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The state of Christianity in Israel

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.jpost.com/National-News/The-state-of-Christianity-in-Israel-320670 The state of Christianity in Israel By DANIEL K. EISENBUD 07/22/2013 Christian
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 23, 2013

      The state of Christianity in Israel

      Christian clerics discuss challenges facing religion’s various sects and
      peace process.

      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
      numerous denominations.

      “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
      to Jerusalem.”

      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
      not acceptable.”

      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.
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