A Vanishing Church
We are pleased to feature this guest blog post from Sir Jeffery M. Abood, KHS. Sir Abood is chair of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation’s International Speakers Bureau and Co-Chair of the Council on Global Solidarity, Diocese of Cleveland.
The recent Middle East Synod has helped focus church attention on the vanishing Christian population in the Holy Land.
For two thousand years, Christian communities there have thrived. Yet, over the last sixty years, their population has gone from historically around 18 percent to less than 2 percent today. Never have the Christian communities there been as close to going out, as they are now. According to Latin Patriarch Twal, “the future of the Church in the Holy Land is now in doubt unless fellow Christians around the world step up efforts to help them."
So why have these communities long rooted in the historic land of their faith choosing to leave? And what does that mean for Christianity in the land of Jesus?
First, when we talk of the Holy Land today, we are generally speaking about Palestine and Israel. Oddly enough, the Christians living there seem almost as strangers to most of us. Many people are not even aware that there are Christians in the Holy Land. Many are also certainly not aware that when we talk of the Christians there, we mean the Palestinians. Whether living in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza, the Christians there (with the exception of recent immigrant worker communities) are all Palestinian and have been there for two thousand years. They live as a double minority, as Christians in a largely Muslim culture and as Palestinians living under an Israeli military occupation.
Second, contrary to current popular opinion in this country, the Christians there are not leaving because of the Muslims. For 1500 years, the Christian population has been relatively stable despite living in a largely Muslim culture. Even today, many of the elected leaders are Christians as they enjoy popularity and a wide base of support.
The number one reason Christians themselves living there give, as to why they are leaving, is because of the economic conditions created by the Occupation. In fact, in a statement put out by all the Heads of all the Churches in Jerusalem, they state: “Occupation remains the root cause of the conflict and of the continued suffering in the Holy Land”.
Since the State of Israel, has occupied these lands (partially in 1948, taking the rest in 1967) the Christians have left. As cited in the recent Middle East Synod, “the lack of freedom of movement, the wall of separation and the military checkpoints, the political prisoners, the demolition of homes, the disturbance of socio economic life and the thousands of refugees" have created such conditions, that many who can afford to leave have left. Christians who are generally well educated and have connections in the West have left in great numbers.
While the government of Israel continues to state that it welcomes and protects the rights of all religions, a tree is known by its’ fruit, and its actions say otherwise.
Most Christian owned lands have been and continue to be confiscated for the building of illegal settlements. Home of Our Lady of Sorrows outside Jerusalem, is one of many examples. The Sisters there care for the elderly. Yet a giant wall has been built on their property effectively cutting off their patients from their families and limiting hospital access.
There have also been more than 500 visas denied for religious and clergy who live and work in the West Bank and Gaza denying them entry into Palestine. Making them unable to minister to its’ people. Some priests are even afraid to leave, for fear they may not be allowed to return.
There also continue to be efforts by the government to remove the tax exempt status of the Church. A recent example of that being Augusta Victoria Hospital. This facility largely serves the Palestinian poor. The government has gone to court to try and not only remove their exempt status but also to back tax them to 1967. This would of course force the hospital to shut its’ doors.
Evangelization itself, always a primary mission of the Church, carries a mandatory prison term in Israel.
Even the Holy Sites are coming under increasing threat. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem still bears the marks of Israeli Defense Forces raking it with gunfire in 2002. Access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is being denied more and more to the Palestinian worshippers who live there. This year access was even denied on Holy Saturday. The Upper Room is all but off limits to Christians. When Pope John Paul II was allowed to pray there in 2000, it was indeed a rare opportunity.
Christians there can also feel very isolated and cut off from the Church at large. This is for 2 reasons. First, many Christians don’t even realize there are Palestinian Christians as we tend to think of “Israel–Palestine” as only a Muslim- Jewish issue. So, they are often ignored.
Secondly, many Christians in the West seem to hold kind of a default Christian Zionist viewpoint, which actually works against our brothers ands sisters there. Christian Zionism is an oxymoron, the practice of which is rooted in violence and exclusivism, things that are the very antithesis of Jesus’ teachings.
While there is a lot of spin and politics in an issue like this one, it is none the less a humanitarian cause and it asks us to respond in faith. We can choose to heed the call of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict to build bonds of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. Our standing with the Christian communities in the Holy Land benefits not only the Christians in Palestine, as well as all other Palestinians, but it also benefits Israelis as well, with their ongoing security issues. Their cause is all our cause. We need to stand for justice; as it is only from this that true peace can take root. This issue is even widely seen as the key to stability in the wider Middle East. Peace there would also certainly help to stabilize our economies here at home. More importantly, it will one day help us answer that question that Jesus will pose to us; “When did we see you a stranger and not invite you in?”