Leading Christian clerics of varying denominations expressed concern Monday
about challenges facing Christians living in Israel, including limited housing
and job opportunities, a general misunderstanding about them among Israelis, and
the peace process.
Luminaries within the Lutheran, Latin, Greek Orthodox
and Evangelical sectors met with international journalists in Jerusalem’s Old
City to discuss Christianity’s current state of affairs in the Holy Land. The
meeting was sponsored by the Government Press Office.
According to a 2012
report by the Central Bureau of Statistics there are 158,000 Christians living
in the country, representing two percent of the total population.
population, approximately 80 percent are Arabs, with the remainder mostly
immigrants from the former Soviet Union who immigrated under the Law of
At Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem Monday morning Father Pietro
Felet, of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, said the
Christian community living in Israel is having trouble defining itself due to
its numerous denominations.
“We’re having some difficulties in defining
ourselves in the Holy Land,” said Felet. “We are not a national church, we are a
mixture of Arab Christians, Hebrew-speaking Christians and Christians from the
former Soviet Republic. About 45% are Catholic, 40% are Orthodox and 20% fall
under the category of ‘other.’” Most Christian Arabs live in northern Israel,
the CBS report states. The cities with the largest Christian populations are
Nazareth, with 22,400, Haifa with 14,400, Jerusalem with 11,700 and Shfaram with
While the Christian population is growing at a rate of 1.3%
annually, it lags behind Jewish and Muslim growth, which is 1.8% and 2.5%,
respectively, according to the report.
Due to the fractured nature of the
Church, Felet emphasized the importance of engendering greater understanding of
the Christian presence in Israel.
“Above all, we are living in a
pilgrimage place, because from here all things begin,” he said.” Understanding
is the basis for coexistence and our goal is to promote further understanding of
the Christian presence in the Holy Land.”
Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa,
of St. Savior’s Monastery in the Old City, discussed the historically tenuous
relationship between Christians and Jews, although he noted a marked improvement
over the past 50 years.
“The history between the Church and Judaism is
well known,” said Pizzaballa. “In the last 50 years relations have changed
dramatically for the better, but the past was painful – was
“Of course the problems are always there because you can’t
change the problems of 2,000 years in 50 years,” he added.
Pizzaballa conceded that “many things remain to be done,” he noted that the
Catholic Church has an 800-year presence in Israel and therefore must be treated
with greater “legitimacy.”
“Catholics are not foreigners here, they are
citizens of Israel,” he said. “We want cultural relations to improve from all
aspects of our lives. We know that what happens in Israel is important for the
Catholic Church around the world.”
Pizzaballa cited the need for a
strengthened relationship between the church and local authorities to provide
better housing, professional and education opportunities for Catholics. Although
he said the education level among Christians is high, many still are finding it
difficult to find sustainable jobs.
Indeed, the employment rate for
Christians stands at 54% – 63.8% for men and 45.3% for women – according to CBS.
Meanwhile, the national average is 75% and 66%, respectively. Among Christian
Arabs, the rate is 48% – with men at 59.5% and women at 37.7%.
the problems for the Catholic Church in Jerusalem is land and housing, which is
very expensive,” he said. “To get more land that means money, but for a normal
family, the prices are almost impossible [to afford].”
said the Church has built hundreds of housing units for Christians – including
400 in the Old City’s Christian Quarter, with projects planned in Jaffa and
Nazareth – it is struggling to provide more, due to pronounced fiscal
Still, he said he hopes current negotiations between the
Church and State of Israel will lead to better living standards for Christians
“There’s a negotiation now to arrive at an agreement about the
life of the Church in Israel concerning economic and fiscal aspects,” he said.
“It’s a fundamental agreement about all the aspects of life for Christians, and
we are getting very close. So I am encouraged.”
In terms of hate crimes
against Christians, including vandalism of holy sites, Pizzaballa said the
Church has received support from the Israeli Police and authorities, but added
that more needs to be done.
“If you don’t denounce these issues when they
happen they will continue,” he said. “We need to work on this.”
Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal said he believes the best hope for a
prospering Christian community here is education.
“I believe in education
because all the children should study together and play together to create a new
generation that has respect for one another,” he said.
“I often say that
Jerusalem does not belong to anybody – we all belong to Jerusalem.”
terms of the challenges Christians face in Israel, Twal said dialogue is the
best means of forging improvements.
“As you all know, we are all for
dialogue,” he said. “The first person who started the dialogue was God, through
prophets to humanity.”
However, Twal said politicians are obstacles to
improved relations, due to the frequent closings of Jaffa Gate and the New Gate
in the Old City resulting from numerous tourist and sporting events.
the good intentions we have in our dialogue are ruined because of the
politicians involved,” he said. “I’m not very happy. Why? Because Jerusalem is
holy for everyone.”
“[The politicians] must stop closing Jaffa Gate and
the New Gate, which prevents pilgrims from visiting,” he continued. “We don’t
need all these tourist events. I’m grateful that they open the door for me, but
I wish they would open it to everyone.”
Regarding peace, Twal said he was
pleased there is progress in negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis –
and that the European community is getting more proactively involved in the
process – but emphasized the necessity of improving coexistence
“If we think about all of our children in 20 years, we have
to change something now,” he said.
“They cannot live like this for
eternity. We want peace for everyone, and it’s impossible to think about
peace for one group and not the other.”
Lutheran World federation
president Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan – the first Palestinian elected to head a
universal church – said there is an alarming level of ignorance about
Christianity in Israel due to generalizations propagated by the
“When I read in the Hebrew media about Christianity, I wonder if
I’m Christian,” he said. “One of the things we face as Christians are
generalizations about us being persecuted in Palestine or Israel. There are
issues between us [and the governments], but please don’t say ‘persecution.’”
Younan went on to denounce travel restrictions for Christians coming from
Bethlehem and Ramallah to the capital.
“Everybody wants to be in
Jerusalem. Why can’t a person cross with dignity?” he said. “Why must [soldiers]
take away their dignity? This is not acceptable.”
Younan also echoed
Pizzaballa’s sentiments regarding prohibitive housing costs and limited
employment opportunities preventing Christians from securing stable
“It’s very essential that people can afford to live in Jerusalem –
the center of their lives,” he said.
“But the economic situation is very
hard, even though most of the people are well-educated. The Church tries to
help, but we are not an employer, we are a church.”
With respect to peace
negotiations, Younan said while the church encourages dialogue, he denounces
further settlement construction and talks that do not address the pre-1967
“We believe in dialogue of the 1967 borders, that settlements
should stop and right of return for refugees be granted,” he said. “We have
doubts whether talks are serious or not. We don’t want the Americans to pressure
us – we want to show that there is willingness for peace.”
that Jerusalem must be shared, without the “army dividing it.”
all over the world and everyone asks me about Jerusalem,” he said. “And they
think that if there isn’t a just situation for Jerusalem, than nothing will
“We need a win-win situation and we must deal with this difficult
situation now,” he continued.
“Extremism will drop once there is a peace
process. There is no other option – war is not an option.”
concluded that he believes that mutual recognition of opposing groups’ humanity
must be the first step in the peace process.
“Only then will this truly
be the land of ‘milk and honey,’” he said.