Tuesday, 31 March 2009

As we enter deeper into the mystery of the cross our eyes keep turning to the land in which it was revealed. Here at St John’s we will have a retiring collection on Good Friday for Christians in the Holy Land. If you are a church leader and you are reading this I encourage you to do the same this Good Friday to support those Christians that still suffer where Jesus did.
But when we talk about Christians in the Holy Land, who are we exactly talking about? Marie-Armelle Beaulieu has pondered on this question. This is my précis of it.
The Church of the Holy Land is like a multi-coloured mosaic. It allows pilgrims from all over the world to contemplate the beauty of the Universality of the Church since it is in this land that all the faces of the only Church of God come together. Almost all the Christians of the Holy Land are Arabs. When pilgrims leave some room in their programme to meet local Christians, and they hear them praying in Arabic, invoking the name of Allah, they can’t resist asking the question: “When did you convert to Islam?”
The Arabic-speaker opposite them will smile out of politeness and look at them with sadness, because this question is hurtful. He is not a convert: the Arab Christians are the direct descendants of the Church of the Pentecost.The Arabs and their language existed well before Islam, the religion introduced by the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia, from the 7th century of the Christian era.
The extensive presence of Islam throughout the Middle East and the importance of the Arabic language in this religion mean that the Christians of the Middle East have fourteen centuries of life, history and culture in common with the Muslims. Their co-existence has not always been totally peaceful but on balance it is relatively stable although precarious. The same title of "local Christians" can also be claimed by the approximately 200-300 Hebrew-speaking Catholics (converts, the offspring of mixed marriages or foreigners who live, work and pray in Hebrew). Their culture is that of Israeli society
Christians in the Holy Land represent about 1.7% of the population. This percentage is constantly declining, due to a fairly low birth-rate and the increasingly large number of Christians who emigrate.
The approximately 180,000 Christians who live in the Holy Land (Israel and Palestine) are divided into the various Churches:
The Greek Orthodox Church has about 8000 members; it broke away from Rome in 1054 and in Jerusalem it did not clearly divide from Rome until 1517 when the Turks occupied Palestine and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch became an ethnic Greek. Thus, whilst the faithful and the parish priests are Arabs, the majority of the high clergy and the monks (about 250 people) are Greek.
The Greek Catholic Church: 60,000 faithful; founded in about 1682-1697 and officially established in 1730, through the union with Rome of some Greek Orthodox from Lebanon and Upper Galilee.
The Latin Church: 27,000 faithful, without counting the thousands of Latin Catholics from Asia, Africa, Latin America etc. who live in the country.
The Maronite Catholic Church: 5,500 faithful, especially in Galilee.
The Syrian Orthodox Church: 2,000 faithful, especially in Bethlehem.
The Syrian Catholic Church: 300 faithful.
The Armenian Orthodox Church: 2000 faithful, especially in Jerusalem.
The Armenian Catholic Church: 400 faithful.
The Coptic Orthodox Church: 700 faithful.
The Coptic Catholic Church: 100 faithful.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church : 100 faithful.
The Lutheran and Anglican Churches grouped together about 3,700 faithful.These Churches are considered the "official" churches of the Holy Land, whereas the myriad of Churches that were born from the various currents of the Reform are not; however, many of these do not have more than a few dozen members.
“Do the Christians in the West really think about us?” is the question that a young Arab Christian of Israel asked in a tone of anguish.
The doubt hovers in the air. The international press tends to consider Israel and Palestine and in general the whole of the Middle East, almost exclusively from the political point of view. Therefore, as thoughts and solidarity are also oriented on political grounds, the Christians, who form such a minority, feel forgotten by the Christian West, whilst they have the perception that the Arab-Muslim world supports the Muslims, and that Jews all over the world support the Jews of Israel. Where are the Christians of the world to support these Christians, with their prayers, visits and humanitarian aid?
When Middle Eastern Christians look to the West and to its questions, especially those on their coexistence with Islam, they would be able to present an analysis of their own, based on centuries of experience, but who is interested in it? His Beatitude Fouad Twal says that “the Christians of the Holy Land have a spiritual mission, a particular vocation and a role that has to be played where they live: they are the living witnesses of the events of the Salvation. They literally surround the Holy Places with their presence, they make them come alive with their prayers and their love, preventing them becoming mere archaeological sites or museums. They have greatly suffered to maintain this role, and they are proud of it. Despite the affronts of history and men, despite the wars and endless conflicts, they have resisted and continue to resist.
The various Churches work together closely and try to overcome the barriers of the rites, to give a Christian answer to the problems that surround them on all sides. Because, when questions touch on human rights and dignity, like the question of Justice or Peace, there cannot be a Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant answer: the answer must be Christian.The Christians of the Holy Land also play the role of a bridge between the East and West, and a bridge has to be solidly anchored to both sides. In fact, these Christians are anchored to the East, which is their historical, linguistic, cultural, psychological and political environment, but they are also linked to the West by their faith, their spiritual heritage and their intellectual openness.
The Christians of the Holy Land and the other Christian Arabs are the only ones who can play this role, and this is why they have to be supported.

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