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The Future of Christians in the Holy Land
Unfortunately, we find ourselves meeting in a moment which I do not hesitate to call 'dramatic', both for the peoples who live in those dear regions, and for our brethren in the Faith, who seem crushed by the weight of two diverse extremisms which, independently from the reasons that fuel them, are disfiguring the face of the Holy Land. - HH John-Paul II - 13December2001

16 December   |   2000   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)


Earlier this week, a significant pastoral meeting took place at the Holy See in Rome. Based upon a personal invitation from Pope John-Paul II, many of the Heads of the Catholic Churches in Jerusalem as well as the Apostolic Delegate assembled at the Vatican and focused their deliberations on the future of the Christian communities in the Holy Land at a time of challenge, dissension and strife.

One main speaker at this unique gathering was HB Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who reflected on the reality of the situation for Christians in the Holy Land ever since 28 September2000 . This is the date when the second Palestinian Intifada or uprising erupted - one that continues to date.

What I will attempt to achieve today is to highlight the thoughts that were encapsulated by the Latin Patriarch in his opening presentation and then simply graft my brief impressions as a function of my own experiences as an Armenian Christian from Jerusalem who has struggled for many years with some of those issues.

The Overall Situation

The Christian population within the occupied territories today counts no more than 2% of an overall three million Palestinians living in a biblical land that has for long been raddled with conflicts. The large majority of those Christians are Palestinians, and their fate is linked inextricably with that of other Palestinians.

The ambition of those Christians remains one of peace with justice. Although this struggle is going today through a most difficult and spasmodic episode, one must acknowledge that the essence of the problem is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. So long as this occupation persists, the cycles of violence cannot go into full recession. It is up to the occupier to put an end to this uncertainty by opting for the difficult yet equitable decision of returning the occupied territories to its owners and thereby granting them their freedom.

The Christian Dimension of the Conflict

This political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has a Christian dimension to it too. After all, when one refers to this conflict, one also talks about the future survival of the Christian communities as much as about the future of those holy sites central to the Christian faith. As such, one cannot separate those communities from the conflict itself just as one cannot but note with sadness the deleterious social and economic impacts this conflict has visited upon them as a result of the repressive measures adopted by Israel.

Christian-Muslim Relations

There is much confusion - and far too much media sensationalism - about those inter-faith relations. However, one can assert with some confidence that those relations are by and large positive on the political, religious and institutional levels. Where they stumble at times is at the level of the street when fanaticism as well as hotheadedness pre-empt studied responses to certain crises. Many Palestinians - Christians as much as Muslims - are aware of their responsibility at state-building during this period. And those who do not subscribe to this sense of solidarity manifest their unease by a growing fear of the neighbour - the 'other'.

Relations with Israel

The first hub is those Palestinians living within the pre- 1967borders of Israel. Here, relations betwixt Church and State are founded on mutual respect. In Israel, therefore, where Christians number around120 , 000men and women, they are bound by three loyalties - loyalty to their faith as Christians, loyalty to their patrimony as Arabs and loyalty to Israel as citizens.

This hub of triple loyalties founders nonetheless in the post- 1967territories where the relationship is based on an occupier and an occupied living in an unequal symbiosis. There is an injustice in this situation that is a source of constant tension. The Church cannot condone or overlook such injustices. However, even those tensions are not an indication of a total breakdown of communication between Church and State. After all, Christians believe that all men and women are born in the image and likeness of God and are therefore the object of love and respect even when there is disagreement over the cause or effect of their unjust actions.

Christian Emigration

Although emigration from the Holy Land affects Muslims, Christians and Jews, it is a fact that the small numerical presence of Christians reflects more volubly - and critically - this outbound trend.

The pre-dominant factors for emigration remain economic and social, although there are religious and personal reasons too. In future, the numbers of Christians in Palestine and Israel will remain around150 , 000to170 , 000-although the percentage of2 % might go down in view of the demographic changes within the overall society.

But how can one stem this tide? Is it possible for the Churches to provide those structures that ensure the continuing local Christian presence and witness in this land? A two-pronged approach becomes necessary.

On the one hand, it is imperative to reinforce in the collective Christian conscience the conviction that it is their calling to be Christians in the Holy Land - in times of peace as much as war. This means that local Christians should realise that their vocation calls them to remain on their land, to co-exist with their Palestinian Muslim counterparts and to import into society the witness of Christian hope that is inherent to their faith.

On the other hand, they should adopt a pro-active strategy for peace and justice. This would be translated into political action that guides both parties - Israelis and Palestinians - toward reconciliation. A just peace will help discourage further Palestinian Christians from leaving their ancestral land for foreign climes. In this context, Christians need to assume the role of educators for justice and peace, to encourage inter-religious dialogue and to be a voice for the voiceless - those oppressed and disenfranchised - in their society.

In this context, it is equally important to commend the role played by sister Churches and church-related organisations worldwide through both their moral and material solidarity with local Christians. From the Holy See to the Episcopal Conferences in the USA or England to the World Council of Churches, Christians must remember those initiatives undertaken toward peace with justice in their land. After all, the Christian ministry of reconciliation should be pursued despite all the hold-ups. The Churches - in their modest and humble being - could play a prophetic role toward moderation and reconciliation that is sensitive to the sufferings and legitimate aspirations of their people as much as become a vane for all abuses and excesses that are committed by one party or another and that challenge the dignity of all human beings.

Conclusive Steps

How can one assist the indigenous Christians to sustain their presence and witness in this land?

  • Work with patience and perseverance over issues of justice and peace;
  • Strengthen the ecumenical spirit of unity in diversity within the churches, whilst retaining within this larger oneness the faithfulness toward their own respective churches;
  • Educate the Christian communities - the small flock of Christians in the Holy Land - to assume their responsibilities as witnesses for Jesus Christ in His land. They should be faithful to their Christian faith as well as to their Arab and Muslim society - even when this implies sacrifices along the way;
  • Pursue an inter-religious dialogue that is courageous enough to reflect the existential realities and difficulties suffered by Christians, Muslims and Jews sharing the same land;
  • Enhance the solidarity of the Universal Church with the local Christians in confronting their hardships. One pressing example is to come to the succour of the Christian schools that are facing serious financial difficulties and are unable to continue their invaluable ministry of education;
  • Help form Christian cadres that will play an effective and edifying role within their societies, as much as discourage Christians from selling their lands because of financial shortfalls;
  • Provide a proper education focusing on faith issues as much as on justice and peace so that the small flock of Christians will remain committed to their faith and to the mystery of God revealed on His land.

Personal Overview

I believe that this gathering at the Vatican served as a tangible encouragement to many local Christians at a time of despondency and uncertainty. But such a psychological prop-up also had a longer-term objective. Just as the Pope expressed his concern during his Jubilee Year pilgrimage in March2000 , the Holy See has become increasingly pre-occupied with the future of the Christian communities in the Holy Land. By holding this pastoral meeting, a strategy will have begun to take shape at the highest possible Catholic level. This is a healthy development on all religious, political and social strata and might translate itself into concrete steps in future.

Despite their overwhelming Palestinian identity, and despite their roots being firmly imbedded in Palestinian culture, my own experience - from numerous conversations I have had with local Christians in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jerusalem or elsewhere - indicates that the Christian community is nervous for its future. This fear is as much political and economic as it is religious and personal. The worse the political situation gets, the more fragile their economic survival becomes and the more alarming their emigration from the land turns! Fear is a human reaction, and the political dramas that are unfolding in the Holy Land today instil a sense of fear in many hearts. Steadfastness, clothed in patriotism and retailed as nationalism, is not always an elegant panacea.

But the worsening political situation - the root cause of ills - is also fomenting a religious hardening within certain cross-sections of Palestinian society and is consequently playing upon peoples' fears. No matter how vocally some Christians deny this reality, they cannot conceal the truth in the quicksand forever. There remains an urgent need to counter this polarisation that is rooting itself within some segments of society. It is pointless to 'rationalise' this phenomenon - one does not rationalise with instincts; one deals with them with integrity!

A double strategy must be pursued. A top priority is to undo a nefarious and illegal occupation that has wrought havoc upon Palestinian society and has recently almost crippled it. Hand-in-hand with this priority though comes the need for Christian and Muslim religious leaders to speak out vocally, and act publicly, against any extremism targeting their faith communities. What must rise from the churches and mosques in equal measure, and with equal candour, is a clarion call for an end to puerile and self-serving gains that are seriously divisive in nature, have precious little to do with religion and undermine national cohesion at this decisive juncture.

Finally, and much as the Christian numbers are dwindling, the attachment of those indigenous Living Stones to their faith remains firm. Whether Greek, Armenian or Syrian Orthodox, Latin, Maronite or Melkite Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran, local Christians are the stewards of an unshakeable legacy time-bound in Jesus Christ. Theirs is a faith-centred witness that has challenged the weariness of time and the withering of circumstances.

The whole Church shares your concerns, supports your daily efforts, is close to the suffering of your faithful, and, through prayer, keeps hope alive. - HH John-Paul II - 13December2001

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2000   |   16 December


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