The saint who kept a skull under his desk 

Two stone staircases descend deep into a labyrinth of caves beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. One is to the grotto where Jesus was born. The other is to a cave with a human skull on a table.

It was in this quasi-monastic cell that St Jerome sat for 36 years, the skull at his feet, with quills and vellum, translating the Old Testament from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. The text he produced became the first official vernacular Bible for the Western world. Known as the Vulgate, it remained the authoritative version for Catholics until the 20th century and the most widely read Bible in the world.

Now, six miles away from St Jerome’s hermitage, the tradition of critically studying biblical texts and translating has continued at the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem, founded by Dominicans.

“It was here that the Dead Sea Scrolls were brought by Fr Roland de Vaux, our former director,” explained Fr Christian Eeckhout. “He led the Catholic team that initially worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Until these discoveries, the oldest known Hebrew manuscripts were copies from the 10th century AD. As Fr Eeckhout spoke, the learned atmosphere created by the priestly scholars prompted me to remember that the two pillars of Dominican life are study and contemplation to preach the truth.

It is here at the École biblique that I stay while researching Ottoman laws in modern Israel. I sleep under a vaulted ceiling. My bathroom is in the bell tower and my deep arched window opens to a wide view of the picturesque garden. I wake first to the muezzin’s prayer from the mosque across the road, which reminds all who listen (and those who don’t), “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar…” Finally, I hear the call of bells. Beyond the sturdy stone walls, unlike a few months ago, there is now calm.

‘Nine years in this castle of Zionism is enough!” said the quietly spoken Dr Hanna Swaid, describing the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, as we sat in his office. The word “Zionism” has come to express the despair of might improve matters for Arab Christians. In Israel, only about 140,000 of the 1.7 million Arabs are Christians. The Knesset’s decision to raise the electoral threshold from two per cent to 3.25 per cent of the total vote to qualify for seats in the legislature has resulted in three of the Arab parties and the Arab-Jewish Hadash party, despite significant ideological differences, agreeing to run on a joint ticket in the upcoming elections. Otherwise they could have ended up with few or no seats.

When I remarked on his use of “Castle of Zionism,” this church-going Catholic and one of Israel’s only two Arab Christian MKs replied, “I should’ve said ‘Fortress of Zionism’.”  Swaid swiftly turned towards the vast courtyard outside the plate glass windows before adding, “I’m not standing in the coming elections on 17 March. It’s impossible.”

The word “Zionism” has come to express the despair of many Palestinians — the unrelenting occupation and the way that Jews have more rights than Arabs. When I remarked on his use of “castle of Zionism”, this church-going Catholic, one of Israel’s only two Arab Christian members of the Knesset (MKs), replied: “I should’ve said ‘fortress of Zionism’.”

Swaid swiftly turned towards the vast courtyard outside the plate glass windows before adding: “I’m not standing in the coming elections on March 17. It’s impossible.” He then confirmed what I’d heard from other commentators.

“Christian institutions in Israel are being marginalised,” he said. “We’re getting zero support. Financial allocations have decreased.” With the Israeli elections only weeks away, I wanted to know whether he thought that a non-Netanyahu government

Swaid has no regrets about not standing for re-election: “There are other Arab Christian candidates: Dr Basel Ghattas, a Greek Orthodox, who is already an MK, and there’s Aida Tuma-Suleiman, director of the charity Women against Violence in Nazareth.” With enthusiasm, this engineer and former university lecturer then went on to explain that he would devote himself to helping local Christian organisations and schools.

“Education has been the pearl of the Catholic churches in the Holy Land. It was the Catholics who started education here in the 19th century. We must keep up the excellent standard,” he said.

“I’m on the board of the Galilee Christian High School, in the village where I live in Eilaboun, near Nazareth and Tiberias. Its 300 pupils do really well. But each year the financial support we receive from the government gets smaller and smaller. Little by little there’s been a gradual trend of decreased funding – slowly over the past two to three decades.

“The school is under tremendous budgetary pressure. We can hardly pay the salaries of the teachers. Yet allocations to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools have increased. If anyone knows of any organisation that can help our school they can email me at and I’ll reply immediately.”

Before I departed, Swaid lamented that many Christians overlook their Middle Eastern brethren. “Christian Zionists from abroad send hundreds of millions of shekels to support Israeli settlements and schools but forget us, the descendants of the original Christians here in the birthplace of Christianity.”