The state of Christianity in Israel
The state of Christianity in Israel
By DANIEL K. EISENBUD
Christian clerics discuss challenges facing religion’s various sects and
Leading Christian clerics of varying denominations expressed concern
Monday about challenges facing Christians living in Israel, including
limited housing and job opportunities, a general misunderstanding about
them among Israelis, and the peace process.
Luminaries within the Lutheran, Latin, Greek Orthodox and Evangelical
sectors met with international journalists in Jerusalem’s Old City to
discuss Christianity’s current state of affairs in the Holy Land. The
meeting was sponsored by the Government Press Office.
According to a 2012 report by the Central Bureau of Statistics there are
158,000 Christians living in the country, representing two percent of
the total population.
Of that population, approximately 80 percent are Arabs, with the
remainder mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union who immigrated
under the Law of Return.
At Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem Monday morning Father Pietro Felet, of
the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, said the Christian
community living in Israel is having trouble defining itself due to its
“We’re having some difficulties in defining ourselves in the Holy Land,”
said Felet. “We are not a national church, we are a mixture of Arab
Christians, Hebrew-speaking Christians and Christians from the former
Soviet Republic. About 45% are Catholic, 40% are Orthodox and 20% fall
under the category of ‘other.’” Most Christian Arabs live in northern
Israel, the CBS report states. The cities with the largest Christian
populations are Nazareth, with 22,400, Haifa with 14,400, Jerusalem with
11,700 and Shfaram with 9,400.
While the Christian population is growing at a rate of 1.3% annually, it
lags behind Jewish and Muslim growth, which is 1.8% and 2.5%,
respectively, according to the report.
Due to the fractured nature of the Church, Felet emphasized the
importance of engendering greater understanding of the Christian
presence in Israel.
“Above all, we are living in a pilgrimage place, because from here all
things begin,” he said.” Understanding is the basis for coexistence and
our goal is to promote further understanding of the Christian presence
in the Holy Land.”
Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, of St. Savior’s Monastery in the Old
City, discussed the historically tenuous relationship between Christians
and Jews, although he noted a marked improvement over the past 50 years.
“The history between the Church and Judaism is well known,” said
Pizzaballa. “In the last 50 years relations have changed dramatically
for the better, but the past was painful – was difficult.”
“Of course the problems are always there because you can’t change the
problems of 2,000 years in 50 years,” he added.
While Pizzaballa conceded that “many things remain to be done,” he noted
that the Catholic Church has an 800-year presence in Israel and
therefore must be treated with greater “legitimacy.”
“Catholics are not foreigners here, they are citizens of Israel,” he
said. “We want cultural relations to improve from all aspects of our
lives. We know that what happens in Israel is important for the Catholic
Church around the world.”
Pizzaballa cited the need for a strengthened relationship between the
church and local authorities to provide better housing, professional and
education opportunities for Catholics. Although he said the education
level among Christians is high, many still are finding it difficult to
find sustainable jobs.
Indeed, the employment rate for Christians stands at 54% – 63.8% for men
and 45.3% for women – according to CBS. Meanwhile, the national average
is 75% and 66%, respectively. Among Christian Arabs, the rate is 48% –
with men at 59.5% and women at 37.7%.
“One of the problems for the Catholic Church in Jerusalem is land and
housing, which is very expensive,” he said. “To get more land that means
money, but for a normal family, the prices are almost impossible [to
While Pizzaballa said the Church has built hundreds of housing units for
Christians – including 400 in the Old City’s Christian Quarter, with
projects planned in Jaffa and Nazareth – it is struggling to provide
more, due to pronounced fiscal limitations.
Still, he said he hopes current negotiations between the Church and
State of Israel will lead to better living standards for Christians shortly.
“There’s a negotiation now to arrive at an agreement about the life of
the Church in Israel concerning economic and fiscal aspects,” he said.
“It’s a fundamental agreement about all the aspects of life for
Christians, and we are getting very close. So I am encouraged.”
In terms of hate crimes against Christians, including vandalism of holy
sites, Pizzaballa said the Church has received support from the Israeli
Police and authorities, but added that more needs to be done.
“If you don’t denounce these issues when they happen they will
continue,” he said. “We need to work on this.”
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal said he believes the best hope
for a prospering Christian community here is education.
“I believe in education because all the children should study together
and play together to create a new generation that has respect for one
another,” he said.
“I often say that Jerusalem does not belong to anybody – we all belong
In terms of the challenges Christians face in Israel, Twal said dialogue
is the best means of forging improvements.
“As you all know, we are all for dialogue,” he said. “The first person
who started the dialogue was God, through prophets to humanity.”
However, Twal said politicians are obstacles to improved relations, due
to the frequent closings of Jaffa Gate and the New Gate in the Old City
resulting from numerous tourist and sporting events.
“All the good intentions we have in our dialogue are ruined because of
the politicians involved,” he said. “I’m not very happy. Why? Because
Jerusalem is holy for everyone.”
“[The politicians] must stop closing Jaffa Gate and the New Gate, which
prevents pilgrims from visiting,” he continued. “We don’t need all these
tourist events. I’m grateful that they open the door for me, but I wish
they would open it to everyone.”
Regarding peace, Twal said he was pleased there is progress in
negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis – and that the European
community is getting more proactively involved in the process – but
emphasized the necessity of improving coexistence immediately.
“If we think about all of our children in 20 years, we have to change
something now,” he said.
“They cannot live like this for eternity. We want peace for everyone,
and it’s impossible to think about peace for one group and not the other.”
Lutheran World federation president Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan – the
first Palestinian elected to head a universal church – said there is an
alarming level of ignorance about Christianity in Israel due to
generalizations propagated by the media.
“When I read in the Hebrew media about Christianity, I wonder if I’m
Christian,” he said. “One of the things we face as Christians are
generalizations about us being persecuted in Palestine or Israel. There
are issues between us [and the governments], but please don’t say
‘persecution.’” Younan went on to denounce travel restrictions for
Christians coming from Bethlehem and Ramallah to the capital.
“Everybody wants to be in Jerusalem. Why can’t a person cross with
dignity?” he said. “Why must [soldiers] take away their dignity? This is
Younan also echoed Pizzaballa’s sentiments regarding prohibitive housing
costs and limited employment opportunities preventing Christians from
securing stable lives.
“It’s very essential that people can afford to live in Jerusalem – the
center of their lives,” he said.
“But the economic situation is very hard, even though most of the people
are well-educated. The Church tries to help, but we are not an employer,
we are a church.”
With respect to peace negotiations, Younan said while the church
encourages dialogue, he denounces further settlement construction and
talks that do not address the pre-1967 borders.
“We believe in dialogue of the 1967 borders, that settlements should
stop and right of return for refugees be granted,” he said. “We have
doubts whether talks are serious or not. We don’t want the Americans to
pressure us – we want to show that there is willingness for peace.”
Younan added that Jerusalem must be shared, without the “army dividing it.”
“I travel all over the world and everyone asks me about Jerusalem,” he
said. “And they think that if there isn’t a just situation for
Jerusalem, than nothing will work.”
“We need a win-win situation and we must deal with this difficult
situation now,” he continued.
“Extremism will drop once there is a peace process. There is no other
option – war is not an option.”
Younan concluded that he believes that mutual recognition of opposing
groups’ humanity must be the first step in the peace process.
“Only then will this truly be the land of ‘milk and honey,’” he said.