We are the Children of the Apostles

Reverend Lilian Mattar-Patey – La Salle, Canada

While she was only two years old when her family was forced to flee their West Jerusalem home, Reverend Mattar was told the story so often that it is deeply entrenched as part of her own memory. Her father, Suleiman Hanna Mattar, was a successful banker with Barclays bank in Haifa, and the bank had moved him to Jerusalem. In the weeks before the Zionist attack on Jerusalem, her sister's closest Jewish friends had told her that there was going to be trouble for Arabs, her father had also been told that if they did not leave their home they would all be killed. So it was obvious when the sounds and tremors of explosions began to fill the house that they needed to leave.

Her mother had just finished baking bread which was cooling on the kitchen table when the bombing began. Her father rounded up the family, taking them out the back door. The gunfire was too heavy to head for the car, so they had to walk. He told them that if they were separated they should head toward the monastery on the Mount of Olives. To keep the younger kids calm, the oldest brother invented the game 'jump in the whole so the bullets will miss us,' and their mother told them that they were going out on a picnic. Anxious for the safety of her children, she left her purse in the house.

 Flooded with refugees, the monastery was hesitant to allow people to stay, but Lilian's father convinced them each day that they needed another day in the small room that the nine family members were crowded into. He wanted to find a way to get back to the house and get some of the essential things from what the family had left behind, and even tried to get to Cyprus to get into the Zionist controlled areas, but even that was impossible; 'infiltrators,' as they were called, were shot on sight. At the time he did not know that the house had been looted and blown up. With all of these difficulties, the most painful moment for him, as he would later tell the young Lilian, was when she came to him at the monastery and told him that she was hungry, at the time he could not afford to feed his two year old daughter.

 After a few weeks had passed, Mr. Mattar received a letter from a Swedish friend of his offering him and his family a place to stay in her Jerusalem home. She had been returning there when the attack began, and hoisted a white flag in an attempt to stay safe, but was shot at nonetheless. The family stayed with her for five years. It was on the balcony of that house overlooking the depopulated Western part of the city that Lilian saw her father cry for the first time. “He loved Haifa, Jerusalem, Kufr Kanna and had bought land in all of those places that he planned to give to his kids when they grew up and married. He and my older brother, who died earlier this year, planned to return to them all, and thought and spoke about return every day until their dying moments.”

 Lilian vividly remembers her schoolgirl days in the 1950s and 60s at the Schmidt Girl's College under Jordanian rule. One day, a group of Palestinian resistance fighters came into the class telling the girls that “every Palestinian should be trained to fight.” The teacher was disapprovingly caught off guard, a feeling that turned to dismay when the presenters asked the girls which of them would want to be trained and Lilian was the first to raise her hand, inspiring the rest of the class to follow suit. This event inspired her to join demonstrations calling for the return of the refugees and their properties, beaming with pride as she carried her Palestinian flag. She even began weight lifting, seeing the activity as part of that duty to get trained, which did not go over well with her father who abhorred violence and prayed daily for peace. He also did not consider it appropriate for girls to train with weights.

 After graduating, Lilian followed most of her older siblings to the United States to continue her studies, working part time at a bank in New York. This is where she was in June 1967 when Israel occupied what was left of Palestine. It was difficult to communicate with her family. One day her mother came to New York. When Lilian asked why she had come alone and without her father, the tragic answer was that he was dead.

In 1952, and in spite of being told that he was ineligible as an Arab, Mr. Mattar had persevered and gotten the job as the Warden of the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, a sight believed by some Protestants to be the burial place of Christ. In the aftermath of the June 1967 occupation, during which he had refused to leave his beloved city, he answered a knock on the door, and was shot dead by Israeli soldiers as soon as he opened it. He was buried there, and soon his grave was attracting the attention of tourists and pilgrims and visited as a holy shrine. This displeased the Israeli authorities, who demanded that the family exhume the body and bury him somewhere else, otherwise they would do it themselves. It was Lilian who traveled back to Palestine to do this, ultimately burying him in Beit Jala beside Dr. Lambi, a beloved family friend who had operated a Tuberculosis clinic for Palestinians and passed away while visiting the Mattars years before.

 Lilian had decided to move back to her homeland with her Canadian husband, whom she had recently married, and began a job teaching the children of diplomats at an Anglican school on Prophet Street in West Jerusalem keeping her Palestinian identity to herself. Her plan was to raise money to establish an orphanage for Palestinian children. To do this she began to take on extra work, teaching at an orphanage in the afternoons and giving private lessons to girls from the Schmidt College in the evening. Before two years had elapsed, the difficulties of fundraising, the desire of her husband to return to Canada, and recurring episodes of harassment each time her Palestinian identity became known to her West Jerusalem surroundings all combined to send Lilian to Canada.

 In Canada, Lilian maintained her connection to Palestine by seeking and joining any groups that worked for the Palestinian cause, and instilling in her children the memory of their grandfather, as she completed her degree in Psychology and Religion and accompanied her husband from city to city around the country as he changed jobs. At best, most churches ignored the plight of the Palestinians, a fact that distressed Lilian until she discovered the work of Rev. Al Forrest, editor of the United Church's publication The Observer, who openly supported Palestinian rights and, when she finally met him, told her about how had been harassed for these views. He inspired her to join the United Church of Canada, the church in which she was ordained in 1985.

 As a Minister in the Church, Reverend Lilian Mattar has often included the plight of Palestinians in her sermons and had to defend her views in the face of strong support for Zionism. She played a key role in educating the congregation about the truth of the Palestinian Nakba, and joined the effort to bring the Church to reevaluate its investments and pass resolutions favoring ethical investment so that it is not supporting Israel's crimes against the Palestinians.

 When asked about her thoughts about the future for Palestinian refugees, she said “this two state solution that they are talking about is terrible, it divides us, and strips us of what is rightfully ours, as if that land isn't ours to begin with. In reality we need to all work together. I am very proud of being a Palestinian Arab; when we were younger, my mother used to tell us that we are the descendants of the Apostles, she would say: 'where do you think those descendants went? It's us!'”