Sharbel’s grandparents had lived in the village of Bir’im in the north of Israel. In October 1948, Bir’im was captured by the Jewish Haganah during their operation in the northern Galilee region. A few days later, all the villagers were expelled until the military operation was complete. Having left their homes only temporarily, they came back to be told it was still not safe, but that they would be able to return after a fortnight. They were never allowed to return.
The villagers of Bir’im became internally displaced citizens within Israel. Sharbel’s parents grew up a few kilometres from their home village and then moved to Haifa. Bir’im itself became a national park and rather than allowing the villagers to return, the Israeli government offered compensation. ‘It left a scar,’ Sharbel admits, ‘and gave me a deep hatred of the Israelis.’
Sharbel is Melkite Greek Catholic. Like many other Christians, he considered church to be for holidays, weddings and funerals. Jesus was simply the Christian God, just as Muslims had their prophet Mohammed, and the Jews had the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Sharbel connected with his Christian Arab community and avoided situations that would have brought him into contact with Jews.
Then he met an American called David who invited him into his home and shared his life with him. Through acts of kindness which built their friendship, David became like an elder brother to Sharbel. He gradually introduced Sharbel to a living relationship with Jesus. But when David invited him to his congregation, Sharbel was shocked to see the Israeli flag and a menorah. He fled in panic but David followed him and asked quietly, ‘What’s up?’