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Patriarch Emeritus

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Sabeel Conference 
Forgotten Christians of the Holy Land?

Christians of the Holy Land: who are we?
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.

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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. A larger number lives in the diaspora; they are Christians who have emigrated since the 19th century and until today. All of them are Arabs, Palestinians or Jordanians.

Hebrew-speaking communities and International Christian groups.
2. Besides this basic traditional Arab Christian presence in the Holy Land (Israel, Palestine, and Jordan), there is in Israel a Hebrew-speaking presence: Christian Hebrew-speaking communities, both Catholic and Protestant. To that must be added a large Russian presence which increased with the successive waves of Jewish immigration to Israel. According to various estimates given by Israeli sources, non-Jewish Russians in Israel could be four or five hundred thousand people. 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 or by a few priests exclusively dedicated to this pastoral service. At the same time, Jewish religious organizations are very active in “Judaizing” these non-Jewish Russians.

Additionally, there is a third Christian presence in the Holy Land, this one international, made up of workers and business people. It is approximately as large as the indigenous Christian presence, particularly in Israel.

I will limit my talk to the Arab Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land.

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We are an integral part of the Arab world.
3.  The reality in which we are presently living has the following characteristics:
First, we are an integral part of the Arab world and hence of 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 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 functioning, though very hesitatingly.  Nevertheless, it is an effort that will continue because all three religions are in need of it.

We live in a situation of conflict.
4. Second, as Christians in the Holy Land, we live in a situation of conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a military occupation imposed by the Israelis on the Palestinians, and a Palestinian resistance to this occupation in various ways, violent and non-violent.

Within this conflict, we Christians are at the same time Palestinians and Christians. As Palestinians and Christians, we say three complementary things.  First, occupation is an injustice that must stop. Therefore, 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 at the same time that we care for the well-being and for the security and peace of both peoples, Israelis and Palestinians.

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We Christian Palestinians in the Holy Land, are we forgotten?
5. Yes and no.
We are not forgotten by ever so many Christians who belong to various Churches around the world.  Indeed, we receive a lot of attention from many Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Churches. The important presence of pilgrims, in response to our frequent invitations, is a sign that we are not forgotten. Moreover, we receive so many messages of solidarity from Churches all around the world, and we are morally and materially supported by the great generosity of so many people and by numerous donations that allow our institutions and many of our Christians to keep functioning. We cannot forget, either, the advocacy conducted by the Churches, the WCC, the accompaniment program, and the divestment initiative adopted by some Churches but strongly opposed by others, despite the fact that it is an effort to limit war and bring peace and reconciliation. There is also the voice and the presence of the Holy See in Rome and of so many other Churches, with a special mention of the Churches of the United States and Great Britain…

Taking all this into consideration, we can say that we are not forgotten. But the fate and future of Christians do not depend only on messages of solidarity, on generous charity, and on limited advocacy. The present and future of Christians depend on the conflict itself: the longer it continues, the more endangered is their presence. The greatest contribution that can be made to Christians in the Holy Land is to help put an end to the conflict and to ask the Churches to intervene by calling for an end to the conflict.  We are speaking of a contribution to reconciliation. This is the proper action for all Churches, for, as St. Paul says: “He reconciled us to himself through Christ and he gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18).

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The Churches are called to exercise this ministry of reconciliation in the midst of this conflict here in the Holy Land between Israelis and Palestinians because the conflict is taking place in the land where the Holy Places are located and where the roots of Christianity itself are found, and because the Christian presence and its future are very seriously endangered by it.

Despite all the signs of solidarity mentioned above, it seems that all the Churches are not sufficiently aware of this ministry and of this obligation, either by negligence or by fear of involving themselves in the aspect of the conflict that concerns Judaism and the Jewish people.

Christians of the Holy Land, the Land of the Redemption itself, wait for more awareness, more courage, and more concerted and decisive action on the part of the Churches in order to bring reconciliation to all in this Land of the Redemption.

 
The political agendas
6. We are forgotten when it comes to the political leaders and to the political agendas for the region. We can say that the political agendas are indifferent to the survival or disappearance of Christians. Some political leaders have sometimes visited Church authorities in Jerusalem and paid some attention to their existence. Some US Congressmen, these days, have shown interest in our survival and believe we are endangered by our Muslim society. Others think we can be a disincarnated and purely religious community, belonging to nothing. They offer to help us, to protect us, as a special community, independently of the conflict, while the overall occupation, oppression and injustices are taking place. We say: uprooting us from our Palestinian society is not the way to help us. It is the way to kill us. We keep saying: we are human beings; we are part of our society, of those who die, of those who go to prison, and of those whose houses are demolished.  All these people are part of us, and we are part of every human being, of Muslims and Jews alike. We are part of this land. We are part of the conflict because it is not a conflict between Muslims and Jews; it is a conflict about the dignity of the human person, and about human rights and freedom.  Christians cannot and must not be set apart as mere spectators entitled to enjoy an “inhuman disembodied” life, while others are paying the price of freedom by their life or their daily suffering.

Again we say to those political leaders interested in helping Christians: you must understand that the best support you can offer us is to get involved in the process of reconciliation between the two peoples because this is the true and real condition for our survival, and this is our vocation and our mission in this land.

Our salvation is in our hands.
7. Concerning this relation between the Churches and ourselves, I want to add this: since our survival -- our salvation – is in our own hands, the salvation that comes to us from all the other Churches can truly help us.

The question of emigration, the question of our survival and of our future, involves our own re-education. It is a question of a coordinated catechesis so that all of us can become equally aware of our vocation and mission in this land. This means a catechesis that teaches our faithful that a truly authentic Christian life begins with worship in the presence of God.  It begins with a presence before God, a presence that sends us out from the church to our society, to the heart of the conflict.  It requires that we see ourselves as partners in all of the suffering that is taking place, in all of the heavy sacrifices that are being made. This also means a catechesis that teaches all those among us who are involved in direct political activity that their actions must be intimately linked to moments of worship and of presence before God, inside or outside the church.  They must not leave the church with denominational, sectarian, negative, or fanatical behaviors, but with a love and strength similar to God’s own love for all his creatures of all religions and nationalities, as well as with a more decided contribution to and sharing in all aspects of the life of our society.

For that, we need more coordination. It is true: we meet often as heads of Churches in Jerusalem. We talk about our situation, but we still need a clearer agenda that takes into consideration the roots of our life and the meaning of our witness to Jesus in His land. We need to know that, though we are a small number, we are not lost between two majorities.  We have our own vocation and mission, we have our full place in our society, and we share in the general obligation to establish peace and justice within it.

We can think perhaps of our need for a Christian synod of all the Churches in the Holy Land, for months and years of reflection in order to put together the rules of Christian living in this Holy Land, rules that clearly state how we relate to each other in terms of our basic Christian commandment of love, how we relate to all our brothers and sisters of different religions here in the land, and how we relate to our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world, as we ask them to support us in our vocation and in our mission to our own society.

Our future?
Many books have been published about us, Christians in the Holy Land or in the Middle East. Almost all these studies made by westerners are pessimistic about our future. They see us as disappearing in few generations. For them, the Christian presence is in the final stage of its struggle for survival within the Muslim Arab world.

          As for us, we say: a Christian vision of the future is essentially a vision of hope, a hope based on trust in the goodness of God as well as in the basic goodness of all human beings who are God’s creatures and children, “since it is in him that we live, and move, and exist” (Acts 17:28). Therefore, it is also a hope based on the daily efforts and struggles of men and women, as well as on our own efforts to foster among all Christians in this holy and difficult land more unity, love and faithfulness to our vocation and mission here.

With this, we will live, grow, and develop as best as we can. Some of us will leave. But those who remain will live and grow in love for each other and for all of our society.

+ Michel Sabbah, Patriarch

 

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