We are pleased to feature this guest blog post from Sir Jeffery M. Abood, KHS. Sir Abood is chair of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation’s International Speakers Bureau and Co-Chair of the Council on Global Solidarity, Diocese of Cleveland.

The recent Middle East Synod has helped focus church attention on the vanishing Christian population in the Holy Land.

For two thousand years, Christian communities there have thrived. Yet, over the last sixty years, their population has gone from historically around 18 percent to less than 2 percent today. Never have the Christian communities there been as close to going out, as they are now. According to Latin Patriarch Twal, “the future of the Church in the Holy Land is now in doubt unless fellow Christians around the world step up efforts to help them."

So why have these communities long rooted in the historic land of their faith choosing to leave? And what does that mean for Christianity in the land of Jesus?

First, when we talk of the Holy Land today, we are generally speaking about Palestine and Israel. Oddly enough, the Christians living there seem almost as strangers to most of us. Many people are not even aware that there are Christians in the Holy Land. Many are also certainly not aware that when we talk of the Christians there, we mean the Palestinians. Whether living in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza, the Christians there (with the exception of recent immigrant worker communities) are all Palestinian and have been there for two thousand years. They live as a double minority, as Christians in a largely Muslim culture and as Palestinians living under an Israeli military occupation.

Second, contrary to current popular opinion in this country, the Christians there are not leaving because of the Muslims. For 1500 years, the Christian population has been relatively stable despite living in a largely Muslim culture. Even today, many of the elected leaders are Christians as they enjoy popularity and a wide base of support.

The number one reason Christians themselves living there give, as to why they are leaving, is because of the economic conditions created by the Occupation. In fact, in a statement put out by all the Heads of all the Churches in Jerusalem, they state: “Occupation remains the root cause of the conflict and of the continued suffering in the Holy Land”.

Since the State of Israel, has occupied these lands (partially in 1948, taking the rest in 1967) the Christians have left. As cited in the recent Middle East Synod, “the lack of freedom of movement, the wall of separation and the military checkpoints, the political prisoners, the demolition of homes, the disturbance of socio economic life and the thousands of refugees" have created such conditions, that many who can afford to leave have left. Christians who are generally well educated and have connections in the West have left in great numbers.

While the government of Israel continues to state that it welcomes and protects the rights of all religions, a tree is known by its’ fruit, and its actions say otherwise.

Most Christian owned lands have been and continue to be confiscated for the building of illegal settlements. Home of Our Lady of Sorrows outside Jerusalem, is one of many examples. The Sisters there care for the elderly. Yet a giant wall has been built on their property effectively cutting off their patients from their families and limiting hospital access.

There have also been more than 500 visas denied for religious and clergy who live and work in the West Bank and Gaza denying them entry into Palestine. Making them unable to minister to its’ people. Some priests are even afraid to leave, for fear they may not be allowed to return.

There also continue to be efforts by the government to remove the tax exempt status of the Church. A recent example of that being Augusta Victoria Hospital. This facility largely serves the Palestinian poor. The government has gone to court to try and not only remove their exempt status but also to back tax them to 1967. This would of course force the hospital to shut its’ doors.

Evangelization itself, always a primary mission of the Church, carries a mandatory prison term in Israel.

Even the Holy Sites are coming under increasing threat. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem still bears the marks of Israeli Defense Forces raking it with gunfire in 2002. Access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is being denied more and more to the Palestinian worshippers who live there. This year access was even denied on Holy Saturday. The Upper Room is all but off limits to Christians. When Pope John Paul II was allowed to pray there in 2000, it was indeed a rare opportunity.

Christians there can also feel very isolated and cut off from the Church at large. This is for 2 reasons. First, many Christians don’t even realize there are Palestinian Christians as we tend to think of “Israel–Palestine” as only a Muslim- Jewish issue. So, they are often ignored.

Secondly, many Christians in the West seem to hold kind of a default Christian Zionist viewpoint, which actually works against our brothers ands sisters there. Christian Zionism is an oxymoron, the practice of which is rooted in violence and exclusivism, things that are the very antithesis of Jesus’ teachings.

While there is a lot of spin and politics in an issue like this one, it is none the less a humanitarian cause and it asks us to respond in faith. We can choose to heed the call of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict to build bonds of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. Our standing with the Christian communities in the Holy Land benefits not only the Christians in Palestine, as well as all other Palestinians, but it also benefits Israelis as well, with their ongoing security issues. Their cause is all our cause. We need to stand for justice; as it is only from this that true peace can take root. This issue is even widely seen as the key to stability in the wider Middle East. Peace there would also certainly help to stabilize our economies here at home. More importantly, it will one day help us answer that question that Jesus will pose to us; “When did we see you a stranger and not invite you in?”

 

Comments

Hal Smith | 4/23/2011 - 1:58pm
Malcolm Lowe responded to this article on the Hudson Institute website with the article "The Myth of Palestinian Christianity". He cast alot of doubt on Sir Abood's statement "Never have the Christian communities there been as close to going out, as they are now", by showing that in the last 30 years the number of Christians has increased overall.
He pointed out that "Arab Christians numbered some 150,000... percent in 1947, whereas today, at around 180,000... So the absolute number of Arab Christians has increased over the last sixty years"

The source cited in Malcolm Lowe's article (http://www.mideastweb.org/palpop.htm) records a population growth rate for Christians in 1922-1947 of 215%!

1922 Census 71,464
1947 Projection 153,621

The implication from the statistics that there has been a condition significantly impeding Christian growth in the last 60 years.

In some parts the Christians are decreasing overall.

The Palestinian Christian population of Israeli-controlled Jerusalem has fallen as follows: 1946- 31,400 ; 1948- West Jerusalem captured ; 1967- 12,900; 1972- 11,800 ; 2005- 15,700

 
Lowe noted that the Christian population statistic for the West Bank and Gaza was: 48,855 (1961: Jordanian census under Jordanian control), 42,494 (1967: Israeli census under Israeli control). He suggested this meant that Jordan was responsible for driving out Christians, since the biggest decrease in those territories happened between those years.

It turns out there was a displacement of Palestinians that happened in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli war called the "Naksa."

Happy Easter

Tina Issa | 1/1/2011 - 11:18am
Jeffery,

Thanks for this article. I am impressed that you have stated historical facts, and not emotion.

It is true that under muslim rule the Holy Land Christians thrived and lived freely, whereas today under Jewish rule it is not the case.

Thanks for your article, it needs to be published in the mainstream American press.
JIM MCCREA | 12/31/2010 - 4:00pm
'What do you have to do to make them links?'

Another (usually) easier way is to compose the posting as a word doc, including the URL.  Then when it copies to the blog the URL (usually) comes through as a link.

At least I have always found it so - Benedicamus Domino.
Anonymous | 12/31/2010 - 1:37pm
I believe if one wants to get at the root cause of anything then one has to look at a lot of different issues.  To get at the Palestinian/Israel conflict one has to answer literally hundreds of questions.


Why the occupation?  What would it take to end it?  Where did the Palestinians come from?  Who are placing the obstacles to prevent the end of it?  Why the security barrier and check points?  Who has a history of physically harming others in the Middle East?  What would happen to Christians if they said they were being persecuted by Muslims?  By Jews?  Who is creating hate in the Palestinian areas and why?  Why does the left support the Palestinian cause?  Who is supporting Hamas and Hezbollah?  I could probably come up with a lot more if more time were available to read about it.


There are lots of questions that do not get answered in general here or most places on the internet.   I suggest America Magazine find the people to take the other side of debate and discuss with someone like Sir Jeffrey.  Right now we have only one side of this issue.
Jeff Abood | 12/31/2010 - 11:24am
In response to a few of the above comments to my article.

It is important to remember that the Church has always been careful to say exactly what it is they mean, before they put anything into writing. This is what has provided a richness and a depth of thought to the teachings of the Church. So, when the Church has both repeatedly and clearly stated that, the "root cause of the conflict and continued suffering in the Holy Land is the Occupation" That is precisely what they mean.

Those who act as "armchair quarterbacks" and say, "No, this is what they really mean" exhibit what can be considered, "the height of arrogance"- to presume to speak fo another when they have clearly spoken for themselves.

In the links they listed (esp. CBN) we see that indeed they are christian zionist articles which only serves to reinforce what I have stated in the article.

Those Palestinan Christians and Church leaders who both actually live and work in the Holy Land, are consistent in saying the occupation must end to create the conditions and allow for a starting point for peace.

It is important to clearly define any problem before it can be fixed. Continuing attempts to divert our attentions from the real "cause of the conflict", only prolongs the time that innocent people must suffer.
Anonymous | 12/31/2010 - 9:32am
David,


What do you have to do to make them links?  I just past in the url and every once is a while they end up as links. 
Anonymous | 12/30/2010 - 11:12pm
For some additional points of views, here are three recent articles:


http://www.hudson-ny.org/501/the-beleaguered-christians-in-bethlehem


http://www.catholicity.com/commentary/hudson/03512.html


https://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/insideisrael/2010/May/More-and-More-Christians-Leaving-the-Holy-Land/
Beth Cioffoletti | 12/30/2010 - 3:09pm
I agree.  This accounting needs to be much more than a blog post!
Thomas Piatak | 12/30/2010 - 2:26pm
An excellent and important piece. 
Julio Vidaurrazaga | 12/30/2010 - 1:03pm
I wish you could make this article more available ,not only to "faithful followers"
of "America" but to a bigger audience.
 I consider the article VERY important
Lisa Bethlehem | 1/2/2011 - 4:02pm
This article is also misleading in that it insinuates that the heads of all the Catholic Churches in Jerusalem said "Occupation remains the root cause of the conflict and of the continued suffering in the Holy Land".  This is especially noticeable in comment #7 that "...when the Church has both repeatedly and clearly stated that..."  Notice the capital "C" in Church.  

Bear with me...

The quote comes from the CLEARLY BIASED World Council of Churches (read about them here:

http://pajamasmedia.com/blog/the-leftist-world-council-of-churches-and-the-jews/

http://archive.frontpagemag.com/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=36112 

who "In September 2001, the WCC executive committee chose to emphasize Decade-to-Overcome-Violence efforts on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The campaign "End the Illegal Occupation of Palestine: Support a Just Peace in the Middle East" seeks to mobilize WCC member churches "to work for an end to the occupation as a means of addressing the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, helping create a viable Palestinian state, and working for a negotiated, secure and just peace in the Holy Land."

This article is anti-semitic propaganda (and thus anti-Catholic).  This magazine should be ashamed for attempting to mislead its readers.   

 
Lisa Bethlehem | 1/2/2011 - 3:40pm
Our family had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land in October 2009.  We visited the Church of the Nativity, The Church of the Holy Selpuchre, and the Upper Room among many other places AS CHRISTIANS and had absolutely no problem.  Nothing we wanted to see was off limits to us as Christians.

Your article is very misleading.  I suggest readers investigate what the IDF gunfire at the Church of the Nativity was all about, in particular: 

The troops were airlifted into the city and met disorganized Palestinian resistance. Israeli Air Force helicopters landed the force half an hour too late. When the force arrived, the wanted persons were already there. Dozens of militants, FatahHamasPalestinian Islamic Jihad and Palestinian Security Forces men fled into the church to fortify, along with forty monks and dozens of other Palestinians who arrived at the site for different reasons. In total, about 220 men were in the location. Among them were the governor of Bethlehem, Muhammad al-Madani, and Abdullah Daoud, the Palestinian Authority intelligence chief in Bethlehem.[3] 

See also:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_the_Church_of_the_Nativity_in_Bethlehem