patriarchate in Jerusalem. It was in his prayers that St. Nicholas heard the Holy Spirit call him back to Asia Minor, to Myra, where soon after his return—in 317—he was consecrated bishop."

Protector of Beit Jala


St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church
Beit Jala, Palestine
Photo: Jim Forest
Used by permission

When raiding invaders surrounded Beit Jala, attacking it, the townsfolk bravely defended the city. Everytime the attackers tried to take the town an Old Man1 with a lance or spear stopped them in their tracks. It seemed as if even the olive tree branches were beating the invaders back. The raiders later told that the townspeople's bullets had little effect, it was the Old Man who never allowed them to move forward and take the town. An so it was Saint Nicholas who saved Beit Jala.

This protection was repeated again during World War I and II, when it is said that St. Nicholas stretched out over the village, protecting the people.

Locals also report that he was seen with hands outstretched, catching bombs aimed at Beit Jala following the State of Israel's 1948 declaration of independence. Many residents took refuge in the church and once again St. Nicholas was seen to block bombs from destroying the church, protecting the people. One resident says, "No bombs reached Beit Jala. Only the tower of the St. Nicholas Church was damaged. We know it was St. Nicholas that saved Beit Jala from any problems."

Gene Stoltzfus, founder of Christian Peacemaker Teams, reported, "I first really became aware of the power of Santa and St. Nicholas, during the 1990s when I regularly visited Palestine where Muslims, Jews and Christians alike used my appearance [he looked like Santa Claus] as a conversation starter. When the second intifada (uprising) broke out in 2000 there were violent exchanges between Israelis and Christian villages like Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. In Beit Jala I was seriously introduced to St. Nicholas, their patron saint who gave special protection to the villagers since the 4th century. The story is that St. Nicholas was a pilgrim to Beit Jala in the years 312-315 and he lived in buildings and caves built by monks a century earlier. The people of Beit Jala told me story after story about how St Nicholas had saved their village over the centuries up to and including modern intifadas."

Rescuer of Trapped Woman

elaborately framed icon
Mar Nicola
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church
Beit Jala, Palestine
Photo: J M Rosenthal/St Nicholas Society
Used by permission

An old woman from Bait Jala, nicknamed Allushiyyah, went to pray in Mar2 Nicola’s Church. After some time she fell asleep. The Church Warder came at dusk, as he always did, and locked the doors of the Church. He did not notice the old woman.

When she awoke, she realized she was locked in and that there was no way to escape. She went up to the icon of Mar Nicola and hopefully begged him for release. She added, "My dough is in the bowl and my son is without supper." She then saw the Old Man come down from the icon. He walked with her to the door, opened the inner door, and then the outer door of the church. As she was leaving, he said, "Tell the Warder to come and lock the doors."

The woman went to the Warder and said, "Oh Abu Yusuf,3 Mar Nicola asks you to lock the Church doors." "But I did, old woman," he replied. The woman insisted and eventually he went to the church. To his surprise the doors were open. He then believed the old woman’s story.

1 The Old Man is Saint Nicholas
2 "Mar" is colloquial Arabic for "saint"
3 An honorary title


Sources:
Stories of Places and Persons Connected with Religious Folklore in the Bethlehem District, collected by Issa Saleem Massou, Bethlehem University, Bethlehem, Palestine
"A Visit to Beit Jala," by Jim Forest, In Communion, Orthodox Peace Fellowship, October 18, 2004
"Why I Like Santa Claus" by Gene Stoltzfus, Peace Probe, December 22, 2009
Personal account from grandson of man who sheltered in the church, told to Carol Myers, St. Nicholas Center

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