Latin Patriarch calls for ‘genuine, long-lasting peace’

COGAT to ease travel restrictions for holiday; data show decline in number of Christians living in Jerusalem.

christmas bethlehem 248.88 ap  (photo credit: AP)
christmas bethlehem 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
With Christmas and the year 2011 around the corner, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem relayed his seasonal wishes to the public on Tuesday, and the IDF announced goodwill gestures to Christian Arabs in the West Bank ahead of the festive days.
Speaking to the press in the capital’s Old City, His Beatitude Fouad Twal thanked the pope for convening the recent Synod of Middle Eastern Bishops, which “condemned violence, religious fundamentalism, anti-Semitism, anti-Judaism, anti-Christianity and Islamophobia, and called on religions to assume their responsibilities in promoting dialogue among cultures and civilizations in our region and in the entire world.”
Religious tourism to the Holy Land has been on the rise, and by November of this year, three million visitors had been to the holy sites.
“This reflects the universal dimension of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, the welcoming reception extended to pilgrims by our people and our churches, and the good work of the Ministries of Tourism in Israel and Palestine,” Twal said.
He also noted the improvement in the process of obtaining visas for religious Christians, including seminarians and volunteers, but added that “we still have a long way to go.”
“We suffer from the failure of direct peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” Twal said, and expressed the belief that “on both sides, and in the international community, there are men of goodwill who will work and put their energies together in their commitment for peace.”
He added, “We also wish Europe to play a more significant role in this process.”
Twal concluded his message with “good wishes for a reconciliation between our peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is time to commit ourselves together for a genuine, true and long-lasting peace.”
Meanwhile, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.-Gen. Eitan Dangot and the head of the Bethlehem District Liaison Administration, Lt.- Col. Iyad Sirhan, met on Tuesday with the patriarchs and heads of the church community to relay holiday blessings from the defense minister and IDF chief of staff, while emphasizing the recognition and heartfelt appreciation Israel had for all the various religious festivals, a statement said.
The officers informed the clergy about the easing of restrictions that would be implemented for the Christian community in Judea and Samaria, and the granting of 500 entry permits for Christian Palestinian pilgrims, in the holiday spirit of freedom of worship.
Dangot noted that during the Christmas period, all the border crossings in the Bethlehem region would be utilized and open around the clock with an increased civil administration presence, in order to ensure the safe and efficient passage of visitors to the city.
Despite the recent attacks from the Gaza Strip, Israel has authorized over 600 Christians to leave the territory. Israel will not allow Hamas to prevent the Christian community in the Gaza strip from celebrating during this special season, a statement said.
Also on Tuesday, the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS) released the latest data on the number of Christians living in Jerusalem, which showed a drastic drop in numbers and an even steeper decline in their percentage of the city’s growing general population.
On this Christmas Eve, Christians account for only 2 percent of the total population of Jerusalem, compared to 20% before the 1948 War of Independence, according to the new statistics. The figures indicate that only 15,400 people currently identify themselves as Christians, compared to 31,000 at the end of the British Mandate in 1948. The Christian community in the capital comprises 12,800 Arab Christians and another 2,600 clergyman, monks and immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Dr. Amnon Ramon, JIIS’s expert on the churches and the Christian communities, explained to The Jerusalem Post that in past years, the absolute number of Christians in Jerusalem had remained relatively stable, but the swiftly growing Jewish and Muslim populations in the city were causing the proportion of Christians in the capital to diminish.
“We believe that in a time of growing tension between Israel and the international community, the government should put special emphasis on improving relationships with the Christian world,” Ramon said.
“Israel has a strong interest in strengthening Christian presence in the Holy Land and tightening bonds between the Christian world and Jerusalem,” he continued. “Such a move could improve Jerusalem’s position as world center, will carry economic benefits and may help to ease tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Ramon noted the positive development of two months ago, when the Jerusalem Municipality allowed the completion of a new Arab-Christian neighborhood on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives, built on grounds belonging to the Roman Catholic church. Sixty-eight families moved in after years of anticipation.
The JIIS, which hosted the Roman Catholic leadership last Wednesday in an evening dedicated to promoting dialogue with the local Jews, is currently drafting recommendations calling on the government to take a more active role in improving relationships with the different churches and communities and in easing the lives of Jerusalem’s Christian residents.