by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — As far as anniversaries go, the Siege of Jerusalem 913 years ago this coming June is not top of mind for most archdiocesan Catholics.
Not so to John and Joan Muehlberger.
The Muehlbergers, members of St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee, belong to the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. The Holy Land is never far from their thoughts.
Sir John and Lady Joan are area counselors for the Kansas area, which has 110 members, within the eight-state Northern Lieutenancy.
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann is the grand prior of the Northern Lieutenancy, and Archbishop Edwin O’Brien is the order’s Rome-based grand master.
One cannot simply join this ancient organization devoted to the protection and advancement of Christianity in the Holy Land. One must first be invited, and then go through an approval process that ends in Rome.
The order was founded in 1099 after an allied Christian army led by Godfrey of Bouillon defeated the Fatimid Muslim forces and took Jerusalem. This military-religious order’s mission was to defend Christian holy sites, Christian pilgrims and the Christian inhabitants of what today are Israel and the territories of the Palestinian Authority.
Today’s Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre do not wear shining armor, ride charging steeds or wield swords in battle. Rather, they support the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and Holy Land Christians through their prayer and financial support.
The Christians of the Holy Land (defined by the order as Israel, the Palestinian Authority lands and the Kingdom of Jordan) do indeed need support, according to John Muehlberger. Christians have been oppressed there since the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in April 637, and have become an increasingly diminished and beleaguered minority in modern times.
“Christians are now two percent of the population in the Holy Land,” said John Muehlberger. “Thirty years ago they were 25 percent.”
The order sends funds to the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, who uses them for the upkeep of shrines and churches, building and funding schools (mostly elementary and high schools), and social service and development efforts.
“Our area [within the lieutenancy] is unique in that we wanted to do something more than the basic requirements of the order,” said Muehlberger.
“We went to Father Peter Vasko, OFM, the president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land,” he continued, “and asked him what the best uses would be if we provided [additional] monies. He suggested that if we helped youths get a higher education, they would find employment and stay in the Holy Land.”
The first scholarship, awarded in 2006, went to Mireille Assi. She was a resident of the Old Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem — the ancient, walled city most people picture when they think of Jerusalem. Assi graduated from Hebrew University in 2010 and is now teaching at Terra Sancta School in Jerusalem while studying for a master’s degree.
The Franciscan Foundation chooses the recipients of the scholarships, which are worth $3,300 annually per student. Currently, the Knights and Ladies of the Kansas region support two scholarships for Christian students at Bethlehem University.
Emad Hanania, majoring in business administration, won one scholarship and the other went to Celine Al-Hadweh, majoring in accounting. Both are natives of Bethlehem.
“Part of the program, which is very satisfying to us, is that we know who the students are,” said Muehlberger. “We get [student] background information and grades from the school, and photos and correspondence from the students. This gives us an opportunity to have a hands-on approach to what the order is about.”