Part 2 of Israel: Christians in Crisis - Faithful under pressure
Bethlehem – behind the prison-like walls
A miserable fate of a different kind is blighting the lives of Christians in Bethlehem, the city seven miles south of Jerusalem, which is fast disappearing behind an 8m high wall erected by the Israeli authorities in the latest stage in the struggle over the future of the West Bank.
For the region’s 60,000 Christian community, the wall looks set to crush the first shoots of re-growth in the business crucial to their livelihood – pilgrimages and tourism.
The start of the Second Intifada, late in 2000, spelled disaster for Bethlehem’s maze of shops and handicraft businesses, as conflict broke out yet again, causing tourism to dry up.
Now, with tourism beginning to recover, the Christians had hoped for a change in their fortunes but the wall is set to limit tourists entering Bethlehem.
The car journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem used to be no more than five minutes and now with checkpoints and security checks it can take up to three hours. At best, tourists are expected to make short day trips to Bethlehem, a far cry from the days when they spent several nights there.
For Christians in Bethlehem traveling outside their home city has been difficult for many years and the wall is set to make it even more problematic. It effectively sounds the death knell for anyone commuting from Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Nor can Christians in the area speak up for themselves because they are being drowned out by the growth in the numbers of Muslims. This combined with the emigration of Christians means that within 25 years the proportion of Christians in Bethlehem has hemorrhaged by up to 50 percent – now Christians represent only one in 10 people.
For Christian youth especially, morale is at an all-time low. In a survey conducted a few months ago, 75 percent of young people were quoted as saying that given the choice they would leave the country within 24 hours.
The stagnation of businesses is placing a huge burden on Christian families and many feel the wall will effectively imprison them in their own towns and villages.
While the wall is still being built, people scurry like rats through breaks in the structure, crossing from Palestinian-held areas to Israeli ones hoping not to be arrested or even shot.
ACN staff met Christian families struggling to keep their religious souvenir shops open. They reported on how at times it seems the only callers at their shops are job seekers.
The Zablah family, Ramon and Katie, and their sons and one daughter, live upstairs in their semi-detached house and down below is given over to their small rosary manufacturing business.
Taking a break from the lathe, which carves rosary beads out of strips of olive wood, Mrs Zablah bemoaned the virtual collapse in trade. She explained how relatives and friends rally round to help each other provide enough food and warmth.
While many Christians in Israel have emigrated, Mrs Zablah told of her conviction that her community should stay in the land that has been home to their families right back to the time of Christ.
Cradling 18-month-old son, Ehad, she said: “It is a very sad situation but we are determined to stay here.”
Aid to the Church in Need is supporting these families and encouraging sales of their rosaries but there are concerns that for these families it could be too little, too late.
Faith is very important to these families. Arlette is now in her 60s and works at a school for traumatized youngsters.
She said: “What makes me feel very anxious is to see the wall. When I see Rachel’s Tomb and how it looks now with the wall around it, I think “Hallas”. This is the end. There is no solution.
“My faith inspires me in everything that I do. For me, without my faith, I would be lost. I believe that Jesus will never forget us.”
Ramallah – Christians caught in the cross-fire
“All the Muslims like to come to this town. Little by little the Christians leave because they cannot live with the Muslims. There are some fanatics who do not like the fact that we exist.”
These are the words of Fr Nazaih, the long-time parish priest of Ramallah, the headquarters of Palestinian rule.
He explained how an anti-Christian bias was building in this town, 15km north of Jerusalem.
Fr Nazaih reported on the bitterness that still exists several years after Muslim fanatics stole Christian land next to the church. There they wanted to build a mosque.
He said: “They came with tractors and burst into the place. They broke the walls of the houses. We did not realize what was happening. They took everything. Even the governor could do nothing.”
The growth of militancy among Muslims has caused a mass exodus from a town which up to 1948 and the creation of Israel had been entirely Christian.
Fr Nazaih said that of the many thousands of Christian families present in 1948, only a few hundred remain. Up to 40,000 Christians, he said, have gone to the USA.
But there is some hope
Despite all the problems for the Christian communities, there remain signs of real hope.
While emigration of Christians continues, marriage and birth rates have gone up, encouraging some to be more optimistic about the long term future of the Christian community.
The hope of improving vital training needs is growing too in some parts, In the face of huge, unrelenting opposition from the Israeli authorities, Greek Catholic priest Fr Elias Chacour runs an expanding school and college for 4,000 students in Ibillin, in the Galilee region in northern Israel.
The establishment, called Mar Elias Educational Institutions, is a beacon of hope for partnership between Christians and Muslims and provides some of the best training opportunities in the area.
Meantime, organisations such as the Jerusalem Council for Jewish-Christian Relations are working to breakdown barriers between Jews and Christians.
JCJCR director Daniel Rossing described meetings between Jews and Christians both at grass root village community level and at more senior levels of government, which were working slowly to remove prejudice but he explained “there is still a long way to go”.
Photo: Rosaries under production in a family home in Bethlehem
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need is a registered charity dedicated to the support of persecuted and poverty-stricken Christians.
Founded in 1947 by Fr Werenfried van Straaten, whom Pope John Paul II named “An Outstanding Apostle of Charity”, the organisation is now at work in about 130 countries throughout the world, especially Eastern Europe.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, more than 42million Aid to the Church in Need Child’s Bibles have been distributed worldwide.
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