On Good Friday the Church Gives Us an Opportunity to Help Christians Stay in the Holy Land
You may know that I recently led the first-ever “Food Meets Faith” pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and that I will be leading another pilgrimage in February 2015, so –for me – this is personal. I now have Palestinian Christian and Israeli Christian friends. I know their names, the names of their spouses and their children, and what they do for a living. I have cooked with them, and I have dined with them. And I know how difficult life is for them in the Holy Land, the land that received the Word Made Flesh, the place that witnessed our redemption.
This is why I am writing today to echo the voice of the Church and of Pope Francis to support the Christian presence in the Holy land. In churches across the world there will be a special collection today at the 3:00 Liturgy of the Passion of Our Lord to help support the Christians in the Holy Land.
If you will not be attending the 3:00 liturgy today, you can also donate online by clicking here.
Another very personal way that we can support Christians in the Holy Land is by making a pilgrimage there. Select International Tours – the travel company that organizes my “Food Meets Faith” pilgrimages to the Holy Land – deals only with Christian businesses and communities in Israel and Palestine, so that the money spent on pilgrimage to the various holy places boosts the local economy and provides jobs for Christians. Get a sneak peek at my next pilgrimage to Israel by clicking on the short video at the end of this post.
The Christian Presence in the Holy Land: A Dwindling Reality
In Bethlehem, which is in Palestine, the Christian population is down to less than 2%.
In 1964, there were 30,000 Christians in the Old City of Jerusalem alone. Today there are fewer than 11,000. That is only 1.5% of the total population of 800,000 in the Old City.
There is a very real concern that Jerusalem could become a museum, a spiritual “Disneyland”, a great place for tourists and pilgrims, but not for the Arab Christians whose roots date back to the church’s very beginnings.
Why are Christians leaving Palestine and Israel?
Certainly there are many factors, but according to an article by John L. Allen, lack of employment and complicated Israeli and Palestinian relations are mainly to blame. In the article, Allen’s article includes comments from a local Arab Christian along with his own commentary:
“Makhlouf, a Catholic, said that of the four problems facing Christians in the Holy Land, the first three are “occupation, occupation, occupation.”
Palestinian Christians insisted that the factors fueling their exodus — political discrimination, lack of employment, restrictions on freedom of movement — are fundamentally the result of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Access to holy sites is one difficulty. Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have different residency cards, and movement back and forth requires a permit that’s hard to obtain. Christians in Bethlehem often cannot cross the roughly six miles to Jerusalem to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Residency policies also divide families. Reportedly, there are some 200 Christian families split between the West Bank and Jerusalem.”
- Today, there are roughly 200,000 Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land, descendants of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
- The majority of Palestinian Christians are Greek Orthodox, with smaller numbers of Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Copts, Episcopalians, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Maronites, Syrian Orthodox, and several other Protestant denominations.
- There are no official figures on the number of Palestinian Christians in the occupied territories, but according to the Lutheran ecumenical institution the Diyar Consortium there are 51,710 Christians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. They are concentrated mainly in East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus, and Bethlehem.
- Christians comprise roughly 2% of the population of the West Bank, while Gaza’s estimated 3,000 Christians account for less than 1% of the coastal enclave’s population. While Gaza’s Christian population has remained steady in recent years, the number of Christians in the West Bank has continued to dwindle as many emigrate as a result of the difficulties of living under Israeli military occupation. Lower birthrates for Christians have also contributed to their shrinking percentage of the population.
- According to Israeli government figures, as of 2009 there were about 154,000 Christian citizens of Israel, or about 2.1% of the population. Of those, approximately 80% are Palestinian Arabs, including 44,000 Roman Catholics, while the rest are non-Arab immigrants, mostly spouses of Jews who came from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
[The bullet points above were taken from an article by the Institute for Middle East Understanding.]
Why Is a Christian Presence in the Holy Land Important?
The Franciscans have been in the Holy Land since 1209, walking in Jesus’ footsteps, caring for the poor, educating young people, providing scholarships, protecting the Holy shrines, conducting pastoral ministries and keeping Christianity alive.
Third term Custos of the Holy Land, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, speaks about Good Friday in an exclusive interview: