“We are the only store in the United States that does this,” said George Bannoura, 40, a co-owner of the family business.
Bethlehem Handicrafts was born 15 years ago when Bannoura, a native of Beit Sahour (Shepherds Field), which is located just east of Bethlehem and is home to the largest Christian community in the Holy Land, brought goods from there to sell in Denver to keep his family and fellow artisans from poverty after tourism tanked due to escalating violence in the Middle East. The vast majority of Christians living in or near Bethlehem depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Their numbers have steadily declined due to unrest and lack of work.
We are proud to be considered part of the living Christian heritage of the Holy Land. Our local Christians go back to Christ’s time. We are the first believers of the Lord.”
“Twenty years ago in the city of Bethlehem, Christians were 85 percent of the population. Now, we are only 15 percent of the population,” said Bannoura, whose family still maintains both their workshop and homes there.
Numbers for the larger Holy Land are even more telling. In 2014, Israel had just over 8 million people, the Palestinian Territories 4.5 million and Jordan 6.5 million. Christians were estimated to make up from 2 to 3 percent of those totals (2-plus percent in Israel and Jordan, and about 1.25 percent in Palestine).
“Our main mission [at Bethlehem Handicrafts] is to help ourselves as a community,” Bannoura said. “We want to help our livelihood so Christians can stay there. I always ask, If there are no Christians left in the Holy Land, what will happen to the sacred sites?”
Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, recognizing the importance of a Christian presence in the land where Jesus walked, has periodically sent letters to parishes urging prayers for Holy Land Christians and support for Bethlehem Handicrafts.
“Our faith was born in a land that is both holy and often in turmoil,” he wrote last April. “Our brothers and sisters in Christ who live in the Holy Land undergo many hardships to practice their faith, but they remain committed to the land where Jesus lived, preached, died and rose from the dead…. Your parishioners’ support of the Bannoura’s business can help maintain their presence in Bethlehem.”
Father James Spahn, pastor of St. John Paul II in Thornton and Immaculate Heart of Mary in Northglenn, has visited the Bannoura family’s workshop in Bethlehem.
“They use the olive wood from the area and carve religious items from it,” he said. “[The work] helps the Christians there who have a hard life with very little opportunity and it brings beautiful religious items here for people’s homes and for our parishes. It’s a win-win situation.”
To be a Christian in the Holy Land facing the circumstances they do today has been described as a vocation and as a mission. The Bannoura family has embraced that vocation and mission wholeheartedly.
“We are proud to be considered part of the living Christian heritage of the Holy Land,” Bannoura said. “Our local Christians go back to Christ’s time. We are the first believers of the Lord.”
Committed to offering the highest quality wood and artistry possible, Bannoura said the family opened their store because they can only take a limited number of their 800-plus items to display at parishes and at seasonal mall kiosks. And while people can view items online, it’s not the same as viewing them in person.
The newly-opened Bethlehem Handicrafts storefront in Aurora features hand-carved statuettes and crosses made our of olive wood from the Holy Land. (Photos by Andrew Wright)
“We recently added hand-painted ceramic items, olive soap, icons, kitchen utensils and silver jewelry,” Bannoura said, motioning to shelves lined with colorful plates and cups, fragrant soaps and eye-catching jewelry. “A good number of women make the rosaries and bracelets.”
Bethlehem Handicrafts also leads pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which Blessed Paul VI called “the fifth gospel,” to enliven one’s faith, and to support and encourage Christians there. Bannoura said he’s always asked if such journeys are safe. Despite hotspot instability, pilgrimages to the Holy Land are remarkably safe and have recently seen increased numbers.
“If it weren’t safe,” Bannoura declared, “I wouldn’t take my wife and children there.”
Reflecting on the newest venture in the family business, opening the store, Bannoura said he is filled with gratitude for his home here and the warm support the Catholic community has given to Bethlehem Handicrafts.
“We love Denver, we love Colorado,” he said. “This is my second home. I thank Archbishop Aquila, Bishop Jorge Rodriguez, Bishop Michael Sheridan, Bishop Stephen Berg and all the priests and faithful who have been great supporters of us.”
Store: 4114 S. Parker Road, Aurora, CO 80014
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays
Phone: 720-201-7193 or toll free 844-999-4659
Original Article on Denver Catholic: http://denvercatholic.org/unique-shop-brings-holy-land-art-here-sustains-christians-there/