On July 18-19, the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster convened a conference aimed at supporting the beleaguered Christian community in the Holy Land. Held at Lambeth Palace, the London residence of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the International Conference on Christians in the Holy Land was the result of trips to the Holy Land by Williams and Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, from which both returned convinced of the need to aid the region’s Christians.
Hailed by Nichols as “an important step forward in collaboration between the Catholic and Anglican churches,” the conference was discussed by Williams and Pope Benedict XVI during the latter’s visit to the U.K. last September. Close to 100 people attended the two-day meeting, among them leaders of the Holy Land Churches, Vatican representatives, the British Foreign Office, the European Parliament, as well as Jewish representatives from the U.K. and Israel. Its aim was to promote what Williams called “an increased literate compassionate awareness of what is happening in Holy Land” and to foster “specific actions to encourage our brothers and sisters” in the region.
Both leaders stressed the urgency of concrete initiatives and focused advocacy, saying time was running out on the so-called two-state solution. People of faith, they argued, cannot wait for politicians to resolve the pressing problems facing Palestinian Christians. The archbishops expressed fears that the exodus of Christians from the region could reduce the region to a kind of “Christian Disneyland.” Williams advocated a “template for pilgrimages” that would promote engagement by pilgrims in local churches.
Participants heard various dispatches on the state of Christians in Israel and Palestine. Lord Howell of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) spoke of how Christians often have little freedom to move between various towns, and how at least 200 families were divided because they could not obtain permits for travel. Some Christians from East Jerusalem who marry West Bank Christians (on the Palestinian side of the separation wall) must relocate to the West Bank. Howell maintained that the decrease in the Christian population sent the wrong message about pluralism in the region, and makes it harder to maintain the holy sites.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said it was vital the holy places did not end up—“like the Coliseum in Rome”— as archaeological sites. “The Holy Places are living testimonies which have around them a population, families with their schools, their cultural patrimony, their languages, their folklore, their artisans, handicrafts as well as hospitals,” said Tauran.
Addresses by Palestinians studying at Bethlehem University made clear that the rapid emigration of Christians from the West Bank is yoked to Israeli occupation. Israel’s security policies, above all the separation wall that hems in residents of Bethlehem and deprives them of more than 90 percent of their land, had caused the exodus of Christians. One student remarked that “three out of four” of the reasons Palestinian Christians emigrated had to do with the occupation, even as they expressed their determination to remain and fight for a democratic, pluralistic future. The question for the conference was how they could best be supported in that aim, seen by many as the key to peace. As the Williams put it, “we are not involved in a zero sum game,” emphasizing that the gathered delegates are “pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian and pro-peace.”