Christians in the homeland of Christ
Fr Pawel Rytel-Andrianik
The exodus of Christians from the Holy Land was one of the main topics of Pope Benedict’s speeches during his last pilgrimage. The question arises, ‘why do Christians leave the Promised Land?’
The statistics are alarming. In Jerusalem itself there were ca. 45,000 Christians in 1940. Thirty years later there were ca. 25,000 and currently, there are 12,600 Christians here, including ca. 5,000 Catholics. Taking into consideration the fact that the population of Jerusalem is ca. 747,000 the Catholic community constitutes only 0.7% of the inhabitants. The situation is somewhat better in other cities, especially in Nazareth and the whole Galilee. Nevertheless, today Christians constitute ca. 1.9% of the Israeli society and the Palestinian National Authority. 0.9% of them are Catholics. The Christians living in the Holy Land are so to say between the devil and the deep blue sea. And from the ethnic point of view they are basically Arabs and thus the state of Israel treats them as Arab population but actually Arabs themselves discriminate Christians because they are not Muslims. Samir, one of the local Christians, says, ‘We are between two nations who dislike themselves and they also do not show sympathy for us. For the Israelis we are Arabs and thus potential terrorists, and for the Arabs we are Christians, so we are as if the Crusaders.’ Moreover, the Christians themselves form a colourful mosaic. Besides the fact that there are different Orthodox Churches (Greek, Russian, Armenian, Coptic, etc) and many Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church itself varies to a large extent. In Jerusalem there are six Catholic patriarchates/exachates: Latin, Greek Melchite, Maronite, Armenian, Syrian and Chalcedonian. We know that the social-political situation in the Near East is an important factor that contributes to the fact that Christians leave the Holy Land. When the Holy Father was entering the Palestinian Authority the representatives of Christians focused on the tragic situation of the population in the Gaza Strip, held in ‘a prison without roof’ like those who live behind the wall dividing Bethlehem from the state of Israel. All of these things make the contacts between families living on the other side of the wall difficult because many Arabs, including Christians, do not receive permission to cross the line of demarcation. This also makes the holy places inaccessible. They are Christians who were born in Bethlehem and they have never been to Jerusalem, which is only 12 km away. Moreover, the Christians who have lived here for years talk about their problems with the followers of Islam. They feel the Arabs’ dislike and suspiciousness towards them although they are Arabs themselves. One of the local Christians says that he lost his job mainly because he is Christian. As he says that basically Muslims employ Muslims and Christians employ Christians, although they are some exceptions. Children can feel this discrimination in schools. The situation became worse after the United States had attached Iraq. Consequently, the number of Christians leaving the Holy Land has increased. The Catholic Church, like other Christian communities, is trying to help. We should focus on the activities of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and other religious congregations that run orphanages, nurseries, schools, hospitals and organises various forms of help. They make efforts so that the Homeland of Christ is not a kind of museum where people visit the biblical sites but is still the place where Christians are at home. In this complicated context the visit of Benedict XVI was a special blessing, the more that the Pope is a spiritual leader of over one billion people. The Holy Father stressed many times that the universal Church did not forget the Catholics and Christians in the Holy Land. In Jerusalem he said, ‘As I urge the authorities to respect, to support and to value the Christian presence here, I also wish to assure you of the solidarity, love and support of the whole Church and of the Holy See’. The gathered applauded the Pope, thanking him for those words. Similarly, they applauded when the Holy Father spoke about his personal unity with the local Christians in Bethlehem. Returning from the place of the celebrations I asked Atalla, who was Orthodox, what he thought about this pilgrimage. He answered, ‘I am glad that the Pope has come to us! Since he is our spiritual Father’. Indeed, the papal pilgrimage made all Christians living in the Homeland of Christ more courageous and hopeful, which was expressed by the inscription on the banner, ‘Pope our hope!