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Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem’s talk on the plight of Christians in the Holy Land

Speaking in Westminster Cathedral Hall on September 8th 2009, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal addressed these words to a meeting of Aid to the Church in Need:

"Dear brothers and sisters,

Pope Benedict XVI visited the Church of the Holy Land in May 2009.

The Holy Father underlined the unique vocation of Christians in the region, encouraging them to continue bearing witness to the love of Christ in the land of Christ despite the myriad difficulties that face them.

It might be helpful in speaking to you about the Christians in the Holy Land and especially in Jerusalem to describe briefly the reality the Holy Father found on his visit.

A small community – the demography of the Christians

A constant theme in the life of the Christians in the Holy Land is the fact that we are a very small community, about two percent of the general population whether in the Palestinian Territories or in Israel.

In Israel, Christians live as part of the Arab minority in a state that is overwhelmingly Jewish. In the Palestinian Territories, Christians live within a population that is overwhelmingly Muslim.

The vast majority of Christians are Arabs, although there are also important communities of Hebrew-speaking Christians and of Christian foreign workers.

Christian demography, illustrates in a dramatic way, the situation of the Christians in the Holy Land.

Whereas Christians constituted between six and ten percent of the general population in 1948, this has dropped to about two percent today.

The major reason for this radical change is the enormous waves of Jewish immigration before and after 1948, as well as the consequent dislocation of a large proportion of the Palestinian Arab population, especially during the 1948 War.

Not only has the relative proportion of Christians dropped radically, but Christians often find themselves marginalised in both Palestinian and Israeli society.

Minorities might have the tendency to close in on themselves, but the Holy Father reminded Christians that they are called to go out and build relationships.

At Mass in Jerusalem on 12th May 2009, he called on Christians to be pillars of faith and harmony: "Precisely because of your deep roots in this land, your ancient and strong Christian culture, and your unwavering trust in God's promises, you, the Christians of the Holy Land, are called to serve not only as a beacon of faith to the universal Church, but also as a leaven of harmony, wisdom and equilibrium in the life of a society which has traditionally been, and continues to be, pluralistic, multiethnic and multi-religious”

A precarious community – the difficult political situation

The biggest obstacle in our lives as faithful in the Holy Land is the lack of peace and stability, the glaring absence of justice and the concomitant difficulties in all aspects of life.

We cannot emphasise strongly enough the necessity of finding a solution to the issues that have sparked violence, conflict and war over the past decades.

The 1948 War, which led to the establishment of the modern State of Israel, also created the enormous problem of Palestinian refugees, as hundreds of thousands were driven from their ancestral homes in a few months – among them many Christians.

The State of Israel was set up on almost 78 percent of the land that had been the Palestine Mandate. Within the State of Israel, the Christians are a part of an Arab minority within a state defined as Jewish.

Although Arabs have citizenship, they are discriminated against in many basic services and this is particularly evident in education, health care, urban development and agricultural allocations.

The 1967 War led to the military occupation of the remaining 22 percent of the land and whereas this time the majority of the population stayed in their homes, a harsh military occupation was put into place.

The occupiers seem obsessed with security, whereas the occupied seek to throw off the occupation, sometimes using violent means.

A continued policy of building Jewish settlements in these Occupied Territories, has led to a concomitant policy of discrimination, land confiscation, house demolition and other infringements of basic human rights.

A section of the security wall around Bethlehem with a cross painted on it. Photo: Aid to the Church in Need

Most recently, we have seen the construction of a separation wall (above), supposedly a defence against terrorism.

It has enclosed many Palestinians in ghetto-like areas where access to work, medical care, schooling and other basic services has been badly affected. In addition, freedom of movement is severely hampered.

Despite the international community's attempts to kick-start negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the situation on the ground seems to be getting worse.

In the first half of the 1990s, the American administration mediated the establishment of a Palestinian Authority, in certain areas of the Occupied Territories.

However, these pockets of Palestinian autonomy are completely at the mercy of the Israeli military, and at present the Gaza Strip is living under an Israeli imposed siege that has created a drastic humanitarian crisis.

The erection of the separation wall has imposed a new situation of injustice that penetrates daily life, with hours of waiting to pass from one area to another.

This is particularly true for the Christians of Jerusalem, the Bethlehem area to the south and the Ramallah area to the north. They constitute one community, now separated.

Husbands and wives cannot live together, parents are sometimes separated from children, many are without work and without access to basic services.

We have a new generation of Christians who cannot visit the Holy Places of their faith that are only a few kilometres from their place of residence.

Many do not believe that the Israelis want to end the occupation, and the Palestinians are dramatically divided in how to resist the occupation, between those who use violence and those who seek diplomatic resolutions.

Islamic fundamentalism that has sprung up as a response to the hopelessness of our general situation pushes Christians even further into the margins and alienates many of our young people.

Most Christians live this harsh reality as a part of the Palestinian people.

Pope Benedict XVI meets Holy Land families. Photo © Peter Dammann www.childrens-relief-bethlehem.org

Words of comfort from the Holy Father

The Holy Father comforted us by directly addressing our situation, saying: “Standing before you today, I wish to acknowledge the difficulties, the frustration, and the pain and suffering which so many of you have endured as a result of the conflicts which have afflicted these lands, and the bitter experiences of displacement which so many of your families have known and – God forbid – may yet know”.

Here he fulfilled the words he had spoken in planning the visit: that he sought to come to support, console and encourage the Christians of the Holy Land.

“I hope my presence here is a sign that you are not forgotten, that your persevering presence and witness are indeed precious in God's eyes and integral to the future of these lands,” said the Holy Father at Mass in Jerusalem on 12th May 2009.

The Pope encouraged us to be at the forefront of seeking ways to bring this difficult situation to an end by means that are coherent with our Christian identity – ways that reject violence, but that insist on liberty.

In Bethlehem, in the heart of the Palestinian Autonomy, at the Mass in the square alongside Jesus’s birthplace, the Holy Father dwelt upon the Christian call to be witnesses to vitality rather than to death, to be evangelists of life.

“Above all, be witnesses to the power of life, the new life brought by the Risen Christ, the life that can illumine and transform even the darkest and most hopeless of human situations.

“Your homeland needs not only new economic and community structures, but most importantly, we might say, a new ‘spiritual’ infrastructure, capable of galvanising the energies of all men and women of good will in the service of education, development and the promotion of the common good.

“You have the human resources to build the culture of peace and mutual respect which will guarantee a better future for your children. This noble enterprise awaits you. Do not be afraid!”

I must add though that we are cautiously optimistic at present, due to the change in tone of the American administration led by President Obama.

He seems much more aware than his predecessors of the fundamental errors of the administration in their attitude to the conflict.

A reduced community – the problem of emigration

The issue of being a small community in a precarious situation is exacerbated by the fact that since the end of the 19th century Christians in the Holy Land in particular, and Christians throughout the Middle East, have been tempted to emigrate, seeking a more prosperous and promising future for their children elsewhere.

One of our greatest challenges is to persuade our faithful to stay and build their future in a land where many of them feel hopeless, marginalised and even threatened.

Although emigration did not begin in 1948, it was in that year that huge numbers of Christians left the country, fleeing the war alongside their Muslim compatriots, and most were not allowed to return.

Many Christians continue to dream of a future elsewhere, in a place where they can guarantee their families jobs, housing, education, decent living conditions, equal rights and socio-political stability.

Israeli policies – continued occupation in the Palestinian Territories and ongoing discrimination within Israel – threaten Christians and Muslims alike.

From limiting movement and ignoring housing needs, to financial taxation burdens and infringing on residency rights, Palestinian Christians do not know where to turn.

The number of Jerusalem Christians, for example, is expected to fall from 10,000 to 5,300 in the coming seven years, if these policies are carried out at the same pace.

Our young people, and the best among them, often cannot resist the temptation to leave and make their future elsewhere.

They often do so with heavy hearts, but when they see no brighter future ahead, and no possibility to raise families in security, they emigrate and very seldom return.

Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem (centre right) and Bishop Micahel Evans of East Anglia (centre left) with clergy at Westminster Cathedral. Photo: Aid to the Church in Need

Patriarch Fouad (left) and Bishop Michael Evans of East Anglia, with clergy after the Mass of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Westminster Cathedral, September 8th 2009

A community of ‘living stones’ – the Mother Church of the Holy Land

However, despite the obstacles, we have a great treasury to sustain us. God chose this land, and this community, in which to establish his Church.

We are a community of ‘living stones’ that has a rich treasury of ‘monumental stones’ that commemorate the major events of our salvation history.

We are a Church called to be custodian of the Holy Places of our Christian memory, but we are also called to be custodians of life.

Our Churches are vibrant centres that sponsor a vast array of projects, that touch every aspect of daily routine.

Our schools are among the best in the region, our hospitals among the most advanced, our housing projects are being constantly built, our clinics, our social welfare agencies and so on…

In the directory of the Catholic Church of the Holy Land, it is mentioned that the different Churches together run 170 parishes, 118 schools serving 64,000 students from different religions, 15 homes for children and disabled, 12 hospitals, seven homes for elderly people and 15 charitable and humanitarian organisations.

We are determined to continue, despite the many difficulties that also impinge on the life of the Church: our clergy have difficulties getting resident permits, can not always circulate freely and our church institutions are menaced by draconian financial and administrative measures from the State.

Despite all the challenges we face, we are a living Church, proclaiming the message of a Resurrected Lord: death will not be victorious!

In Nazareth, the Pope encouraged the Christian institutions to be prophetic places of peace education, calling on Christians to be preachers of the Kingdom.

The vocation is “to break down walls and to be a seedbed of encounter, dialogue, reconciliation and solidarity”.

Furthermore, he encouraged the Christians “to persevere in bearing witness to the Gospel, to be confident in the triumph of goodness and truth, and to trust that God will give growth to every initiative which aims at the extension of his Kingdom of holiness, solidarity, justice and peace” (at Mass in Nazareth, 14th May 2009).

Seek out the living stones of faith

It is this community of living stones that welcomes Christians from all over the world who come to the Holy Land, to drink from the sources of our common faith.

We ask you to come and to pray at the Holy Places, but do not be satisfied with the monumental stones alone.

Seek out the living stones, our Christian faithful. Pray with them, comfort them, strengthen them, and you too will be enriched by their testimony to the Living Lord, in the land that is His own.

A community of witnesses – Christian hope

We are called to be Christian and that means we must have hope, hope in a God of surprises: a God who brings life out of the tomb, a child out of a virgin womb, a created world out of the nothingness of chaos.

It was in the Vespers service in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth that the Holy Father offered his most powerful image for the Christians of the Holy Land, comparing them to the Virgin Mary, whose Nativity we celebrate today:

“In the State of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Christians form a minority of the population. Perhaps at times you feel that your voice counts for little. Many of your fellow Christians have emigrated, in the hope of finding greater security and better prospects elsewhere.

“Your situation calls to mind that of the young virgin Mary, who led a hidden life in Nazareth, with little by way of worldly wealth or influence.

“Yet to quote Mary’s words in her great hymn of praise, the Magnificat, God has looked upon his servant in her lowliness, he has filled the hungry with good things.

“Draw strength from Mary's canticle, have the confidence to be faithful to Christ, and to remain here in the land that he sanctified with his own presence!

“Like Mary, you have a part to play in God’s plan for salvation, by bringing Christ forth into the world, by bearing witness to him, and spreading his message of peace and unity.”

We know that we do not and cannot live this hope alone, isolated from our brothers and sisters in faith throughout the world.

We depend on your prayers, on your support and solidarity, on your advocacy for our rights, on your lobbying for justice and peace in Israel/Palestine.

We are reassured when we know that you are with us in our struggle to survive and live as a community of witnesses to the Resurrected Lord in the land that was his earthly home.

Please do not leave us alone in this mission. God bless you all."

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