The forgotten minority: Holy Land Christians need help

02 Apr 2009

By The Record

Heroic Christians who choose to stay in the Holy Land to live out their vocation and identity cannot survive in the Islam and Judaism-dominated region without material and spiritual support of the universal Church, Australia’s Commissary of the Holy Land said.


A Palestinian boy looks around a pillar in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank. Photo: CNS Debbie Hill


By Anthony Barich

Friar Carl Schafer OFM of the Holy Land Commissariat said that the collections, taken up at Good Friday services throughout the Western world, helps Christians who make up two per cent of the population in the Holy Land.
“For them, survival as a minority in the midst of people of other faiths is not easy, especially because of ongoing political and religious conflict,” said the Friar, part of the Franciscan Order that has custody of the Holy Land.
He said that each day “unspeakable suffering” is caused by the area’s political and economic crisis. “This situation impresses upon all of us that there is an absolute and urgent need to support our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land,” he said.
“Despite their countless difficulties, these Christians offer day by day, and in silence, an authentic witness to the Gospel. They need the support of Christians in other parts of the world.”
The Catholic Church’s annual Collection for the Holy Land helps maintain Christian sites in the Holy Land, provides care for aged religious who spent their lives ministering in the land of Jesus and supports projects that help native Christians remain and thrive in the region.
The Friar noted that the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem, when he resigned in March 2008, urged Christians not to leave the Holy Land, despite the persecution.
“We are not crushed between two realities (Islam and Judaism,” he said. “Rather, we belong to these realities. We are Palestinians and there are also Christian Jews.
“A Christian aware of his vocation in the Holy Land does not feel crushed but feels at home. Christian emigration is dramatic.
“We tell people: ‘By going you leave behind your land and your vocation. You have received the vocation to be a witness to Jesus in his land’.”   
The collection is spent, for example, giving Catholics opportunities for work to support their families, “so they can live with dignity in their own native land and not be forced to emigrate, leaving the shrines frequented only by pilgrims and tourists”.
On behalf of the residents of the Holy Land, the Friar said he was “particularly grateful” to the Catholics of Australia “who give so generously each year to support the missionary work of the Church in the Holy Land”.
The Archdiocese of Perth was ranked third behind Melbourne and Sydney in the Good Friday collections of 2008, amassing $110,468.75 for the upkeep of churches and shrines in the Holy Land and to help the everyday existence of Christians who live in the region, despite the political and economic turmoil.
Of the other dioceses in Western Australia, the Diocese of Broome contributed $1981, Bunbury $10,350 and Geraldton $4445.
Franciscan Friars have been caring for the churches and shrines of the Holy Land as part of their everyday pastoral ministry for centuries.
But supporting the upkeep of churches and shrines in the area is fruitless, the Friar said, if its Christians were not looked after.
“Certainly, the stone fabric of the precious shrines needs constant attention, but what will they be without the continued loving presence and Christian witness of the ‘living stones’, the indigenous Christians?” he said
The Eastern Churches, he said, share the Franciscans’ concern and “stand in solidarity with Christians of the Holy Land and those through the Middle East”.
Cardinal Luigi Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, also appealed to bishops around the world to encourage parishes in their dioceses to support the cause. The Catholic communities in the Holy Land face serious problems, especially “the first is the absence of peace,” the cardinal said in his letter, which was published in Italian in the March 25 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. In the past year, he said, “the joy of Christmas was wounded by the violent resurgence of hostilities in the Gaza Strip. Among the numerous victims were many completely innocent children.”
Pope Benedict XVI is among the first “to constantly comfort the Christians and all inhabitants of the Holy Land with words and gestures of extraordinary care,” the cardinal said, and “his desire to go on pilgrimage in the footsteps of Jesus” is a clear sign of how important the Holy Land is to the Church.
“The open wound caused by the violence worsens the problem of emigration, which inexorably deprives the Christian minority of its best resources for the future. The land that was the cradle of Christianity risks ending up without Christians,” the cardinal wrote, noting that, in an October general audience talk about the writings of St Paul, Pope Benedict spoke about how almost 2000 years ago the apostle initiated a collection for struggling Christians in Jerusalem.
“The collection expressed the community’s debt to the mother church of Palestine, from which they had received the ineffable gift of the Gospel,” the Pope had said during the audience.


Christians in the Holy Land: a breakdown

THE approximately 180,000 Christians who live in the Holy Land (Israel and Palestine) are divided into the various Churches:
– The Greek Orthodox Church: 80,000 faithful. The separation from Rome took place in 1517, when the Turks occupied Palestine and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem became an ethnic Greek. Thus, whilst the faithful and the parish priests are Arabs, the majority of the high clergy and the monks (about 250 people) are Greek.
– The Greek Catholic Church: 60,000 faithful. Founded in about 1682-1697 and officially established in 1730, through the union in Rome of some Greek Orthodox from Lebanon and Upper Galilee.
– The Latin Church: 27,000 faithful, without counting the thousands of Latin Catholics from Asia, Africa, Latin America etc. who live in the country, legally or illegally.
– The Maronite Catholic Church: 5500 faithful, especially in Galilee.
– The Syrian Orthodox Church: 2000 faithful, especially in Bethlehem.
– The Syrian Catholic Church: 300 faithful.
– The Armenian Orthodox Church: 2000 faithful, especially in Jerusalem.
– The Armenian Catholic Church: 400 faithful.
– The Coptic Orthodox Church: 700 faithful.
– The Coptic Catholic Church: 100 faithful.
– The Ethiopian Orthodox Church: 100 faithful, or perhaps more.
– The Lutheran and Anglican Churches group together about 3,700 faithful.
NB: These Churches are considered the “official” churches of the Holy Land, whereas the myriad of Churches that were born from the various currents of the Reform are not; however; many of these do not have more than a few dozen members.
– Information courtesy of

Projects funded with help from the annual Good Friday collection, taken up in dioceses around the world in Catholic Churches, include:

– The restoration, maintenance and improvement of visitor facilities at the Shrine of the Visitation in Ain Karem, at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and at the archaeological site of the ancient town of Magdala.
– Improvements to a home in Jerusalem for aged religious who have dedicated their lives to serving Christians and pilgrims in the Holy Land.
– Providing 300 scholarships for students attending the Catholic-run Bethlehem University in the West Bank or Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israeli universities in Haifa or Bir Zeit, or the university in Amman, Jordan.
– Continuing a program that helps new university graduates enter the job market by teaming up with companies and paying part of the new graduates’ salaries during their first year of employment.
– Retraining workers who have lost their jobs and supporting artisans.
– Supporting the Franciscan Family Centre in Bethlehem and its work with poor families, with children experiencing a variety of difficulties and in the field of health care.
– Assisting parishes in the region restore their churches or build classrooms and meeting facilities.
– Helping young Catholic families buy or remodel apartments as an encouragement to stay in the Holy Land.
– Supporting the Franciscan Biblical Institute, the Franciscan Media Centre and the Magnificat Institute, a school of sacred music, in Jerusalem.
– Restoring the Convent of St Lazarus, including areas for welcoming pilgrims.
– Supporting a seismic survey on the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and installing a new lighting system for Holy Calvary; complete restoration of services in the zone of the Sanctuary of Gethsemane; restore the Cedron Valley between the Sanctuary and the ancient walls of Jerusalem and the preparation of spaces for prayer.
– Restoring a girls’ school in Bethlehem, as extra classes were added during rebuilding.
– Restoring the boundary wall of a kindergarten in Jericho that caters for 100 infants.
– Complete overhaul of the façade of the Emmaus-Queibeh pre-school (250 students).
– Restoring about 300 houses in the Old City of Jerusalem dating back to the Ottoman period which residents have been forced to abandon.