The Karaoke and the Secret Chord
When Muslim Mahmoud Abbas made a public relations stop at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, as described by Caroline Glick at the Jerusalem Post, his audience may consisted largely of Filipinos. The Associated Press reports the troubles have kept the pilgrims away from Bethlehem this year, excepting the Filipinos.
One Bethlehem shop keeper calls this the "worst Christmas" in more than 30 years. He says the town is safe but "no tourists are coming" and "there is no business." ... The only large foreign contingent in Manger Square was made up of around 200 Filipino Christians who work in Israel.
There are apparently 35,000 Filipino contract workers in Israel, most of whom are astounded to discover that Christmas is just another working day in the mythical land of their Savior's birth.
Anne Gonzaga, a petite 40-year-old migrant worker from the Philippines, considers herself blessed to be living in the Holy Land. But this year, she will be spending Christmas taking care of her elderly employer while her husband and three teenage daughters celebrate the holiday back home. Before Gonzaga left her life in the Philippines seven years ago, she viewed working in Israel as a chance not only to make money for her family but to personally acquaint herself with the Israel she had only read about in the Bible. But like the estimated 35,000 other Filipino workers in Israel, Gonzaga discovered that in the modern Jewish state, Dec. 25 is just another day on the calendar -- one that comes and goes with scarcely a string of lights or a Christmas tree.
At a recent dinner discussion over the history of the European persecution of the Jews, I pointed out that most Christians today were from the Third World. A large number of parishes in Europe, North America and Australia have a Vietnamese, Indian or Latin American clergy; and many of the most active laiety would be non-European. These Third World Christians would have little, if any, knowledge of the traditional hatreds between European Christians and the Jews. No memory of the pogroms, the secret prejudices, the hidden guilts. In fact, most would never have met a Jew in their life. An Wikipedia entry on Jews in the Philippines illustrates how this was literally true.
As of 2005, the population of Jews in the Philippines stands at the very most 500 people. Other estimates range between 100 and 500 people (0.000001% and 0.000005% of the country's total population). Manila boasts the largest Jewish community, though even there it consists of around 40 families, give or take a few. There are, of course, other Jews elsewhere in the country, but these are obviously fewer and almost all transients, either diplomats or business envoys. Their existence is almost totally unknown in mainstream society. There are a few Israelis in Manila recruiting caregivers for Israel and a few other executives.
But if the Jews were invisible to the indigenes they were the object of scrutiny from the European. When the Philippines was a Spanish Colony it may been too far from Europe to supply teachers, but no distance was too great to hinder the Inquisition.
The history of the Philippines' first Jewish presence spans back to the 16th century, to a few individuals during the Spanish colonial era. It was then that the earliest Jews in the Philippines are historically documented, when two Sephardic brothers (Jews of Spanish origin), Jorge and Domingo Rodríguez, are recorded as having reached Manila in the 1590s. By 1593, both were tried and convicted as Judaizantes (practicing Jews) at an auto de fe at the Mexico City office of the Spanish Inquisition. Known as Marranos or nuevos cristianos ("New Christians"; newly converted to Christianity), the two brothers had accompanied the Spanish conquistadors who colonised the Philippines. Eight other marranos in the Philippines were subsequently tried and convicted.
But the obsession with the Jew was for the European Inquisitor. For Anne Gonzaga and most Filipinos, the first glimpse of Jewry would have been at Ben Gurion airport. So when talking about the Christian-Jewish relations in the 21st century, it is well to remember that things have changed somewhat from the early 20th century, when many of these stereotypes were formed. Christians in Israel today are more likely to be taking care of grandma and grandpa or cooking adobo than secretly reading the the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But stereotypes die hard; yet if you want a new and a strange one, try this unlikely image: the Filipino as the backbone of the largest secret Christian community in the world today: the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia. It is the largest persecuted group of Christians in existence. Again from Wikipedia:
Public worship of non-Islamic religions is forbidden in Saudi Arabia and Christians of all denominations have been subjected to persecution. Possession of Christian Bibles is a serious crime. It is not known exactly how many Catholics there are in the country, but it is estimated to be between half to one million people. There is a very large expatriate community in Saudi including almost a million Filipinos, the Philippines being a predominantly Catholic nation. Saudi Arabia comes under the jurisdiction of the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia.
I came early to Christmas Eve mass at a church on the outskirts of Manila whose decor reflected every cultural influence that had come through in the last 450 years. There was a Christmas tree with artificial snow. Garish colored lights hung from the ceiling. A palm tree stood behind a creche. Three industrial strength electric fans, more like miniature wind-tunnel generators, oscillated incessantly, slightly disturbing a floral arrangement which looked suspiciously like a rearranged funeral wreath which formed an aisle to the altar. The ceiling, obviously under repair, threatened to collapse at any moment. Nobody cared. A vagabond, sensing Mass was about to start, picked himself up off the church pews and decorously removed himself to the street. He would be back. The bishop came through the door, flanked by divinity students, who in the Philippines, are something of a cross between aspiring politicians, two-fisted jailhouse lawyers and theologians, in a place where the Church functions as the backbone of civil society. The bishop was a small dark man, wearing the vestigial finery of Imperial Rome, but tailored in Marikina, who finally mounted the podium. As he opened the liturgy an astounding sound came from the choir. I have heard Filipino choirs who consisted entirely of the veterans of night clubs, complete with electric guitar and drums; then there are Filipino choirs which cut their teeth on the Magic Sing Karaoke. But nothing prepared me for the concert-quality pianist and booming voices whose English answered the Tagalog liturgy.
Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o'er the plains.
And the voices in reply,
echo out their joyous strains.
Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!
In Excelsis Deo!
And as they sang the 200 contract workers may have been in Manger Square, the old people's carers standing in place of the shepherds. The old stereotypes may no longer work. It's a new world.