Will Christians soon disappear from the Holy Land?

By Patriarch Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem

All Christians in the Middle East are facing the same problems: a. a small number related to a majority b. coexistence with Islam, and in Israel/Palestine, coexistence with Islam and Judaism c. political instability d. and finally emigration.

These common realities are the subject of reflection for the two regional Church structures. The first is the Council of the Catholic Patriarchs of the East (seven Patriarchs, Alexandria for the Copts, Antioch for the Syrians, the Maronites and the Melkites, Jerusalem for the Latins, Babylon for the Chaldeans and Cilicia for the Armenians). The second structure is the Middle East Council of Churches,composed of four families of Churches: the Greek Orthodox (Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem), the Eastern Orthodox (Copts of Alexandria, Syrians of Antioch and Armenians of Cilicia), the Catholic and the Protestants.

The same probems are lived by the Church of Jerusalem.

We are a small number in all the dioceses of the Holy Land. By this term (Holy Land), I mean Israel, Palestine and Jordan: all these countries constitute one diocese and one ecclesiastical jurisdiction for Orthodox, Protestants and Catholics. In these territories the total population is around 12 million. The Christians, all Christians, are 300,000. Catholics are almost half this figure. The Orthodox are a little more numerous.

Is this small number diminishing due to the emigration? Is there really a danger that Holy Places will become museums, or Churches alive only with the presence of pilgrims?

Emigration started during the last century. Today, the Arab Palestinian Christians in Latin America, who emigrated there in the 19th century, are far more numerous than in their original land. The same is true also regarding Christians in North America, United States and Canada. The same reasons leading to emigration are still there: economical, social, and the difficulty of adaptation as a minority towards a majorty. Since the second half of this century, with the eruption of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, the political conflictual situation, causing general instability, and which is still going on, emigration became more intensive. It is said sometimes that Christians have grown in Israel. Numerical growth is very limited and relative. In Nazareth, in 1948, Christians were 6,000 out of 8,000. Today they are 25,000 out of 50,000. The numerical growth is not only due to natality, but due to other villages whose population was forced to leave and then settled in Nazareth. Bethlehem had the same figure, 6000 Christians out of 8,000. Today, it has 12,000 but out of 50,000. Ramallah another small Christian city had in 1948 around 6000 inhabitants, all Christians, today it could have 10,000 but out of 40,000. Jerusalem had the biggest number, 30,000 out of 200,000. Today it has 10,000 out of 600,000. As long as there will be political instability, emigration will continue. But with that, Christians will not disappear. They will remain small. They will require more work on the part of the Church. They will remain more dependent on the Church as institution; and this will perpetuate the status of the Church leaders regarding religious and civil questions, at the same time. It was so, in deed, during the Ottoman empire, until the nineteenth century. The Patriarch was at that time the religious and civil head for his community. This fact gave birth to the present vision of the lay people: the Church should build the Church and the society together; and it explains also a contradictory position in the attitude of the lay people towards the Church: on one side they want to have their role in the Church; on the other side they want the Church to assume responsibilities in different domains of the civil, economical, social and political life.


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