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Arab Christian Reaches Across Religious Barrier

By David Snyder

Dressed in the casual office wear of a university secretary, Nelly Ne'meh greets visitors to the office of the dean of arts with a gentle handshake and an easy presence. Outside the office window, the biblical architecture of Bethlehem looms bright in the late morning sun, and Nelly, an Arab Christian living in the city of Christ's birth, shares her story of what it means to give back in a community often divided by the same history that makes this city magical.

Nelly Ne'meh

Since 2004, Nelly Ne'meh, a Christian, has devoted much of her time volunteering each week at the mostly Muslim Delal Institution for Culture and Arts in Bethlehem. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

Having outlasted six deans during her 22 years as a secretary at Bethlehem University, history is something Nelly knows much about. But her passion, it soon becomes clear, is a group of young dancers at the Dalal Institution for Culture and Arts.

"I like to work with students and I like youth," Nelly says of how she came to be involved with the group of 17 traditional dancers in 2004. "They used to come to me to help them with letters to get them performances, so I worked with them in that way."

Late the same year, as the group set out to form themselves into a nonprofit institution, there was no doubt who they wanted at the helm.

"They asked me if I could work with them and be the chair of the organization," she says. "So I said, Why not?"

But as with much in the West Bank, the story of Nelly's connection to the Dalal dancers is layered with complexities. As a Christian in the West Bank, her dedication to a group of Muslim dancers drew criticism from some in this religiously sensitive community. Although the criticism has increased, stoked by the deep-seated mistrust beneath much of the conflict in the region, Nelly says she tries to concentrate on the real reasons she chose to support Dalal.

"It's not easy. We can say that I'm the only Christian working at Dalal," she says. "But I could see that they needed someone around to work with them."

'We Are All Human Beings'

Composing less than 4 percent of the West Bank's population, Arab Christians like Nelly often find their voices lost in the din that serves as dialogue in much of the West Bank. Mistrust being a fact of life between Christians and Muslims in this ancient land, Nelly says that any connections between the religious groups, such as mixed marriages, can stir passionate accusations of coercion or complicity.

"It's not good to keep thinking like that—we are all human beings," she says. "We have good people and bad people on both sides, and if we know how to raise our children, this is the only way to overcome such ideas."

Through her work with Dalal, which has grown to include 10 staff members and has attracted the support of Catholic Relief Services, Nelly has developed a close bond with the young dancers, many of whom are students at Bethlehem University. She exchanges daily e-mails with the group leader and often spends both of her weekend days with the group as they prepare for national and international festivals.

"They are very nice to me all the time," she says. "Our relationship is not about religion—it's about being human beings."

But despite being raised with her four siblings in a religious family—her brother is a priest in the Syrian Orthodox Church—Nelly says she faces opposition to her support for Dalal even from within her own family. Her efforts to garner support for the group from among her circle of friends and relatives have not been fruitful. And although a flash of sadness darts across Nelly's face at that thought, the Dalal Institution still serves far more as a source of joy than of sadness for her—a joy she hopes Bethlehem will one day share.

"I'm very happy because I'm doing something I like to do, and I have faith in that," she says. "I would like my community to know I am doing the right thing and that we all have the right to live together in peace."

David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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