Black mantillas, long capes, French looking berets all moving slowly down the church aisle. You see them at every diocesan celebration. You may have often wondered “Who are these people?” “Why are they wearing those strange garbs?” And, “What are they up to?”
They are the Knights and Ladies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre and their presence is special reminder that God became man, lived taught, died and rose from the dead and that the sacred places where all that happened should be preserved.
Although their numbers in the Diocese of Beaumont are small, they are 24,000 strong across the world and their mission is to see that a Christian presence remains in the Holy Land.
If their garb looks like something out of the middle ages, it’s because they have been entrusted with that work since 1099. And, just as their mission was critical in those Crusade years, so it is today as the number of Christians in the Holy Land has been greatly diminishing in the past decades.
“Once you visit the area, the plight of the Christians becomes real. They are being driven out of the land where Christ once walked. They are discriminated against in housing and employment in the land where they were born and raised,” said Kay Arrington, diocesan representative for the local Order.
The financial efforts of the Order provide support for 19,000 students as well as aid for convents, churches, the elderly, the sick and refugees.
“The Equestrian Order’s recent support helped the Latin Patriarchate with funds for Syrian refugees fleeing to Jordan. Some of us also have a special concern for the orphanage at Ein Karem run by Catholic sisters. I know that at least two of our members are going above what we do as a group, to help them,” Arrington said.
Arrington is passionate about her concern for the way Christians are treated “Jobs for them are limited. Most are involved in tourism in some way operating restaurants and shops that sell olive wood carvings. We try to frequent those places when we visit and buy their goods. They are also highly taxed.’
Recently the Jerusalem Municipality decided to re-impose taxes on historically exempt Christian property at a bill of $184.4 million. After Christian leaders including the Vatican closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to tourism for three days in protest, the Israeli government set up negotiations to resolve the issue. Although closing the doors was detrimental to Christian pilgrims who wanted to visit, it also impacted Israeli tourism. Arrington said the tax issue isn’t over. It’s still under negotiations
Arrington’s husband Lonnie, who is co-representative of the diocesan group, said the Order’s financial support of education in the Holy Land is one avenue to peace for the area.
“Some of the funds go to support Bethlehem University that has many Muslim students. When they see our efforts, they start to look at us (Christians) in a different light. It helps with communication which is the key to peace…,” Lonnie Arrington said.
“There is so much friction there over the years, it’s a wonder the holy sites are still standing.”
Both Arringtons are very supportive of pilgrimages to the Holy Land since the pilgrimages not only add to spiritual life of the participants, they also have an economic impact on the Christians who live there.
Lonnie and Kay Arrington both encourage those interested in making a pilgrimage to use tour groups like Bible Trek Tours that bring a Catholic perspective to visits to the Holy Land and also help strengthen the Catholic community by frequenting Christian businesses. George Makhlouf and his brother Gabby, who run Bible Trek, are Palestinian Catholics who were born near the Mount of Olives.
“I think most American Catholics do not realize that our Catholics in the Holy Land are treated like second class citizens. And, when they hear the word Palestinian, they think of the P.L.O. (Palestinian Liberation Organization), of terrorists,” Kay Arrington said.
“So they are afraid to get involved. Instead many Palestinians are Christians living in Bethlehem and struggling to make a living.”
Arrington sees the mission of the Holy Sepuchre Order as not only assisting in preserving the sacred places there but also seeing that Christianity is flourishing in the land where it was conceived.
Although membership to the Order is by invitation and approval from the Vatican, one does not need to be a member to help the faith flourish in the Holy Land or preserve the holy places. Making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, buying an olive wood cross that was made in the Holy Land or making a gift to the Good Friday Pontifical Collection are three ways you can help grow the faith in the place where Jesus walked.