Thursday 15 December 2011
Christians believe Jesus’s death made sacrifice obsolete. Yet in some places in the Holy Land, the gruesome practice continues.
There is a Christmas card that I will probably never send. I would not dare to. It is a cross of Jesus drawn in fresh blood from an animal sacrifice. Although slaughter for sacrifice contradicts a basic belief of Christianity, it is practiced by local Catholics, Greek Orthodox and other Christians at the ruined Byzantine church of Saint George in the village of Taybeh, 20 miles from Jerusalem. “Around 70 to 80 lambs are sacrificed here each year,” said the Roman Catholic priest, Father Raed. Similar sacrifices are also made in the towns of Lodd, Jaffa, al-Khadar and elsewhere in the Holy Land.
Yet bloodless altars are a distinguishing feature of Christian churches. One of the tenets of the faith is that Jesus was the ultimate and final sacrifice. Christians atone for their sins without the shedding of blood. They look to Jesus as the lamb of God who made the ancient belief in sacrifice obsolete.
It is surely hypocritical of the churches to encourage millions of tourists and pilgrims to visit Jerusalem to see where Jesus Christ was crucified, but not halt this ritualised sacrifice.
The Catholic priest in Taybeh assured me that he himself did not take part in the sacrificial rituals, but neither did he condemn them. “The meat is distributed to the poor and to our old people’s home. It is a tradition,” he added.
Having been educated in a Church of England school, I was frankly horrified after climbing up a wide flight of steps to enter the portico, nave, side chapels and a cruciform baptistery with a font. I was confronted by bloodied handprints and crosses smudged on the walls. This ruined church built by the Byzantines and rebuilt by the Crusaders is fitted out for ritual sacrifice. Indeed, I nearly hit my head on dangling iron chains with hooks suspended from an arch under a large unlit neon cross. Lambs are hung on these chains so their blood drains over the floor of the church. In the front of this arch is a large raised wooden chopping board where the necks of live sheep are cut. Nearby are three small statues of the Virgin Mary resting in a corner, and a candle and incense votive stand.
“The bloody handprints are made by the Christians who have taken part in the sacrifice,” explained Dr Ali Qleibo, a Palestinian anthropologist, who has studied Canaanite sanctuaries and modern Christian sacrifice. “People dip their hands right into the carcass of al-thabihah [the sacrificial lamb]. When I came to Taybeh in early October, the entire threshold of the church was flooded with fresh blood.”
Perplexed by what I see as a non-Christian practice, I asked David Khoury, the local mayor, who runs the famous Taybeh Brewery, what is done to reduce the stress and pain of these animals. Tradition, it seems, takes priority over humane slaughtering practices. As in Halal butchery, a deep incision is made through the throat, so the carotid artery is slashed and blood pours out rapidly.
“The sheep are always facing east when a sharp knife goes through their necks,” Khoury explained. “Sometimes sacrifices are offered as gratitude for the birth of a healthy child, help with a relation surviving a deadly illness or a major operation, or thanks for survival from a car accident.”
During the killing, prayers are offered in the name of the father, son, and holy ghost and accompanied by entreaties to al-Khader (Saint George) to act as an intermediary.
Qleibo, although a Muslim himself, insists that Christian blood-sacrifice cannot be explained away as a Muslim influence: “Blood sacrifice was an important part of the ancient Canaanite religion and numerous pagan cults. Semitic blood sacrifices have persisted.”
As I left modern-day Taybeh, I recalled that it was the biblical town of Ephraim. According to the Gospel of John (11:54), Jesus went there after raising Lazarus from the dead. Would Jesus approve of the churches turning a blind eye to animal sacrifice here today? Or do they quietly acknowledge how difficult it is to eradicate paganism?