Deacon Nabil Halaby. Courtesy photo

Do Not Hide Your Faith

Born in Palestine, Deacon Nabil Halaby has experienced obstacles to living the Catholic Faith

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Last year, when Deacon Nabil Halaby and his wife moved from Mokena, Illinois, to Orlando, Florida, to live closer to their daughter, who had given birth to twins, he couldn’t resume diaconal duties at his new parish until he received approval from the local bishop once the transfer paperwork was approved. So he wore a deacon’s cross, and sometimes he walked up to people after Mass and introduced himself, saying, “Hi, I’m Deacon Nabil.”

“I let people know,” he said. “I don’t hide. I want to make sure that people know that I’m there, available.”

Hiding his faith is something that Nabil never wants to experience again. He was born in what was then known as Palestine and was a Catholic surrounded by the larger Muslim population. When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, he and his Arabic-speaking family were forced to leave the country, along with Muslims. The move meant more obstacles to living out the family’s faith in peace. The Halaby family then lived in Jordan, where religious persecution meant that Christians were not trusted in any positions of power, and new Christian churches were not allowed to be built.

After working in construction in Kuwait, he attended college in the United States, where he met his future wife, Cookie, at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. They decided to move to Kuwait, where he found work in construction again. But the religious persecution he experienced when he was younger resurfaced when he was transferred to work in Saudi Arabia, which outlaws Christianity because the state’s official religion is Islam.

To practice the Christian faith there meant the possibility of getting caught, which then could lead to punishments that ranged from spending time in jail to being whipped to being deported.

Nabil got to know an underground community of Christians and Catholics, which sometimes meant he had to travel 60 miles to participate in worship services. Priests could not reveal they were priests, and they too traveled in secret to be able to celebrate Masses at people’s homes.

Priests also offered liturgical training to men — Nabil was one of them — so that, when priests were not available, these men could hold Communion services in place of a Mass.

“I was a ‘deacon’ to my community,” Nabil said, referring to those days as containing the seeds of his future vocation to the diaconate. He and his wife also taught their children at home about the Catholic Faith.

“I come from a country where Christianity was founded,” he said. “The Holy Land. That’s where Jesus was. When you live in countries that deny you, you become like Christians in the first century.”

Nabil spent 34 years working in construction in the Middle East. At a certain point during that time period, his wife and children moved back to the United States because of the Gulf War and for the children to attend college. Keeping his faith “hidden” for so long was difficult.

“The United States is lucky they have churches and have the freedom of religion,” he said.

Knowing he is free to practice his faith in this country makes him happy. Nabil, who is 77 years old, was ordained as a deacon in the Diocese of Joliet in August 2011.

Because family is important to him, he and his wife decided to be live-in babysitters for a while to help their daughter in Florida after the birth of her children in the summer of 2019. So, he and Cookie left their parish, St. Mary’s Church in Mokena, where he was beloved as a deacon, to head south to the Sunshine State. Because of his advancing age and desire to help his daughter, he has decided he will serve as a deacon on a part-time basis.

When the pandemic struck in early 2020, the freedom to worship in churches was curtailed as parishes in the United States and across the world, like many places where people used to congregate, were shut down. But he and his wife felt lucky. They could watch Masses online.

So, as dispiriting as it was to not be able to attend Masses in person, he said it was still much better than what he encountered in the Middle East when he was younger.

“We were not left out completely as bad as we were left out in the Middle East,” he said. “We made a lot of effort in the Middle East to keep our religion going, and our faith. But I didn’t feel left out [during the pandemic]. It did not depress me because I had different experiences. My wife and I have had it harder than this.”

CARLOS BRICEÑO is the editor of Christ is our Hope, the magazine for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. He is a longtime journalist whose work has appeared in Our Sunday Visitor, the National Catholic Register and Vatican Radio.

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