Eight days in the Holy Land can fly past when you are on an immersion tour with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association/Pontifical Mission to the Holy Land. I hope to be sharing some of the stories and perspectives I heard from a part of the community of people in the Middle East that have been overlooked even as their status has grown critical in all respects—the region’s Christians: Melkite and Latin Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Coptic. A diminishing percentage, if not number, of Christians still inhabit the Holy Land, from the Jordan Valley to Bethlehem and Nazareth and the Old City in Jerusalem. “We are between the hammer and the anvil,” one told me, pressed on either side by Muslim and Jewish forces and competing claims for the Holy Land.
Spoken and unspoken Israeli policy and the increasingly confident and aggressive actions of Israelis settling into Jerusalem’s Old City where Christians have lived for centuries suggest a time is coming soon when Jerusalem may have no Christian residents living among its holy Christian shrines. How tense the situation in Jerusalem has become was evident when violence erupted around a settler’s home in a disputed neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Samer Sarhan, a father of five, was shot to death in the Silwan neighborhood. A security guard on 24 hour duty claimed he was being pelted with stones when he fired the lethal shot. Witnesses said, Sarhan was merely trying to get past on his way to work. After his killing, the reaction included a street rampage and an assault on a bus passing through East Jerusalem.
Christians who remain in the Holy Land are losing their best and brightest each year to emigration as young people seek education overseas and perceive little reason to return to the West Bank and its doubtful fragmented future or to “1948,” as some refer to the land now called the state of Israel where they feel worse than second class citizens.
Like Muslim Palestinians, Christians here, who can trace their lineage and claim to the land back to the Acts of the Apostles and beyond, face dislocation before the territorial ambition of Israeli Zionists. They face the daily exasperation and humiliation of Israeli checkpoints in the occupied West Bank; struggle for water and dignity. While Israelis speed between illegal settlements along roads designed to bypass and isolate Arab communities, the checkpoints can frustrate the most simple task: going to work, visiting a friend, getting to class in time for an exam. Despite their struggles, Christians in the Holy Land still perform traditional roles in direct service, in health care and education. And they continue to be a bridge between the region’s Jewish and Muslim communities, perhaps to its future.
Throughout it all, Palestinian and Jordanian Christians persist in a few basic pleas: where are their brother and sister Christians in the United States? Why isn’t their story raising any alarm among U.S. Christians? Why do they not understand the threat of a day when the Holy Land will be emptied of its Christian minority? Why can’t they do more to make peace between Israel and its Palestinian citizens and neighbors and Palestinian statehood a reality?
I hope to explore some of those questions in the coming days and weeks.