stemma logo

Patriarch Emeritus

Pastoral Letters






Christians in the Holy Land

Who are we today?

1. We are 13 traditional Churches in the Holy Land: five Orthodox (Greek, Armenian, Copt, Syrian and Ethiopian), six Catholic (R.C. Latin, Greek Catholic, Maronite, Armenian, Syrian, and Chaldean), and two Protestant (Anglican and Lutheran). As Churches, we all have ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the same three countries: Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Moreover, the Latin Patriarchate has jurisdiction over Cyprus.

In the three countries, Israel, Palestine and Jordan, the total number of Christians is about 400,000, half of whom live in Jordan, the other half in Palestine-Israel. Catholics, including R.C. Latins, Greek Catholics, and members of the other Eastern Catholic Churches, number about 170,000.

All these Christians are Arabs, Palestinians or Jordanians. They belong to the Arab culture and history.

Palestinian and Jordanian Christians in Palestine, Jordan and in the diaspora number some 600,000, or 12 % of the total Palestinian and Jordanian population in Palestine, Jordan and in the world.

2. Besides this basic traditional Arab Christian presence in the Holy Land (Israel, Palestine, and Jordan), there is a Hebrew-speaking presence: Christian Hebrew-speaking communities, both Catholic and Protestant. To that must be added a large Russian presence which came with the successive waves of Jewish immigration to Israel.
According to the various estimates given by Israeli sources, non-Jewish Russians in Israel could be four or five hundred thousand. Non-Jewish means that they are either Christians or they have Christian roots. Varied, but limited, pastoral work is carried out among this population by monasteries in Israel (Trappists, Benedictines, Salesians, Little Brothers and Sisters of Bethlehem of St Bruno), or by a few priests exclusively dedicated to this pastoral service. At the same time, Jewish religious organizations are very active in “judaizing” all of these non-Jewish Russians. Additionally, there is a third presence, this one international, made up of workers and business people. It is approximately as large as the indigenous Christian presence, particularly in Israel and Jordan.

I will limit my talk to Arab Christians, Palestinians and Jordanians, in the three countries, Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

3.  The reality in which we are living presently has the following characteristics:
First characteristic, we are an integral part of the Arab world, even though some of us are not Arabs, for example the Armenians who have lived for such a long time in the Arab world that they speak Arabic as well as Armenian, their mother tongue.  Also, they have remained loyal not only to the Armenians, as an ethnic and Christian group, but also to the Arab country in which they live.

Keeping these nuances in mind, it is important to note this basic characteristic of Eastern Christians: we belong to the Arab world and hence to the Arab and the Muslim world. We are a part of it, and we are sent to it by God. As Arab Christians in the Holy Land, we are called to be witnesses to Jesus in His land, in our Arab Muslim society as well as in the Israeli Jewish society. In order to do that, we must dialogue with both Muslims and Jews. In the last few years, a Council of Religious Leaders in the Holy Land, comprising Christians, Jews and Muslims, was created. It is still functioning, though very hesitatingly.  Nevertheless, it is an effort that will continue because all three religions are in need of it.

4. Second characteristic, Christians of the Holy Land, we live in a situation of conflict: the Israeli Palestinian conflict. It consists of a military occupation imposed by the Israelis on the Palestinians, and of the Palestinian resistance to this occupation in various ways, violent and non-violent. This conflict has an impact on the entire region, as well as on all Christians in the region.

The conflict is not religious. It is a political and economic conflict between two peoples, but one in which religious feelings are nevertheless very present. Religion is even used by some either to justify political positions or to give more impetus to the struggle. Jerusalem is at the heart of this conflict because it is a Holy City for Jews, Christians and Muslims and a national symbol for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Within this conflict, we Christians are at the same time Palestinians and Christians. As Palestinians and Christians, we say three things, which are complementary.  First, occupation is an injustice that must stop. Occupation must be rejected. We must share in all the sacrifices necessary to regain our freedom and bring the occupation to an end. Resistance to occupation is a duty and a right. Second, resistance can be violent or non-violent. We, as Christians, call for non-violent resistance. Third, our position is based on the following fundamentally Christian and human principles: all human beings are equal in dignity before God. They all have the same rights and the same duties. No one, for religious or political reasons, should be subjugated by the other. Everyone has the right to live in security and to choose their own type of independent government, Israelis and Palestinians alike. Therefore, in this conflict, we call for an end to the Occupation, declaring that we care for the well-being and for the security and peace of both peoples, Israelis and Palestinians.

5. The situation today
During July and part of August this year 2006, there was the war in Lebanon. Also, for months, violent Israeli military action continues in Gaza, as a reprisal for the taking of an Israeli soldier as prisoner. In all Palestinian towns and villages, since the year 2000 and until today, daily Israeli incursions demolish Palestinian houses, take Palestinian prisoners, and kill others. At the same time, there are violent reactions by Palestinian militias.

The official Palestinian Authority is insisting on holding peace talks. The Israelis are taking their time; they prefer to go on with their reprisals in the Palestinian Territories until all manifestations of violence stop. They do not seem to be in a hurry to have peace talks or peace.

The social aspect of this situation: the “wall” surrounding the Palestinian towns has transformed these towns into big ghettoes or prisons. The “wall” and the Israeli military checkpoints make social, economic, and human Palestinian life day after day more and more difficult.

There are many voices and movements in Israel calling for the cessation of all violence and for the resumption of peace talks, but they are not numerous enough to impose a new direction on the conflict. The louder voices remain the ones that prefer to go on with the reprisals and with the direct violent repression of Palestinians.

What is the Israeli agenda in this conflict? It is hard to know. What is declared is the need for security. But all military actions taken so far have led to more insecurity. What is the agenda of the international community? It is less clear. From what we have lived and seen until now, we can say that we have had many declarations, analyses, talks and partial agreements in Madrid, Oslo, Camp David… With all of that, we are at the same point: we continue to live in conflict, under occupation, and in human conditions that are worsening day after day with ongoing violence, demolitions, deaths, hatred, and insecurity, all of which create a harsh economic and social life.

What should be done? To engage firmly and decidedly in peace talks in order to resolve the core problem, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This alone will produce security and give birth to a new phase and to a new life in the relations between the two peoples. Moreover, it will give peace to the region and to the world.

6. Our Christian life
The Latin Patriarchate has 63 parishes throughout the entire diocese. The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land serves 10 of them, the Carmelites one. 90 diocesan priests are working in the 52 remaining parishes and in the various activities of the Patriarchate. The clergy is rather young. We also have a flourishing seminary which produces an average of 2-3 new priests every year.

        In every parish, the Latin Patriarchate has a school in which many goals are sought: human and religious education, ecumenical and interfaith contacts with the parents of the students, priestly vocations for the diocesan clergy and for some religious congregations. Schools have a primordial importance in our pastoral work. Therefore, among our financial needs, this field is one of our priorities.

7. Our future as Christians in the Holy Land
Many studies done by westerners are pessimistic about our future. They see us disappearing in few generations. Appearances support this pessimistic view. It seems as though the Christian presence is in the last stage of its struggle for survival within the Muslim Arab world: it seems to be in the stage of its final disappearance.

Emigration began during the last century. Today, Arab Palestinian Christians in Latin America, who emigrated there in the 19th century, are far more numerous than they are in their original homeland. The same is true of Arab Palestinian Christians in North America, the United States and Canada. The same reasons that led to their emigration at that time are still present today, though in a different way: economic and social difficulties compound the current political instability.

Some American observers and congressmen insist on a “presumed” Muslim persecution of Christians as the main cause of the emigration. It is true that difficulties exist in our Palestinian society, but the main reason is that the Occupation prevents the creation of a strong public authority. By way of comparison, in Jordan where there is a strong government, the same incidents do not occur.

Moreover, the lack of even-handedness in relations between peoples on the international level, inequality in the distribution of wealth, and international wars and interventions in other peoples’ affairs, in which the Muslim world feels that it is oppressed by the Western (= Christian) world, have all given birth to various Muslim resistance movements, extremists and moderates alike, that have a direct effect on relations between Muslims and Christians.

Conclusion, our future?
We will live, grow and develop as best we can. Some of us will leave. But those who remain will live and grow. As Church, we insist on our work in the schools and on an authentic catechetical education, based on faith, and nourished by a deep spiritual life in which Christians find the strength they need to share in all aspects of their society.

The existing school system is quantitatively adequate, but it needs to be improved from the catechetical point-of-view. It needs various technical improvements on the scientific level, although in the three countries in which we are present, it is proved that the scientific performance of our schools is among the best. What is seriously needed is the renewal of our catechetical education which should stress even more the direct active correlation between personal piety and true love that contributes to the building of society in all its forms and at all times, regardless of whether there is conflict or peace, death, prison, demolitions, refusal or resistance, or various disturbances that are part of life in a political and military conflict.

We need to prepare qualified Christians who can respond to the basic needs of their society: in dialogue with other religions, in resolving conflicts, in the media, in the economic world, and in some of the essential new sciences that are needed to build any modern society.

With this, we continue our work, our reflection, and our prayer in order to be faithful to our call to accompany Christians in the Holy Land, and to accompany with our Christian love every human being in that Land.

We know, you know that, as members of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, you are our partners in this vocation and in this obligation to educate the Christians in the Holy Land and to give a new face to the land of the Lord, so that it can truly become for the world and for itself an authentic land of reconciliation, peace and justice.

                                                        + Michel Sabbah, Patriarch
Linz, September 29, 2006

Home Page