TOUR'AN, Israel (CNS) -- Nearly 200 miles separate the gunfighting in southern Gaza and this lower Galilee village where Staff Sgt. Roge Salame, a Melkite Catholic, was laid to rest.
Salame, 23, who served in the Israeli army, was shot and killed in southern Gaza Feb. 5 when the bullet of a Palestinian sniper found its way through a crack in an armored personnel carrier.
Days later, the courtyard of the small Melkite church of Tour'an was overflowing with mourners marking the end of the official mourning period. Wedges of sweet bread were passed around after the prayers to remind those gathered of God's love.
Salame's father, Jawdat, 49, sat receiving well-wishers with his father Raja, 71, in a room at the edge of the church courtyard.
His face wrapped with a traditional red keffia, Raja's wrinkled face unabashedly reflected the anguish of the entire family. His bent frame moved slowly and painfully, and tears ran freely down his cheeks.
During the week of mourning, Christians, Muslims, Jews and Druze all came to pay their respects to the family.
Christians are not drafted into the Israeli army, but a few hundred Christian Arabs voluntarily serve in it, including 15 Christian residents of Tour'an.
``We are in a difficult situation,'' said Salame's cousin and friend, Ibrahim Khoury, 23. ``We are in the middle, put between a hammer and a hard place. We see that the Palestinians need their rights, but also Israel has the right to her survival ... it is difficult to say who I am. I know I am Christian first before anything.''
Salame was proud of the work he did and proud of the uniform he wore, said Khoury, as he gathered with a few other cousins next to Salame's flower-covered grave.
``Roge is the first one of our people to be killed in the army,'' said Khoury. ``I couldn't believe it had happened until I saw his body being lowered into the grave. This really hits home.''
Salame was killed in the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians that broke out in late September and that has shattered any hopes for a peace agreement in the near future.
``In war everybody loses; it doesn't matter if you live in Tel Aviv or here,'' said 20-year-old cousin Ehab Hadad.
The eldest of three children, Salame loved music, dancing and swimming. He was the peacemaker of the family, cousins recalled, and he was always the one who stepped in to patch up misunderstandings and mend quarrels between family members. He had four months to go before his army stint was over, and he had planned to sign on for another tour, said his cousins.
His 18-year-old sister, Ronza, however, said that after seeing how much his parents worried when the fighting started, Salame had promised he would join the police, instead.
When the violence broke out last fall, the family was riveted to the television and radio to hear any news about the situation, said Ronza, wearing a beige-colored neck scarf her brother gave her.
In Arab tradition, the eldest brother is the base of the family.
``Roge was very dear to me. He loved me very much,'' said Ronza. ``When this all began, my life was one of constant tension. My brother was in danger. We would pray all the time that peace would be with him. My mom was worried about him all the time; she would cry a lot. I worried about him very much.''
Salame had a furlough a few days before he was killed, and instead of calling his mother to let her know that he was coming, he decided to surprise her at work. When she came out of the factory where she works, Nadia Salame saw her son waiting inside the car with her husband.
``The entire factory came out to see him. They were all happy to see my son there,'' recalled Nadia, 42, her eyes red and swollen from days of crying. ``It is true that now my son has been sacrificed, but I hope that not one more soldier will die. I hope for the safety of the soldiers and the resumption of a dialogue (between Israelis and Palestinians). My own future will be very difficult, but I have to go on for my two other children.''
The night before he left, Salame spoke to his sister and told her he worried about their parents. He told her to look after them, said Ronza.
``It was as if he knew something was going to happen,'' she said.
Salame's funeral was attended by the Israeli chief of staff, Gen. Shaul Mofaz, and parliament members. Later, Israeli President Moshe Katzav came to pay his respects to the family.
Ronza said she told Mofaz, ``My brother has gone away, but you must work hard to reach a peace agreement to protect our soldiers.''