Holy Land Journey Highlights Vital Christian Presence
BETHLEHEM, West Bank—Some Catholic schools in the land of Christ’s birth
now have majority Muslim enrollment, as the Christian population declines.
PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer
Published: April 5, 2007
While gladly educating Muslim youth to be moral citizens, the Catholic Church
in Israel and in the Palestinian territory is most concerned with stabilizing
the beleaguered Arabic-speaking, Palestinian Christian population. To that
end, the church is busy educating youth, providing social services to families,
and engaging in interfaith dialogue in hopes of serving as a bridge among
Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
Across the Holy Land of Palestine, Israel and Jordan, the Latin Patriarchate,
overseeing the church in these countries, has about 45 schools with 21,000
students and 1,750 employees. Of the approximately 400,000 Christians in
the Holy Land, about half are Catholic. Israel has about 120,000 Christians
with about three-fourths being Catholic.
North of Jerusalem in Nazareth, Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, Latin Patriarchal
Vicar for Israel, spoke from his rectory on March 1 to a group of American
Catholic media representatives on local challenges and also the goals the
church in the Holy Land hopes to reach through education and other endeavors.
Nazareth is a town of stone in the Galilean foothills with a mix of Christians,
Muslims and Jews. His office is located on a narrow street near the Basilica
of the Annunciation, which enshrines a cave identified as the home of Mary.
He explained that most Christians are Arab Palestinians and identify culturally
with the Muslims. The Christians “are the people of the land who always lived
there. Their name comes from the Philistines in the Bible. The people of
Caanan, they remained here. … Our people are from that people, (that’s) how
the great majority of Christians are Palestinian and speak Arabic,” explained
the bishop. “They are descended from the first community founded by Jesus
He said the U.S. Catholic Church is very supportive, particularly the order
of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher. There is a plethora of religious communities
in the Holy Land, all of whom want to maintain a presence. With such diversity,
they have several Catholic rites with the most common being the Latin, Greek
and Maronite rites, he said. They have hospitals, centers for the disabled,
and guesthouses for pilgrims.
He said that dialogue is also critical for the Catholic minority.
“It’s not easy at all to live as a minority from a social point of view,
for work, for the education of children. This is why our presence here is
a continual effort of co-existence,” he said. “We are a church in permanent
dialogue. We have a good dialogue with all cultures and religions in Israel.”
With Jews “we have a common platform, a good part of the Bible in common”
and with Muslims dialogue is more difficult theologically and is “more based
on moral and social values.”
The church strives to be a balanced, peaceful presence in the face of conflict
and “our patriarch (Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah) is very, very involved
in trying to find solutions to the conflict not with violence or war. Our
faithful are citizens of Israel and Palestine. We believe now if there’s
any solution it must come through negotiation and dialogue,” he emphasized.
The Roadmap to Peace plan, developed by the United States with other countries
in 2003, “that plan is our hope now,” he said, through necessary American
and other outside mediation.
He reported that civil, political and religious rights are good for Christians
in Israel but that he deals with the government constantly on social, administrative
and diplomatic problems regarding hospitals, schools, visa issues for Religious
and lack of security, such as in a “mixed village” near Nazareth.
“Many times we ask the American bishops to do something. They are the only
ones for us, for the church, who can do something. The States have a voice
U.S. Church Active In Middle East
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is actively trying to do what it
can to bring about positive change through its Catholic Campaign for Peace
in the Holy Land, which engages Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders and
communities to promote a “just peace.”
Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Catholic Church’s international relief
and development agency, has various programs for Palestinians, including
emergency humanitarian aid and food in exchange for work in community infrastructure
improvement and training. In its March 2007 newsletter it reports a “humanitarian
crisis” where tens of thousands of people are in immediate need of food,
water and other essentials.
Other programs include building the capacities of parent-student councils
to foster leadership in educational development. In the Latin Patriarchate
School of Beit Sahour in the West Bank, one project brings together the school,
family and community through a 15-member parent-teacher council and a variety
of other activities to stimulate a sense of commitment among students to
the community, to raise community awareness about its responsibility to the
youth, and to enhance parent-school cooperation.
Bishop Marcuzzo and other church leaders are determined to counter the decline
of Christianity in its birthplace. “The strongest part of our diocese is
in Palestine and Jordan, and all the people want to go away. We have a real
problem of reduction of our presence there. In Israel the phenomenon is not
so strong, but the threat is always there. We don’t want the Holy Land to
remain a land of archaeological stones of geography and history. We want
the living presence of the community. … This is why we try to keep them.
We try to help them build houses. We try to help them find jobs and ask authorities
not to marginalize Christians, which sometimes happens,” he said. “Our Christian
population is not diminishing, but the average is diminishing. The number
is a little higher now but not as much as Muslims and Jews. Muslims have
many children. Jews are mostly like Christians but have immigration.”
He said that education is a major focus to improve the quality of life for
Christians. “Education is a question of life or death because it helps us
to live together. … It has to help people to live together and accept themselves
and be able to help each other and to accept others. …We can try to have
a better future in education.”
The high quality of Catholic schools attracts many Muslims as well. “We respect
everybody in his faith. Our schools are open to all. They like to come to
our schools—the atmosphere, the discipline, the seriousness of our schools,
where there is a good education.”
Jordanian Priest Shepherds Palestinian Christians
Bethlehem in the West Bank is about a 10-minute drive outside of Jerusalem.
A roughly 25-foot high concrete security wall separates Palestine from Israel.
The wall will ultimately be over 400 miles long. This region is an autonomous
enclave governed by the Palestinian Authority, with its ruling party Hamas,
elected last year, that has yet to affirm Israel’s right to even exist or
to renounce violence. Palestinian territory includes the West Bank bordering
with Jordan, along with the Gaza Strip bordering the Mediterranean. Bethlehem
seems quiet this Monday morning, and like a poor town near the desert, less
tourism-oriented. Father Majdi al-Siryani, director general of schools’ administration
for the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem and a native of Jordan, passionately
echoed the bishop’s concerns for Christians in an interview in his office
in Beit Jala near Bethlehem.
“The school is to educate and as a priority is to catechize the kids. We
need to teach the catechism since otherwise 20, 30, 40 years down the road,
we’ll have no Christian community.”
This region of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala has about 30,000 Christians,
and Beit Sahour has fields identified as where Boaz and Ruth lived, where
King David was born, and where shepherds received word of Christ’s birth.
While Christians are now a tiny minority here as 2 percent of Palestine’s
population, he believes that the church and its schools remain a strong influence.
Although residents of Palestinian territory pay taxes, he feels there is
no real government and a gaping lack of health care and schools, so the church
strives to meet the basic needs, not just for Catholics but for everyone.
Social services provided by Hamas only aid Muslims, he said, and it is very
difficult for Palestinians to obtain permits to travel into Jerusalem for
health care and other social services.
“The impact of the Christian community, of the church in Palestine, is of
great importance. There are dozens of institutions, education, health, for
elderly people, orphanages, wherever you go you find the church represented
(with) all kinds of charitable institutions. Everybody recognizes the Christian
community is an integral part of the Palestinian, Jordan, Lebanese people
and without which the Arab identity is not complete.”
Father al-Siryani, who wrote his dissertation on the legal status of Jerusalem
at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, added proudly that “a lot of
politicians are grateful for our schools” and that they have been affirmed
by everyone from Prince Hussein of Jordan to the late Yasser Arafat, who
gave money to build a third school in Gaza.
“That’s why in our schools there are Muslims and Christians, sometimes Muslims
are way larger than Christians,” who are “taught the Christian way” of being
good citizens and Muslims.
Father al-Siryani had served in a Los Angeles parish and loves and respects
the United States where joyfully “I drove from Michigan to Charlotte and
(there were) no checkpoints. I only stopped for a doughnut,” he said, referring
to the Israeli security checkpoints that persons must pass through to travel
through parts of the Palestinian territory and, only with a special permit,
to enter into Israel.
Many of the priest’s family members live in the United States, but he felt
called to return to his suffering people. One problem he endures in the unstable
environment involves tribes outside of the cities who raid and fight. Palestinians
join tribes as a sort of an extended family for protection in the insecure
“You have to be an insurance guy. People come to a priest, and you have to
find ways to help them. We have to be like the police apparatus. We have
to be strong, have to be able to defend our people against criminal activities
in a country with no rule of law. We need to help the innocent people, the
weak people who cannot defend themselves.”
He regrets the consequences for Palestinians of the Israeli security wall
under construction around the country to help stem attacks by suicide bombers
and other terrorists, and the lack of access by most Palestinians to enter
Jerusalem since 1994, including Christians who want to experience its shrines
at Easter and other times. And he reported that after Hamas was elected to
govern Palestine and many countries cut off their foreign aid to the government
it has been “deeply collective punishment” for the people. Consequently,
the church has allowed many students to attend schools paying little or no
“When you cut off salaries of 160,000 employees for a whole year you can
imagine how life is in a small country.”
He acknowledged that “both Israel and Palestine are paying a heavy toll”
because of the Israel-Palestine conflict, noting that in Israel military
service is mandatory for both young men and women.
He insists he is “not anti-Israel” but regrets that his innocent people are
“They are afraid, I know they are afraid,” he said of Israel. “Sometimes
there is a reason for their fear and … policies. But it’s not my people who
created the pogroms and Auschwitz, but they are paying a heavy toll.”
As a priest, he is fortunate to have a clergy permit to travel into Israel
and knows he must treat people as individuals, including Israeli security
“On a personal basis they are nice people. I can’t say you’re a Christian,
you’re good; Muslim, a terrorist; Jew, persecuted.”
Palestinian Youth Seek Freedom, Opportunity
Issa Hafiri is one of the many youth whom church officials hope to sway to
stay in Palestine. Hafiri and four other students are supported by the Holy
Land Ecumenical Christian Foundation to attend the Latin Patriachate School
of Beit Jala, Palestine. The youth met with U.S. Catholic journalists to
share their experiences of growing up as Christians in Palestine. Hafiri,
whose father is a tailor and is of Iraqi descent, hopes to leave one day.
He feels trapped.
“The only thing I do is sit on my computer and chat with my friends. I want
to leave,” said Hafiri with youthful confidence. He has not visited Jerusalem
in eight years. “I like the idea of being free and nobody stopping you.”
Ranim Hanania and the other students were able to visit the United States
through the foundation and also envied that there was “more freedom.”
“The whole political situation in the U.S. is different. They don’t have
to worry about wherever they go there will be an explosion. They don’t have
to worry about checkpoints to go to a university. We don’t have many universities,”
Fearful that Americans would think they were all terrorists, she found that
they actually have much in common with American teens but that “relationships
here are much stronger than in the States and the bonding here is much stronger.”
This girl, with a mature, thoughtful demeanor, remains mindful of the Christian
significance of Bethlehem. She is fortunate to have a permit to enter Jerusalem
and is involved with a dialogue program with Jewish youth, and has many Jewish
“One of the most important things in Bethlehem is it’s the Holy Land. If
you live in the Holy Land you’ll have much stronger faith which will help
you to … stay strong and support your family,” Hanania affirmed. “It keeps
many of us alive and strong and sticking to this land,” she said as classmate
Tamara Nour added “because without hope we can’t survive here.”
Hanania said there’s not division in her school between Christians and Muslims,
but “ I feel we know about their religion more than they know about ours.”
Moe Mughrabi is a proud Muslim product of Catholic elementary and high school
education. He took a break from his managerial job at the H. Stern jewelry
store in the David Citadel Hotel outside the Old City of Jerusalem to recall
his fond memories of one of the city’s best schools, the Franciscan Terra
Santa High School in East Jerusalem.
He grew up in the Old City among Christians, Jews and Muslims, and at school
he felt respected as a person and a Muslim. Today half his friends are Christian
and others are Jewish.
“Christian schools are the best schools, can give a good quality education,”
he affirmed. “They gave us equal rights as the Christian people as a Muslim,
as a teacher or team of teachers, never any discrimination. … My whole experience
in my school was wonderful.”
“They used to give us special classes when Christians had religious class;
we used to have Muslim religious education.”
The Arab Israeli affirmed the common values of the monotheistic religions
of love of God and neighbor and said he feels closer to Jews and Christians
than to non-believers. He noted that the jewelry store where he has worked
for years was founded by a Holocaust survivor who fled to Brazil. Mughrabi
sympathizes with the suffering of ordinary Palestinians, but believes Israel
has a right to build the wall and other security measures that are saving
Israeli lives from terrorists.
Palestinian Ramzy Qumsieh, project coordinator of the ecumenical Christian
foundation, said that since 2000 tourism plummeted with the “intifada” and
that tourists who have come often avoid Bethlehem, where the Church of the
Nativity was the site of a siege and 39-day stand-off in 2002. The foundation
has the Holy Land gifts program to create a source of employment in making
crafts of olivewood that are sold abroad.
“Many people here depend on tourism.”
They also have rehabilitated over 200 houses of Christian families in the
area and have 500 people waiting, he said, passing out before and after pictures
of houses. One elderly couple assisted is Margo and Elias Ghawali, who, in
receiving journalists, proudly pointed to the renovated ceiling of their
home filled with Christian art including a needlepoint design of St. George
on a horse and a carved wooden image of Jesus.
Other projects include pilgrimages to the Holy Land and church/parish partnerships.
The nonprofit works closely with Catholic and other churches, and Patriarch
Sabbah of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem is the chairman of its advisory
board. One of their American support network committees is in Atlanta.
“The main thing is to help the Christian community to survive,” Qumsieh said
of their various programs. “We do mostly needy people and old houses.”
Father al-Siryani believes that the humanitarian concerns shouldn’t be about
“We don’t need people to be pro-Arab, we need people to be pro-truth, pro-justice,”
he continued, holding up his Jerusalem Bible. “I’m trying not to be hateful,
I’m trying to be peaceful. I can’t. I’m a priest. I’m working for justice.
If there is peace, life will be totally different.”
Any dialogue must seek justice for both sides.
“Most of our people are jobless, they cannot get married, lead a normal life
and have a hope,” he emphasized. “Peace is built on justice. Without justice
there is not peace. Peace must be between equals. … This is what we pray
for all day long.”