Holy Land Journey Highlights Vital Christian Presence

PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer
Published: April 5, 2007

BETHLEHEM, West Bank—Some Catholic schools in the land of Christ’s birth now have majority Muslim enrollment, as the Christian population declines.
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 Christ himself.”

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 in Israel.”

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 region.

“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 tuition.
“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 suffering.
“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 forces.
“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,” said Hanania.
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 friends.
“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 taking sides.
“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.”