Christians in Holy Land in Crisis, Says Report

Warns of a Dwindling Presence

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JERUSALEM, MAY 26, 2005 ( A mix of poverty, discrimination and violence makes the future of Christianity in the Holy Land “hang by a thread,” warns a German-based international charity.

The crisis of Christians in Israel “is so severe” that a team of officials from Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) visited the country to see firsthand what assistance it could provide.

The team offered some suggestions in a report, sent to ZENIT, entitled “Israel: Christians in Crisis — Faithful under Pressure from All Sides.”

“The Christian presence in Israeli society is on the verge of disappearing into obscurity and could be at risk of disappearing altogether,” the report says in blunt terms.

“Reduced in number to about 150,000, Christians face oppression and discrimination at school, in the workplace and in the community — be it because of their religion, their social class or their ethnic origin,” the report states. “Most of them are Palestinian Arabs.”

Moreover, “the cost of living is soaring, especially in Palestinian areas, and unemployment is widespread,” it observes.

“Worse still, opportunities for Christians to speak out are being drowned out as in the space of 40 years, the proportion of faithful in the country has fallen from 20% to less than 2%,” the report continues. “Society has changed beyond all recognition — the vast influx of Muslims combined with the widespread emigration of Christians — 400,000 faithful from Israel are now living abroad.”

For their part, “Christians who have opted to remain in the country are increasingly desperate for new hope as they struggle against appalling social and economic problems and look for a long-term future in their ancient homeland.”

ACN quotes the Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who said: “People in the West don’t seem to be aware that there are Christians still living here and that they need our help.”

The ACN report predicts that “if there is no change in their fortunes and the emigration rate does not go down” the “Christian presence in the Holy Land could disappear.”

Mughar’s ordeal

There are some 18,000 inhabitants in the town of Mughar — 15 kilometers from the Sea of Galilee and 40 kilometers from Nazareth — half of whom are Druzes, a community that professes a religion derived from Mohammed, which separated from Islam around the 10th century. About 35% of the people in Mughar are Muslim and the rest Christians, most of them Melkite Catholics.

On Feb. 11 and 12, the town was the victim of violence unleashed by Druze fundamentalists against the Christian community.

ACN visited the town in early May. It reported that around midnight on Feb. 10, 200 people went on the rampage against Christians. “At dawn, the number of the attackers swelled to 4,000. About half the town’s Christian population fled for their lives,” the ACN report states.

“Despite continued sporadic bomb attacks, parish priest Father Maher Aboud has persuaded most of the Christian families to return to their homes to rebuild their lives,” the report says. He is “preaching a message of forgiveness and fearless courage in the face of the Druze.”

“At least 40 families have not returned, either through fear or because their homes are so badly damaged that they are uninhabitable,” ACN reported.

The priest, who has served Mughar for 28 years, was quoted as saying: “We have been looking and looking to find what we could have done to deserve this and we can find nothing.”

Bethlehem’s plight

“A miserable fate of a different kind is blighting the lives of Christians in Bethlehem, … which is fast disappearing behind an 8-meter-high wall erected by the Israeli authorities,” says ACN. The wall separates the Palestinian territories from Israel.

“For the region’s 60,000 Christian community, the wall looks set to crush the first shoots of re-growth in the business crucial to their livelihood — pilgrimages and tourism,” it explains.

A car journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem used to be no more than five minutes. Now, with checkpoints and security checks it can take up to three hours.

At best, tourists are likely to make short day trips to Bethlehem, a far cry from the days when they spent several nights there, explains the report.

“For Christians in Bethlehem traveling outside their home city has been difficult for many years and the wall is set to make it even more problematic. It effectively sounds the death knell for anyone commuting from Bethlehem and Jerusalem,” the ACN report stresses.

“Nor can Christians in the area speak up for themselves because they are being drowned out by the growth of the number of Muslims,” it adds. “This combined with the emigration of Christians means that within 25 years the proportion of Christians in Bethlehem has hemorrhaged by up to 50% — now Christians represent only one in 10 people.”

A recent survey revealed that 75% of young people said that given the choice they would leave the country within 24 hours.

“The stagnation of businesses is placing a huge burden on Christian families and many feel the wall will effectively imprison them in their own towns and villages,” warns the Catholic charitable organization.

Muslim militancy

For its part, in the city of Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, the growth of militancy among Muslims has caused a mass exodus from a town which up to 1948 and the establishment of the state of Israel had been entirely Christian, observes ACN.

“All the Muslims like to come to this town. Little by little the Christians leave because they cannot live with the Muslims. There are some fanatics who do not like the fact that we exist,” explains a longtime parish priest of Ramallah, Father Nazaih.

The priest also mentioned the bitterness that still exists several years after Muslim fanatics stole Christian land next to the church to build a mosque.

“They came with tractors and burst into the place,” he said. “They broke the walls of the houses. We did not realize what was happening. They took everything. Even the governor could do nothing.”

Of the thousands of families present in Ramallah in 1948, only a few hundred remain. Up to 40,000 Christians have gone to the United States, he added.

Signs of hope

Despite all the problems for Christian communities, there remain signs of real hope.

While emigration of Christians continues, marriage and birthrates have gone up, encouraging some to be more optimistic about the long-term future of the Christian community, ACN states.

“The hope of improving vital training needs is growing too in some parts,” the report says. “In the face of huge, unrelenting opposition from the Israeli authorities, Greek Catholic priest Father Elias Chacour runs an expanding school and college for 4,000 students in Ibillin, in the Galilee region in northern Israel.”

Called Mar Elias Educational Institutions, the establishment “is a beacon of hope for partnership between Christians and Muslims and provides some of the best training opportunities in the area,” the report adds.

And “organizations such as the Jerusalem Council for Jewish-Christian relations are working to break down barriers between Jews and Christians,” it adds.

In a note last Friday, after a trip to the Holy Land, Marie Ange Siebrecht, who heads ACN’s Middle East section, said: “How can Christians stay in their homeland without jobs and without a future? What is the meaning of Christian holy places without a Christian presence there? It is our duty to speak out to the world on behalf of these Christians.”

Siebrecht invited ACN benefactors to “pray for the Holy Land and go there,” but when they travel there, “they should go with Christian organizations.”

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