Just five weeks after being installed as the new Patriarch of the Latin Church in Jerusalem, His Beatitude Fouad Twal described his experience to CNA as the “top of happiness.”
Father Labib Kobti, the pastor of Palestinian Catholics in the Bay Area, looks at his flock and finds a mixed blessing.
Kobti is happy to serve 700 families in the Arab American Roman Catholic Community in Northern California, most of them immigrants and refugees from Jordan and the former Palestine.
But their presence here also serves as a painful reminder of the vanishing number of Christians in the Holy Land.
“We were the first Christians of the world, and we are very proud of that,” said Kobti, who was born in Beirut and educated in Bethlehem. “The analysts tell us that in 25 years, there will be no more Christians left in the Holy Land.”
In 1967, Kobti was 17 years old and enrolled in the Catholic seminary near Bethlehem when the Six-Day War broke out. Among the territory captured by Israeli was the tradition-laden land west of the River Jordan, including Bethlehem and East Jerusalem.
Since then, Kobti said, the number of Christians in Jerusalem has dropped from around 50,000 to approximately 5,000.
He blames Israel’s strong-arm policies in the occupied territories, such as the destruction of Arab housing and the building of Jewish settlements, for the flight of Christians from the Holy Land.
“Israel doesn’t make any distinctions between Christians and Muslims,” Kobti said. “They are all treated as Palestinians. They take their homes and the land.” Kobti, one of three priests serving in the United States under the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, is happy to finally see Bethlehem and other pockets of the West Bank back under Palestinian control. And he hopes that the all the talk about peace and reconciliation in 2000 will inspire Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Holy Land.
“It all depends on Israel. They have the power,” he said. “Building settlements (in the West Bank) nourishes violence in the hearts of children. We have to stop. I hope the third millennium will start a new face and a new phase in reconciliation and building a common future.”
Kobti spoke in the rectory of St. John of God Church at Fifth and Irving in San Francisco. He tends to that English-speaking flock and also holds an Arabic-language Mass on Sunday afternoons at St. Anne of the Sunset Church on Judah Street.
As his contribution to the Catholic church’s Jubilee Year 2000 celebration, Kobti has put together a “Museum of the Holy Land,” spotlighting the history and theology inspired by Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem.
Winding its way through the offices and rectory of St. John of God Church, the museum features photographs, music, handicrafts, videos and religious icons from the land where Christianity began.
“Millions of people will not be going to the Holy Land this year, so I am bringing the Holy Land to them,” Kobti said.
“It’s a way for them to discover the land of the Bible, to return to the source, to where the mysteries of our faith took place.”
Kobti plans to open the museum today and hold a series of special events over the next year.