Woodcarvings support Bethlehem olive woodcarvers

Adham Qumseya, 32, a project developer in Northern Virginia, displays wood carvings made by Bethlehem carvers inside Hanley Hall at St. John Bosco Catholic Church in Woodstock. Qumseya sells the olive wood carvings to help his fellow Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – – A Palestinian Christian on a recent Saturday before Christmas spent hours in St. John Bosco Catholic Church setting up woodcarvings of a nativity scene, just as he has spent every weekend for the last 15 years.

Adham Qumseya moved to the United States 15 years ago from Palestine and he has made it his mission to help those who are still there.

Qumseya, 32, sells the olive wood carvings that are made by about 800 families in Bethlehem.

“These are made of olive wood from the place where Jesus walked and where our faith began,” Qumseya said, adding Jesus walked on the branches and leaves of olive trees as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he said.

Selling woodcarvings is the main economic lifeline for Christians living in the Holy Land, Qumseye said. There have been woodcarvers in Bethlehem for a thousand years, he added. The carvings, he said, were a way to preserve the stories and images in case bibles were burned.

Carved angels are lined up as part of a display inside Hanley Hall at St. John Bosco Catholic Church in Woodstock. The carvings are made from olive trees that are over 1,000 years old. Rich Cooley/Daily

It was there in the Holy Land that 7-year-old Qumseya worked alongside his father learning how to carve in their small workshop.

“I had the best time of my life with my dad in the workshop. We became best friends,” Qumseya said.

Woodcarvers used to sell most of their work to the tourists who toured the Holy Lands, but the tourism industry has been severely reduced in recent years, a result of the violence between Israelis and Palestinians that has besieged the area, he said.

“We believe Christianity is the bridge of peace. We need to keep love alive,” Qumseya said.

As a result of the decline in tourism, a lot of woodcarvings are now sold elsewhere and the money routed back to the woodcarvers from the distant point of sale.

Qumseya holds a wood carving of Jesus. Rich Cooley/Daily

About 85 percent of Christians have a workshop and carve to support themselves, he said.

“This is not just sales. This is a mission to keep Christianity alive,” Qumseya said.

The Catholic churches in the area allow only Qumseya, his family and others with him to sell the Bethlehem carvings in the churches, said Father Michael Dobbins, of St. John Bosco.

In the land where Qumseya was born and raised, he said a person does not need to read the Bible (even though he does, he stresses) because the places and churches still exist, making the stories real.

Qumseya was born in Jerusalem but was raised in Beit Sahur, which translates to Shepherd’s Land. It is here the Bible states that the shepherds looked to the sky and saw a star above Bethlehem, telling of the birth of Jesus Christ.

A carving of Jesus rests among a row of other figures. Rich Cooley/Daily

Qumseye has only been to Jerusalem, his birth place, a few times in his life because as a Palestinian Christian it is difficult to get permission from Israel to enter the town.

Qumseya shows the detail work of this woodcarving. Rich Cooley/Daily

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