Aiding Christians in the Holy Land
Catholic groups build ties to Arab minority

Yonat Shimron, Staff Writer

On their trip to the Holy Land last month, a group of 20 Roman Catholics from the Triangle saw many of the relics of their faith: the manger square in Bethlehem, the chapel built on the site where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, and the church at Cana, near where Jesus turned water to wine. Stones upon stones upon stones.
But the group also met some "living stones" -- Christian Arabs who never left the Holy Land or the faith they inherited from 2,000 years ago.
This ancient community whose ancestors converted to Christianity during Jesus' time are now experiencing extreme hardship. The pilgrims from the Triangle went to show their support.
Christians make up only about 2 percent of the total population of the Holy Land, compared with about 20 percent at the beginning of the 1900s. In other Middle Eastern countries, where a population census is hard to come by, the situation is similarly dire.
Two Triangle churches -- the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Durham -- are beginning to take note. At 2 p.m. Sunday, St. Francis will hold a discussion on ways to build relationships with Palestinian Christians living in the Holy Land.
Survival in question
The plight of Christian Arabs is precarious in not only the Palestinian territories captured by Israel in 1967, but also throughout the Islamic Middle East. In places such as Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Lebanon, demographers worry that the community may not survive.
"Christians, because of their connections to the Western world, are leaving in huge numbers," said Rateb Rabie, the founder and president of the Holy Land Christian Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Bethesda, Md., that is trying to help Palestinian Christians and raise awareness of their plight.
Rabie, who will speak at St. Francis on Sunday, is working to provide these Christians with money to rehabilitate aging homes and support Christian schools.
Rising unemployment, ongoing ethnic warfare and a wave of Islamic fundamentalism are forcing the Christian community to pack up and leave. It is perhaps worst in war-torn Iraq.
Layla Hannah of Durham, an Iraqi native, came to the United States 47 years ago. One of eight children in a prominent Roman Catholic family -- her great uncle was a cardinal -- she has been able to bring over all seven of her siblings. The last, a sister, came two years ago.
Now Hannah is desperate to save two of her nephews who escaped Iraq to Syria.
"In Iraq, the Christians are under great danger," Hannah said. "Every day there are threats to their lives. These poor people are leaving their homes and everything behind."
Temptations abroad
Even when the danger isn't immediate, the temptation to leave is great. After graduating from high school, many Christians want to pursue professional degrees abroad.
"They're well educated and they get a taste of what it's like to live in other countries," said Lisa Gianturco of Raleigh, who traveled with the Catholic group and stayed with a Christian family in Bir Zeit, another village near Jerusalem.
The family Gianturco stayed with had eight daughters, most of whom held professional degrees -- an accountant, a dentist, a lawyer and a diplomat, among others.
"They're committed to staying," Gianturco said. "It's their home. But at the same time, she adds, "it's a tough situation."
Palestinian Christians have to face not only the economic paralysis of the region, but also hassles at multiple checkpoints, movement restrictions and intermittent military skirmishes.
Their diminishing numbers could spell doom for any peace prospect.
"If we can empower the Christians, they can be a bridge for peace," Rabie said.
Many think Christian Arabs can serve as a buffer between the competing claims of the mostly Muslim Palestinian Authority and the Jewish Israelis.
That's what two Franciscan friars who traveled to the Holy Land last month hope to promote.
The Rev. Jacek Orzechowski of Immaculate Conception in Durham, and the Rev. David McBriar of St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh, led the group to Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel. Each participant stayed in the home of a Palestinian Christian for a night and got to know the community.
The group also visited Bethlehem University, a Catholic school started in 1973, whose students are now mostly Muslim.
'Things we can do'
Orzechowski said he hoped to bring awareness to the Palestinian Christians by holding alternative gift markets to sell olive wood crafts that some of the Christians make, and by organizing more trips to the area.
"An overhaul of the political situation may be beyond our reach," Orzechowski said. "But there are a lot of things we can do to help address some of the symptoms."
Dick Hoffmann, who runs a Raleigh company devoted to helping organizations collaborate, is thinking along the same lines. He was among the group that traveled to the Holy Land last month.
"Even though we saw potentially overwhelming reasons for sadness, hopelessness, frustration and anger, we also saw awe-inspiring hope, dignity, endurance, and courage," he said.
"That gave us hope that there is a possible resolution to the conflicts among Israelis and Palestinians."

Staff writer Yonat Shimron can be reached at 829-4891 or yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com