“WHEN you look at an icon, it is a door to heaven.”
With this phrase, Muna Bandi Khader, who took over the post of director of the Bethlehem Icon Center just as the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, explained why she decided to move away from the realm of corporate marketing and in the world of art and painting icons.
“I thank God that He brought me from this place, to this place,” said Ms. Khader, who has a bachelor’s degree in business marketing, as well as degrees in cooperative organizational management and iconography.
In 2018, she also received a Diploma in Icon Painting from the Bethlehem Icon Center as part of a special program offered in association with the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts in London.
âI chose icon painting as a hobby,â she said.
âI had no training in art but wanted to take a course to learn more about art, icons and their symbolism. It’s my passion, âshe said.
âWhen you look at an icon you can meditate with it, it’s a spiritual experience.
âYou want to know more about what it symbolizes and the history of each icon; understand and pray.
The Bethlehem Icon Center was founded in its current location in 2010 by Franco-Palestinian businessman Anton Mansour, owner of the building and English iconography teacher Ian Knowles.
In an effort to restore iconography as a vibrant part of Palestinian Christian culture, before COVID-19, the center offered subsidized short and long-term iconography classes for local Palestinians, as well as workshops for pilgrims. and visitors whose tuition has helped support the center.
Top students at the center also worked on commissioned icons such as the Our Lady of Palestine icon designed by Mr. Knowles for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and a commissioned icon for Lichfield Cathedral in England. Knowles and a team of three students installed the icon in the cathedral in August 2016.
As was Mr. Knowles’ intention, the school has become a local non-profit organization under the direction of a local board of directors and Mr. Knowles is no longer associated with the school.
The school now also offers lectures on art and various workshops, including mosaic making.
âOur mission is to provide Palestinian Christians with valuable professional opportunities to help them stay in their homeland,â Ms. Khader said.
âWe want to be an ecumenical Christian oasis.
While commissioned icons are still possible and classes for local students continue, the pandemic has derailed everything and the school is struggling to raise funds, she said.
International students who helped offset costs for local students are not yet arriving.
Bethlehem’s economy depends on tourism and most Christian families have been severely affected by the lack of visitors.
âDuring the pandemic the people of Bethlehem didn’t have any money, so I had to cut costs for the students because we wanted them to keep coming,â she said.
“But the situation is not stable and we are facing a lot of money problems.”
There are now seven local students taking the long course and five local students taking the short course under the tutelage of local artist Marc Amiah and Greek iconographer Zarifis Zarifopulous who currently lives in the Holy Land.
Ms. Khader also continued her studies in iconography, and after completing her day’s work at the center, she joined evening classes.
She is one of the lucky students who were able to study both with the current teachers and with Mr. Knowles, she said, and learn their different techniques.
Part of the program now also includes teaching students how to continue creating icons to support themselves financially, and the center intends to sell their works with the majority of the money going to students, Ms Khader said.
âFor us as Palestinians it is so important to help Christians stay in their homeland and give them a more spiritual bond,â she said.
âWith the situation we are facing, people are struggling and under a lot of pressure.
âWhen you paint an icon in prayer, it helps release all of your stress. Maybe in this oasis we can bring them back to their roots.
âThe Christmas period at the center before the pandemic was full of people and tourists, we used to have groups that came to visit the center and supported it in many ways.
âMany international students have also joined our icon painting classes. and teachers from abroad came to share their expertise and help the students.
This Christmas season remains uncertain as fewer tourists arrive despite the opening of borders and the relaxation of travel restrictions.
âWe pray that many tourists can come to Bethlehem this Christmas season and support the center by purchasing our icons,â she said.