Pope laments emigration of Christians

Benedict says phenomenon brings "a great cultural and spiritual impoverishment" to Jerusalem.

Pope Benedict XVI waves 248 88  (photo credit: )
Pope Benedict XVI waves 248 88
(photo credit: )
Pope Benedict XVI lamented the high rates of emigration from Israel by indigenous Christians during an address at the Garden of Gethsemane on Tuesday. During mass for Catholics from the Holy Land and abroad, who were restricted to several thousand by an invitation-only entrance policy, the pope mentioned anonymous "authorities" as being responsible "to respect, to support and to value the Christian presence here." "While understandable reasons lead many, especially the young, to emigrate, this decision brings in its wake a great cultural and spiritual impoverishment to the city [of Jerusalem]," he said. Gethsemane, located at the foot of the Mount of Olives, is known as the place where Jesus and his disciples prayed the night before his crucifixion. A group of teenage girls, students at the Rosary Sisters School in the capital's northeast Beit Hanina neighborhood who took part in the mass, said it was difficult to be a Christian in Israel. "We can't visit our family and friends in other towns because of the [security] wall," said Giovanna, 16. "And we have difficulties reaching the Old City for mass on Easter and other holidays because of all the soldiers and police and the security." Tala, 15, hoped Benedict's visit would "help advance peace and living together with other religions. The hardest to live with are Israelis." The seven girls, who were on their way by bus to the Garden of Gethsemane, said they had many relatives and friends living overseas, especially in the US and Canada. All of them spoke fluent English and French, which are taught from grade one, as well as Arabic and Hebrew. The girls said they identified with an anti-Israel speech given by Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, chief Islamic judge in the Palestinian Authority, during an interfaith talk the pope attended Monday night. In the speech, Tamimi attacked Israel for "killing Gaza's children," "bulldozing Palestinian homes" and "destroying mosques." "Everything he said was true," Giovanna said, "but it is difficult for us, because as Christians we are expected to love our enemies." According to figures released by the Vatican ahead of the papal visit, about 130,000 Catholics live in Israel, including Judea and Samaria. A total of 43,876 students, many of them Muslim, attend 192 Catholic education institutions, from kindergarten to university. Christian educational institutions are some of the best in country. The local Catholic community has been shrinking due to a combination of low fertility rates and high geographic mobility. There have also been numerous incidents of violence perpetrated by Palestinian Muslims against Palestinian Christians. Perhaps the most extreme have been Hamas-motivated attacks in Gaza and in Bethlehem. In his speech, the pope said he would like to "speak directly to the tragic reality - which cannot fail to be a source of concern to all who love this city and this land - of the departure of so many members of the Church community in recent years. Today I wish to repeat what I have said on other occasions: In the Holy Land there is room for everyone!" Earlier in the day, the pope visited the Western Wall. In accordance with Jewish custom, he placed a prayer in a crack in the wall. "I bring before you the joys, the hopes and the aspirations, the trials, the suffering and pain of all your people throughout the world," he wrote. "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, hear the cry of the afflicted, the fearful, the bereft; send your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East and upon the entire human family. Stir the hearts of all who call on your name to walk humbly in the path of justice and compassion." The pontiff met with chief Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz, who said after the meeting that he had asked the pope to "do more than just pray for peace" and to take concrete measures to ensure peace and fight anti-Semitism. Sources close to Rabinovitz said a clear message had been sent to the pope to refrain from openly wearing his cross at the wall out of respect for Jewish religious sensitivities. The sources also said Benedict had agreed not to bring a staff with a large, prominent cross, but that he had not covered the cross worn around his neck. However, some bishops who accompanied the pope apparently did cover their crosses, they said.