Let these people stay

Franciscans are trying to prevent the Christian exodus - and a Jew is one of the anchormen.

christian solidarity  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
christian solidarity
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
'The Holy Land is a lighthouse - the people here create light through their faith to guide the rest of the world. If Christians are no longer living here, the light will die down and ships will get lost in the dark," says Ronny Levy of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land (FFHL). It may seem odd that an Orthodox Jew has dedicated himself to finding ways of keeping Christians in Israel, but for Levy it's as natural as breathing. "Jews must support Christians in the Holy Land. Their presence here strengthens the Jewish people in Israel," explains Levy, who has worked with the FFHL since 2001. "The Christians intermediate between the Jews and the Muslims. If there are no Christians left, the churches will be hollow, meaningless buildings and the pilgrims and tourists will no longer come." It is of little surprise, then, that Levy fits in so well with the FFHL, which in 1997 became the first official organization dedicated to staving off the Christian exodus from Israel. The current prognosis is worrisome. In 1900, Christians constituted 13.2 percent of the national population. Today that number has dropped below 2%, and if nothing is done, pessimistic voices warn, in 60 years there may be no Christians left in Israel. "Millions of Christians, especially in the US, have no clue what's going on," says FFHL president Father Peter of the negative migration. A Franciscan presence in Israel for the past 800 years, however, has made it hard for these peace-seeking monks not to notice the decreasing numbers of Arab Christians here. So the FFHL established a task force to learn why Christians leave and what might convince them to stay. And after interviewing young Arab Christians in Israel and the PA-controlled territories, they discovered, unsurprisingly, that many leave because of political and economic pressures. Arab Christians frequently find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, with Jewish Israelis writing them off as part of the hostile Arab population and Muslims tagging them as Western and opposed to the Islamic cause. This conception, coupled with often debilitating financial prospects, particularly for those living over the Green Line, has made leaving seem the best alternative. About 400 indigenous Christians do so every year. But the Franciscan task force believes there is a three-fold solution to convince young Christian Arabs to stay. The first is to offer them a college education so they can get work as professionals, which is the second strand of the argument. Last, is providing affordable accommodation. "I am very happy to tell you that so far [since 1997], 65% of the Christians who finished the [scholarship] program are working as professional pharmacists, engineers, educators, architects and so on," says Peter, who has lived in Jerusalem since 1985. "So far we have offered the scholarships to 110 Christians who have as a result decided to stay in the Holy Land. And the number includes Christians from other denominations. The requirements are a B average and that the scholarship winners have to come from a marginalized Christian family." One of the people whose life has changed because of the Franciscan scholarship is Old City resident Shadi Kort, 26. With financial support from the Franciscans, he earned a degree in accounting from the Hebrew University in 2004. Before such a scholarship was an option, Kort considered going to Jordan to study because his family couldn't afford college in Jerusalem. "For people like me, the Franciscan program is a miracle," says Kort, who is the head accountant for the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem and has also started studying to become a certified public accountant (CPA). His hope is to open his own office and contribute to the improvement of the situation for local Christians. Leaving Israel is no longer an option. "Those who leave haven't thought things through," he says. "We have to stay and build something for the Christians here. We have to try to be the best." Grace Gilleh, 25, agrees. A Jerusalemite from a Syrian-Orthodox home, she had the chance to live with relatives in the US or the Netherlands and pursue her dream of becoming a doctor there, but found it too hard to leave her home and family. Fortunately, she too was offered the Franciscan scholarship and is now a dentist. "Without the scholarship I would have had to settle for less [because I couldn't afford higher education otherwise] and wouldn't have been satisfied with my life," she says. "It's [the scholarship] a great opportunity that gives me a reason to stay." It's important that Christians stay in Israel to safeguard the holy sites, she adds. "This is our homeland." The college education is typically offered at either Hebrew University or at Bethlehem University - and on rare occasions at The University of Amman or Cairo. It costs between $5,000 and $6,000 per student per year for books and tuition. Accommodation so far offered includes 45 houses in Bethlehem, 65 on the Mount of Olives, 22 in Beit Hanina and several apartments under construction in Nazareth. Once scholarship recipients earn their degree, they are invited to move into these complexes to live close to other Christians. Doing so gives the young people a strong sense of who they are, says Peter, and rent is as low as $250 per month for two rooms. Other programs are also offered to the less-academically oriented. In Bethlehem, for instance, jobs in construction, landscaping and other practical fields have been offered to 80 people over the past five years. These skills are put to use renovating the homes of local poor Christians. "After learning about the problems in the Holy Land, Christians in America have proven to be very generous," says Peter, who travels to the US twice a year to fundraise for the cause. To recognize such generosity, the Franciscans have created a Memorial Hall at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. Any benefactor who donates $400 or more eternalizes his own name or that of a family member on a plaque. So far, the hall, which has room for 130,000 plaques, feature 500 such plaques. As for the evangelical crowd, Levy, who has worked with them in the past, says he found that they give more support to Israel and the Jews than they do to their own fellow Christians in the Holy Land. "I didn't like that. If you want to do something good for others, you should always start with caring for your own," he says, explaining why he approached the Franciscans. Peter, however, is less critical. "We appreciate the work the evangelicals do for Israel, and Ronny even opened the door to some of their leaders in the US to see the problems here," he says, mentioning the Trinity Broadcasting Network which, after meeting Levy, decided to support Christians in Israel. Still, Father Peter says it is frustrating that only evangelicals are invited to the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus meetings. The evangelicals' recent winning of a seat on the Jewish Agency board has also made it hard for other denominations to have a say in Israel, he says. Levy also has a few things to say about his fellow Jews. "They have no clue what Christianity is and don't respect the Christians living here," he says. "But we don't need to be afraid of our Christian neighbors. They don't want to convert us. Jews are stuck in the past when it comes to this fear, and don't understand that it's better for Israel if the Christians are here." "Without the Church of Jerusalem there would be no church in the world," adds Peter. "The roots are here. This is where the Christian heritage began. If there are no Christians here, the Christians of the world will lose the sense of who they are, and if you don't know who you are, how can you call yourself a Christian?"