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Bringing a little bit of Bethlehem

Carvers turn sacred wood into religious works of art

Carvers turn sacred wood into religious works of art

November 28, 2006|by TARA REILLY

HAGERSTOWN - Hagerstown residents Ghassan and Siham Alsahouri sought a place where their five children could live freely, safely and as "normal Christians."

Their search for peace and security took them in 2003 from frequent fighting in Bethlehem between Israel and Palestine to the United States, which Ghassan Alsahouri calls "paradise."

Alsahouri was shot twice, once in the leg and once on the hand, as a result of the conflict in the Holy Land, he said.

"It's a terrible life, especially with kids," Alsahouri said. "I don't want my kids to be suffering. I don't want to be killed there or shot anymore."

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Moving to the U.S. removed that fear and danger.

"In my opinion, it's the best place in the world to live in peace," he said.

The Alsahouris earn a living in the U.S. through a trade they depended on in Bethlehem - selling religious figures carved from olive trees grown in the Holy Land. The job allows them to support themselves and a group called Little Bethlehem Christians, which consists of about 150 Christian families that work as woodcarvers in Bethlehem, the place of Jesus' birth.

The family travels to churches in different parts of the U.S. to sell the hand-carved products. The Alsahouris have a stand at Valley Mall in Halfway that will be in place through Christmas.

Approval from the Archdiocese of Baltimore to sell the carvings in Catholic churches in the archdiocese prompted the family to move from Michigan to Hagerstown this summer, Ghassan Alsahouri said.

Their products include statues of Jesus and the Holy Family, crosses, Last Supper pieces and candle holders - an inventory they brought with them from Bethlehem. The items were made by the group of woodcarvers, he said.

He has made more than 2,000 pieces since he started carving in 1979, but he now limits his work to large carvings and special orders. The gun wound to the hand has limited movement in a finger, making it difficult for him to do smaller carvings, he said.

In Bethlehem, Alsahouri said, entire families assist with the woodcarving business, each taking on specific duties.

The city has no large factories or other large places of employment in which to work, so the woodcarvers depend on tourism dollars to make a living, he said. Without more assistance, he fears the already dwindling Christian population will shrink to zero, a departure fueled by continuing turmoil in the region.

There are short periods when the area is calm, but the fighting starts up again, he said.

"There is no peace but the peace of Jesus," he said.

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