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Partnerships help Holy Land Christian minority survive

Much of the Western media spin on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to portray the source as a centuries-old religious clash between Jews and Muslims, seen as inescapable fighting over coveted, limited turf which for each is “holy land.”

What’s missing in this oversimplified equation is another reality; namely, that indigenous Christian Arabs are an integral part of the Israeli/Palestinian social structure. Whether Palestinians living in the West Bank or Arab Israelis (Arabs living in Israel who hold Israeli citizenship), this Christian minority includes Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants and has ties to the region that date back hundreds of years -- the tiny village of Jifna, for example, prides itself on having maintained its Christian identity uninterrupted since the first century.

In recent years, however, Palestinian Christians have been leaving the Holy Land in record numbers, due primarily to the region’s shattered economy and escalating violence. According to the most recent statistics, published in Ha’aretz Nov. 4, nearly one in five Israelis, 1.17 million, lives below the poverty line; half a million of that number are children. But in the West Bank and Gaza, those percentages more than triple. USAID reported July 10 that 70 percent of Palestinians, 2.8 million, are living below the poverty line of less than $2 per day. As parents look to their children’s future, the temptation to emigrate for a better life is strong. According to a 2001 study conducted by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the region’s Roman Catholic archdiocese, 53 percent of the 10,400 Christian residents of Beit Sahour, a predominantly Christian town adjacent to Bethlehem, have taken steps within the past year to obtain emigration visas.

There were close to half a million Christians in the region when Israel was founded in 1948. In just the past two years, the number has dropped from 80,000 to 60,000. Fifty years ago, Christians made up 20 percent of the Holy Land’s population; today they are less than 2 percent. That steep, rapid decline has observers worried that unless things change soon, the Holy Land could become a museum -- without any living Christian presence -- in a very short time. That fear has prompted Palestinian church leaders to put out an urgent dual appeal: imploring Arab Christians, on the one hand, not to abandon the Holy Land that is their birthright; and urging Christian communities around the world to come to the aid of their Palestinian brothers and sisters in faith.

One of the ways both goals are being accomplished is through a variety of creative partnership programs sponsored by the churches, humanitarian agencies and determined local Holy Land entrepreneurship.

The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation was founded in 1999 by an interfaith group of American Christians to preserve the Christian presence in the Holy Land. With two boards, in the United States and in the Holy Land, the foundation takes a variety of approaches to serve Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians in Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Among its programs are a U.S. speakers bureau to foster awareness, child sponsorship/school scholarship assistance, pen-pal programs between U.S. and Holy Land school children, parish partnerships and emergency relief funds. The foundation also aims to provide long-term economic solutions to indigenous Christian communities through housing and community development projects, developing markets for Holy Land olive wood and mother-of-pearl products by Bethlehem-area artisans, and promoting Christian pilgrimages that employ local Christian travel agents, guides, hotel operators and shopkeepers.

Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ relief and aid agency, provides ongoing programs in the West Bank and Gaza, particularly agricultural assistance programs that enable Palestinians to work the land and secure revenue from its produce as well as benefit from direct food exchanges based on labor. CRS supports outreach efforts to better connect people in the United States with the people and circumstances in the Holy Land.

Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a New York-based pontifical agency, maintains a continued presence in the Holy Land through its Pontifical Mission for Palestine. The association provides scholarship aid to Catholic and Orthodox schools, seminaries and religious orders; supports hospitals, orphanages and child-care programs; establishes and maintains community libraries and programs for children; and assists in local economic development through home repair and construction projects for residents who have lost homes or have been unable to afford rent due to the violence in the region.

Bethlehem University, founded by papal invitation to serve the people of Palestine, charges its 2,100 students $1,000 a year tuition. But according to Br. Vincent Malham, the university’s president, the actual cost is $3,000. It is constant belt-tightening, ongoing development efforts abroad and the donated services of the De La Salle Christian Brothers who staff the school that make it work. As in every academic setting, scholarships are the name of the game, and especially in economically ravaged Bethlehem, many students could not attend college if it were not for scholarship assistance. The university plays a major role in the local economy with its schools offering degree programs in tourism, hotel management and the restaurant industry, all major employers in the Holy Land. The university welcomes help through scholarship assistance, library development, and business partnerships and to meet student and local faculty needs.

Indigenous Holy Land artisans are seeking markets for their Bethlehem-made olive wood and mother-of-pearl work. With tourism at a standstill in Bethlehem, local craftsmen are making their work available to a U.S. clientele through selected marketers. Purchasing Holy Land goods supports local artisans and their families, enabling them to remain in their homeland and make a living. The Holy Land Christians Cooperative Society represents approximately 600 families in 200 workshops in Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour -- the largest Christian communities in Palestine. The co-op’s U.S. representative, Feras Qumseya, hosts craftwork displays and gives talks on the Holy Land at U.S. churches. Other independent Bethlehem marketers like Wisam Salsaa (see related story) do the same, both to foster awareness of the situation of Christians in the Holy Land and to boost the Bethlehem-area economy.

-- Pat Morrison

Related Web sites
Beit Sahour Municipality


Bethlehem University

B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

Catholic Relief Services

Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Christian Peacemaker Teams

Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation
Holy Land Christians Cooperative Society

Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions

Israel/Palestine Center for Research
and Development

Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel

Olive Wood Arts

The Palestine Monitor

Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 2003