Depths of despair

The Christian population in Jerusalem has fallen sharply since 1948.

hand with crucifix  (photo credit: AP)
hand with crucifix
(photo credit: AP)
'I will make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to ask the Lord, while visiting the places sanctified by His earthly life, for the precious gift of unity and peace for the Middle East and for all humanity," Pope Benedict XVI said when he announced his visit to Israel and the region (his visit includes Jordan and the Palestinian territories). However, as well as his pilgrimage for "unity and peace," the pope will also have to deal with business closer to home - the state of the Christian community in the Holy Land and, in particular, its dwindling presence in Jerusalem. In 1946, two years before the State of Israel was established, the Christian community of Jerusalem numbered some 31,000, or 20 percent of the population. Today, Christians account for 2% of the capital's population, or some 14,000 people, including monks and clergymen from abroad. "On top of its demographic impoverishment, the Christian community in Jerusalem suffers from an internal split," explains Dr. Amnon Ramon of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, the author of extensive studies on the Christian communities in Israel. "The Catholic community is the largest, with some 4,500 people, followed by the Greek Orthodox with 3,500 and the Armenian community, numbering some 1,500. The various Protestant communities number around 850; the Coptic-Syrians, some 250; and the Ethiopian community in the capital numbers some 60," he says. "With this visit, the pope wants to awaken the Catholic world to the difficult situation of the Christian Arab communities," continues Ramon. "The most frightening scenario for the pontiff and the Christians here would be to witness the holy sites becoming museums due to the lack of the faithful using them - as has happened, for example, in Turkey." That is a sentiment echoed by Sami Barsoum, the mukhtar of Jerusalem's Syrian Orthodox community. "Our future is so gloomy that it is not inconceivable that in the near future tourists will come here and look for Christians to tell them about our history here, and they will not find even one to do so! The tourists will find only stones but no Christians living here." Barsoum says: "I can tell you that for [all] us Christians today, there is no real difference, since we share the same problems and difficulties." A tailor born in Jerusalem, Barsoum says he can still remember the glorious days when the Christians in the holy city numbered more than 60,000. "Today it's a pity - look what has happened. We are hardly 2% of the population. What kind of future can we expect here? All these years there were so many wars, so we have no security, no tranquility, and the result is emigration: our sons and daughters have run away. We are stuck between the two sides. Jews say we're Arabs, and Arab Muslims say we are Israelis. Our life has become so sensitive, so precarious, no wonder the Christians are leaving the country." Barsoum adds that the general feeling is that the Vatican and all the other Christian community leaders do care "but very little is being done. We are a minority and being a minority, especially in a non-peaceful environment, is always bad. We have been here for centuries, but today most of us feel like foreigners in our own city." Regarding the attitude of the municipality, Barsoum says that "[Mayor] Teddy's [Kollek] days were the best. There are good relations with Mayor Barkat, but it is not enough to solve our problems." The depth of despair felt by Jerusalem's Christians can be gauged by recent comments made by two of the community's leaders, Father David Neuhaus and Archbishop Fouad Twal. "The pope's visit raises hopes and dreams," said local Jesuit priest Father David Neuhaus in a recent interview on the Franciscan Web site, Custodia Terra Sancta. "We expect to hear from him a word of consolation and of hope regarding the difficult situation in which we live. Why we should stay here, in the Holy Land, rather than emigrate to countries where life might be easier." "Come and see us and visit us, pray with us and for us, give us the assurance that we are not alone, that we are not abandoned," was the call to French Christians from Archbishop Fouad Twal, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, after the papal visit was announced. "We expect to hear words that will encourage our youth to stay here; we expect to hear from the pope words regarding the importance, from a Christian point of view, of our existence here. The prospects for the future of our young generation are very dismal due to the lack of security in such a situation of conflict," says Neuhaus, who received a doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and teaches at the Latin Patriarchate Seminary in Beit Jala, at Bethlehem University and at various Catholic institutions in Jerusalem. "In a way," he told In Jerusalem, "the situation of the Christians in Israel is comparable to the situation experienced by the Jews in the Diaspora, when in any time of insecurity, communities would leave and search for a better future elsewhere." "There is a paradox within the Christian communities here," says Ramon. "They are the most educated and belong to the middle and upper class. But there is more. In their education lies the key to their disappearance from the region. Since their curriculum is totally Westernized, including excellent knowledge of European languages, they have no problem emigrating - to France, Italy, Canada, South America, the US, Australia. They are welcome everywhere. The fear that no Christians will be left here to keep the Christian sects alive is serious. And the fear that all the churches, so strongly connected to the Christian tradition and history in the land of Jesus, will become mere tourist sites is a very powerful one," he says. "We all have something to lose from the demographic impoverishment of the Christian communities here, who are caught in the middle by the Arab-Israeli conflict," Ramon continues. "They are most influential in promoting higher education here. We have figures showing that in many cases, their achievements in high school and on matriculation exams are the highest in Israel, higher than the Jewish students' - and high-quality education is certainly in the interest of all parties here." According to Ramon, the Christians in Israel and abroad are the first to promote Jerusalem as a place important to the three monotheistic religions, thereby promoting its value as an important landmark for pilgrims and tourists visiting here, "and this is also a clear Israeli interest." Regarding the pope's visit, there is no doubt that the primary objective is to strengthen the Christian community, says Ramon. "There are some real-estate projects in Jerusalem that might bring some relief, such as the housing projects in Beit Hanina in the north of Jerusalem, and a smaller one in the Eizariya region, which is in fact on the seam between the Jerusalem district area and the Palestinian territories. It is not much - we're talking about a few dozen housing units - but this is already something. All the projects have been built on the church's land and property - again, a gesture to show the local Christians that the Holy See is not indifferent to their problems." The Catholic Church also owns about 500 housing units inside the Old City, which are rented at a very low, subsidized rent to lower-income Christian families. Another cause for concern within the Christian community in Jerusalem is the status of their educational institutions, in which a large number of the students are Muslims. According to Ramon, the entire issue of the Christian educational institutions will certainly be one of the topics on the pope's agenda, such as finding ways to support the schools and enable them to continue to provide a high level of education. The Christian community's need for spiritual support from the pope is deemed to be very strong. It is estimated that the mass at Gethsemane will draw at least 10,000 participants. Dr. Daniel Rossning, head of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish and Christians Relations, says that all the protocol aspects of the visit have already been agreed upon, despite - or rather because of - their sensitive aspects. "Everything will be based on the previous pontiff's visit in 2000. If at that time pope John Paul II was allowed to wear his cross while visiting the Western Wall, so will it be this time." Rossning headed the conference held this week at the Jerusalem Center for Israel Studies as part of earlier research on the situation of the Christian communities in the country, which brought to light some interesting findings regarding the situation of the various Christian communities in Israel and particularly in Jerusalem. "The major programs of the center focus on promoting understanding between Jews and Christians - whether it is between adults or teenagers and even schoolchildren, since we all know that knowing each other is the best way to reduce fear and distrust," says Rossning. Some of the most problematic aspects are evidently connected to the remnants of the past but, according to Rossning, a real improvement is already experienced, while the war waged against ignorance is the main tool used by the center. "Ignorance is the major problem which, by the way, we also encounter regarding one's own roots and not only toward the Other," says Rossning. Speaking at the conference on Jewish-Christian relations held the week ahead of the pope's visit, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, stressed that this visit is considered more as a "pastoral visit" - i.e., focusing especially on the needs of the local Christians. Pizzaballa even admitted that the local officials of the Vatican representatives were not so enthusiastic about the pontiff's visit due to the sensitive political situation. But he concluded that "It was the pope's own and personal decision to come nevertheless, and now we all wait to see what will come out of it for the improvement of the Christian community's life here. In fact, because things are so difficult now, it may be just the right time for such a visit." According to Pizzaballa, aside from this internal aspect, the Jewish-Christian dialogue is the most important issue at hand. "The pope believes in a cultural dialogue with all the various Christian communities and other faiths, of course, but the dialogue with the Jewish people is crucial, since it is rooted in the very origins of Christianity." Among other issues presented at the Monday conference was a survey of the attitude of Jewish Israelis toward Christian residents and symbols. Here are some of its findings. While secular Jews tend to consider the Christians as more Western and thus less threatening than the average Arab population in the region, things are a little more sensitive for the Orthodox and the haredim. According to a phone survey conducted by the Smith Institute among 500 Jewish adult men and women (23% Orthodox and haredi; 24% Conservative; and 53% secular), 54% think that the history of Christianity should be taught in school, while 37% said that the New Testament should be taught in Jewish Israeli schools. In regard to the Christian presence in Jerusalem, the tolerance level is lower: 50% of the participants in the poll answered that Jerusalem is also a major religious center for the Christian world, while 46% did not acknowledge that. As to the question of whether the State of Israel should allow Christian institutions to purchase land in Jerusalem to build additional churches, 75% answered "No."