With the world’s eyes on Gaza, few are aware that Palestinians in the West Bank are also suffering from the social and economic effects of the war. Aid to the Church in Need has been supporting Christians in the Holy Land since the very start of the war.
An initial aid package was approved for use between October and December, and now a second one has been approved for projects from January to April, for a combined total of close to $760,000. ACN’s director of projects, Marco Mencaglia, explains what the organization is doing to help.
The war in the Holy Land is focused on Gaza. What is the situation for Palestinians, and Christians in particular, in places like the West Bank and Jerusalem?
It is true that the current fighting is taking place especially in Gaza, but unfortunately, the effects of the war are felt all over the region, and Christians, who are a minority but still a significant community, with around 45,000 people in the West Bank and 10,000 in East Jerusalem, are being affected in a very direct way.
Most Christians living in the West Bank, or in East Jerusalem, work in the tourism sector. Tourism is, of course, a major industry in the Holy Land, and many Christians make a living as tour guides, hotel workers, shop owners or personnel, and, of course, craftsmen, producing religious items that pilgrims buy when they visit.
But with the outbreak of the war, all tourism has come to a standstill. As a result, a major part of the Christian population is out of work and has lost all sources of income.
Then, there are also several hundred skilled and unskilled Christian workers who used to travel into Israel every day to work. With the borders closed, this has now become impossible as well. These people are not being bombed, but nonetheless, their livelihoods are at risk.
What sort of numbers are we talking about?
According to our partners on the ground, thousands of Christians lost their jobs due to the paralysis of the tourism sector. These include more than 1,600 hotel employees; more than 1,200 craftsmen from the workshops that supplied the souvenir shops; around 900 employees of the souvenir shops themselves; close to 300 tour guides; and about 500 restaurant employees. In many cases, these people were the breadwinners in their families, so it is not just one person who has lost his or her income, but maybe 4, 5, or 6.
What is ACN doing to help?
An easy solution would be to dole out money to families facing economic hardship, but that cannot work as a long-term solution. In less than two decades, this is at least the third time that these communities have gone through this. In 2006, because of the war between Israel and Hezbollah; more recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic; and now, because of the war in Gaza. And there is no indication that the war is coming to an end and that tourists can return to the Holy Land.
Fortunately, during the pandemic, our main partner on the ground, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, began projects aimed at building skills and fostering employment, to make the community more resilient in crisis conditions.
For example, the Catholic Church runs a vast network of schools, homes for the elderly, and other institutions. Naturally, these require constant maintenance and service. Part of the project that ACN will be funding from January onwards involves training young Christians in technical trades so they can then work for Christian institutions, or elsewhere, and earn a living.
We will also be helping to train people to start their own businesses, or to invest in skills that allow them to work remotely, so they are not so dependent on the political and security situation.
Rather than give them money, we are helping to provide them with skills and a means to earn a living. This is much better in the long run, as it helps keep communities anchored in their homes and dissuades them from emigrating.
But will ACN also provide more immediate aid?
Yes. These are medium- to long-term projects, but some degree of immediate aid is also necessary. We have offered this since the beginning of the war, and we will continue to provide subsidies in the form of food coupons for families and grants for small businesses that, with some help, can still operate in this environment and can continue to pay their employees’ salaries.
We are also helping to provide medical support to people with chronic diseases, who are facing a particularly difficult time, as well as grants for students, so they can continue to pursue their education. Finally, in some cases, we are helping to cover rent, so that families can continue to live in their homes and not be evicted. This is especially important in Jerusalem, where real estate costs are very high, and if Christians are evicted, they will find it very difficult to remain in the city.
How much money does that entail?
Since the beginning of the war, we have told our partners on the ground in the Holy Land that we will not abandon them, neither in material help nor in spiritual aid, and we intend to fulfill that promise. We have already sent $200,000 worth of aid, and the most recent projects that we have approved, for Gaza and for the West Bank and Jerusalem, come to a total of $550,000. And we will be attentive to the needs of the local Church in case of other emergencies that may occur during 2024.