“Tell the people they are not alone, that the Christians have not forgotten them.” By Fr. Stan De Boe, OSST
By Fr. Stan De Boe, OSST
“Tell the people they are not alone, that the Christians have not forgotten them.” This plea by Fr. Raed Abusahlia, Chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was echoed in each meeting with Palestinian Christians during a recent delegation of Catholic Religious leaders to the Holy Land.
An eight-member delegation from the US Conference of Major Superiors of Men and Leadership Conference of Women Religious, in collaboration with Catholic Relief Services, was the highest ranking Catholic delegation in over two years to visit the Holy Land and have access to the West Bank and Gaza. The mission was designed to be a statement of solidarity and concern at this time of crisis and to listen to the Palestinians and Israelis. The delegation met with Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders; Israeli and Palestinian political leaders; and interacted with Israeli and Palestinian citizens who are living in fear because of the systemic violence and the threat of terror that plagues daily life in the Holy Land.
Of particular concern to the delegation were the problems facing the small and increasingly diminishing Christian population of the Holy Land. In 1948 the Christian population in what is now Israel and the Occupied Territories was 52 percent. Just one year ago, when CMSM participated an ecumenical delegation, the number was put at just over 2 percent. In one year, the number of Christians leaving the Holy Land has lowered the percentage to below 2 percent, and the very existence of the ancient Christian communities is throated.
One pastor of a parish near Bethlehem said that in the last three months over 1,000 members of his parish have left the Holy Land. Most are reluctant to say they are leaving. One family invited the priest to their home to bless it on a Saturday. After liturgies on Sunday, when he did not see the family, he inquired about them and was told that they had left early that morning for the U.S. to escape the fear and violence. Stories like this are not unusual.
What is also disturbing is that it is widely believed that these Christians who leave the Holy Land will not return, like their Muslim sisters and brothers who are also fleeing. When Christians leave the Holy Land to settle in Europe, the U.S., Canada, or Australia, they are assimilated into a culture that supports their Christian values and welcomes them, their children can attend Christian schools, and they are part of a faith family. Palestinian Muslims do not enjoy the same benefit and will almost certainly return to the Holy Land when there is a solution to the crisis.
There are several reasons given for the flight of Christians from the Holy Land. The increased violence during this current Intifada, which started in September, only highlights the problems that Christians face. The most pressing problems are the systemic violence, the economic blockades, and loss of visible solidarity from Christians outside the Holy Land.
One of the key elements to the crisis in the Holy Land is the systemic violence with Israeli’s expansion of settlements at the very core of the issue. In recent years the settlements surrounding the traditional Christian areas (Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahur) have expanded both geographically and demographically. They have spread from the tops of mountains and hills to the hillsides and valleys, just yards from the Christian towns. The settlers who live in the settlements are largely the new immigrants from Russia and religious fanatics who view their living in the settlements as part of a divine calling to take the land and to make pure. For “security reasons” Israel has built an intricate network of roads, connecting the settlements, which Palestinians are forbidden to use. On either side of the roads 300-foot security zones are cut – homes and fields are bulldozed, olive groves are uprooted. Palestinians are allowed access only to designated roads and what would be a few minutes drive from Bethlehem to Jerusalem could take several hours, given the circuitous route they are forced to take and the checkpoints they are made to pass through.
The settlements also provide a place from which Israelis have launched air and missile attacks on the Palestinian towns. During the delegation’s visit we were shown Christian homes that had been destroyed by the Israeli attacks. The homes, on the outskirts of the towns are the closest to the settlements and prime targets for the attacks. Bombs that explode into hundreds of pieces of shrapnel are fired into these homes and on impact do damage far beyond conventional bombs.
One priest in Gaza reported that children are terrorized by the nightly bombings. Recently one child in a school run by his parish was hysterical because the sound of a moving desk above him sounded like the bomb that exploded near his house just the night before. On another day when Israeli planes were flying over the children of the school started crying and looking for shelter, afraid that they would soon be under attack.
Sadly the delegation learned of the US involvement in these attacks when we were shown the shells and parts of bombs found in these homes – all of there were clearly marked as products of the US. The Palestinian Territory is being carved out and any hope for a Palestinian homeland with contiguous, secure borders, is less possible each day as more settlers are moved into homes in the Occupied Territories and the building in the settlements continues.
During a meeting with Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs, Godi Golan, he stated that had the Palestinians accepted the Camp David agreement last September the settlers would now be out of the settlements and the Palestinians would have that land. The delegation asked him why the Israelis would not withdraw from the settlements in the Occupied Territories now, knowing that they are a source of tension and a reason the violence continues. He responded that the withdrawal from the Occupied Territories was also dependent on an end to the violence before they withdraw. It seems the cycle of systemic violence of the settlements will not end.
The delegates visited the Palestinian city of Hebron, the second largest in the West Bank and a particular center of violence between Israelis and Palestinians because of Israel’s confiscation of nearly half the city, including the mosque. On our way in we witnessed the intimidation and effects of the economic blockade. Israeli settlers with automatic rifles were preventing Palestinians from leaving Hebron to get their produce and materials to markets in other parts of the West Bank and workers from getting to their jobs. Long lines of cars and trucks were stopped on either side of an Israeli checkpoint and hundreds more Palestinians who have to walk to their jobs were stopped unable to move because they were threatened. Israeli soldiers were attempting to control the settlers but the settlers were armed better than the security officers. These daily occurrences at Hebron, between Bethlehem and Ramallah and Jerusalem, at the Gaza crossing are destroying the Palestinian economy.
These economic blockades are commonly referred to as “closures” and that might be an appropriate pseudonym – it is meant to bring and end to something – the Palestinian economy. Farmers bring their produce to checkpoints hoping to get them to market but after being held for hours in burning heat, produce and meats begin to rot and are turned back for health reasons. With the loss of money the farmers cannot provide for their families, purchase the materials necessary for the next crops and thus become dependent on the social service assistance provided by international organizations. Workers are made to pass through the checkpoints and are subject to harassment. Many are prevented from crossing and unable to hold their jobs. Most Palestinian workers are dependent on jobs in Israel and usually make up the labor force for construction and services in Israeli businesses. Because the Israelis are dependent on the unskilled labor that had been provided by Palestinians, there has been a need to find laborers from other countries. While we were there a newspaper article reported on the latest wave of immigration to Israel. The report stated that many new immigrants are largely non-Jewish unskilled laborers who are being given the jobs once held by the Palestinians.
Without jobs and without the means to sustain their families, dependent on foreign relief and development organizations for assistance the Palestinians are stripped of their human dignity and many are reduced to supporting the acts of terrorism such as the recent suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.
The delegation made it clear that we opposed all acts of violence and terrorism, including the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, and called on all sides to end the violence, both the systemic violence and terrorism that erodes any confidence or hope for an agreement.
Loss of Visible Solidarity
One of the most visible affects of the recent violence is the absence of pilgrims and tourists in the Holy Land. Since September 2000 almost all tourism has stopped. The huge crowds that were anticipated during the Millennium year never came to the Holy Land. Manger Square was empty at Christmas and there were few people in Jerusalem for the celebration of Easter this year. Jerusalem and Bethlehem look like ghost towns. The shrines are empty and the shops are closed. Over 80 percent of Palestinian Christians depend on the tourist and pilgrim trade for their livelihood. With no pilgrims and tourists their incomes have been drastically reduced, if not completely ended. They cannot afford to send their children to the schools run by the Latin Patriarch. Those who do have jobs outside of the tourist industry are affected by the economic embargo.
The few Christians visiting the Holy Land are not allowed to travel outside of Jerusalem and those who are limited as to where they travel and with whom they have contact. The Christian community in the Holy Land feels isolated and forgotten by the Christians outside of the Holy Land. They feel that their message, their plea for assistance at this time is unheard and unheeded. They long for a return of their sisters and brothers who will come in solidarity and bring a message of hope by their mere presence. The delegation pointed out that the danger is too great for large number of pilgrims and tourists to travel to the Holy Land. However, the delegation would encourage other small groups of Christian leaders to show their solidarity through frequent visits and contact with partners in the Holy Land.
This is a critical time in the crisis in the Holy Land. The suffering of the small Christian community might lead to the death of the earliest Christians communities; some tracing their roots back to the 1S’ Century Church. This is not a place of just Holy Land and Holy Shrines; it is a living Christian community suffering under the burden of occupation and the violence it breeds. It is a Christian community that feels abandoned by her sisters and brothers. It is a Christian community that could disappear if we do not support them.
What Should Be Done?
The work of finding a solution to the crisis in the Holy Land has to be done by the Israelis and Palestinians. But there are steps we can call for to support a peace process:
Both sides must end the violence, including the systemic violence of expanding the settlements and the acts of terror. Israel’s right to be recognized by all the international community must be respected and it must be allowed secure borders, free from terror, in which the people of Israel must be allowed to flourish. A homeland for Palestinians must be created, with integral and secure borders. The economic blockade must end and there must be free access to markets and employment. Christians outside the Holy Land must find ways of supporting their sisters and brothers who suffer under the hardships they experience. Support organizations such as Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Internationalis that are providing assistance and development for the Palestinian community.
And in the words of priest in Gaza, “God alone can deliver us from this problem. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem and all the people.”