The Difficult Vocation of Holy Land Christians
The Christian communities of the Holy Land give witness to the Gospel in the Land of Jesus. Three hundred thousand Christians live in the Holy Land (Israel, Palestine and Jordan). Catholic churches include the Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean, and Latin-rite.
Christian Communities Under Stress. As with much of the rest of the Middle East, Christians in the Palestinian Territories and Israel face many difficulties, including discrimination, human rights abuses, and economic hardship. The long delay in concluding the Palestinian-Israeli peace process prolongs existing injustices and instills suspicion about the future, so many Christian Palestinians choose to emigrate to the Americas or Australia.
The most difficult conditions are in the Palestinian Territories, where people are subject to arbitrary rule by both the Israeli Defense Forces and various Palestinian security forces. Economic conditions are poor; the Palestinian economy has shrunk by some 30% since the signing of the Oslo agreement, many of whose provisions have yet to be implemented.
In Jerusalem, Palestinians -- Christians and Muslims -- are routinely denied permission to repair and expand existing dwellings or to build new homes. Under recent Israeli government practice, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem who go abroad for any length of time lose their residency permits, further reducing the already diminished Christian presence in the Holy City. In Israel proper, especially Galilee, emigration has increased due to discrimination against Arabs generally.
New Signs of Christian Unity. Holy Land Christians have begun to overcome their historic divisions and demonstrate increasing cooperation and solidarity. Over the last several years, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem have published some joint pastoral letters and public statements, including a notable 1994 memorandum on the future of Jerusalem and a 1998 protest against Israeli withdrawal of Jerusalem residency permits from Palestinians. Last November, Christian leaders joined together to close the Holy Places for two days in a protest against the Israeli government's acquiesence in the demands of radical Muslims to construct a mosque adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation.
Progress on Vatican-Israel Ties
The Holy See has sought to strengthen the long-term situation for the Church in the region with a series of agreements with Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. In 1993 the Holy See signed a Fundamental Agreement with the State of Israel endorsing UN commitments on religious liberty and freedom of conscience, establishing conditions for free operation of a full range of church institutions, and making common cause in the struggle against anti-Semitism. The Fundamental Agreement was followed by the opening of diplomatic relations in 1994. In 1995, the Holy See completed a parallel agreement with Jordan. A similar memorandum of understanding was recently signed with the Palestinian Authority. An additional agreement granting legal standing to Church institutions in Israel was ratified last year.
The Future of Jerusalem
As a city sacred to the three monotheistic religions, Jerusalem has both a unique and universal religious significance. Its sacred history makes it a place of encounter between God and humanity, but also of the mingling of believers from every corner of the earth; as such, Jerusalem possesses a vocation to be a symbol of the unity of the human family.
The future of Jerusalem is to be addressed in the "final status" negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The political dimension of these negotiations involves agreement on how Jerusalem is to be shared and/or divided between Israelis and Palestinians and how sovereignty over the city is to be arranged. On these issues, the Holy See has no specific position. It only holds up two general tests. The first is the principle of international law that no territory may be acquired by use of armed force. Second, to be morally adequate, the political-territorial settlement on Jerusalem must satisfy the particular, legitimate, and reasonable aspirations of both peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, and must respect the principles of justice.
The religious dimension of the negotiations involves preserving Jerusalem's uniquely religious character. This religious question is a matter for bilateral negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians, in close consultation with and with careful consideration of the rightful interests of the three religious communities Jewish, Christian, Muslim -- and of the world community. Insofar as it deals with the religious dimensions of Jerusalem, the final-status agreement ought to enjoy international guarantees. The Holy See has sought a "special statute" for Jerusalem that would preserve the unique religious character of the Holy City, and would secure the rights of the living religious communities there. (For more on this complicated and sensitive issue, see "Resources" below.)
Acts of Jubilee Solidarity
Support Youth and Families. In a recent Jubilee announcement, the Holy Father singled out support for youth and families of the Holy Land as a priority for the Jubilee Year. The need for housing continues to be especially serious. You can help provide aid to young people, so they can maintain hope for a future in their homeland, and assistance to families, so they are not pressured to emigrate through direct donations to Catholic Near East Welfare Association, 1011 First Avenue, New York, NY 10022; Catholic Relief Services, 209 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201; and the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem Patriarchatus Jerusalem, P.O. Box 14152, Latin Patriarchate Road, JERUSALEM.
Solidarity Pilgrimages. Consider making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for the Great Jubilee.
- The USCC Office of International Justice and Peace sponsors an annual pilgrimage (with CRS and the Dioceses of Springfield and Joliet, IL) and is sponsoring a second of two pilgrimages for bishops in September 2000.
- If you go on a pilgrimage, use it as an occasion to come to know Holy Land Christians and to establish ties of solidarity with them. The USCC's new Guidelines for Holy Land Pilgrimages provide detailed suggestions on how to conduct solidarity pilgrimages, as well as useful information about local contacts.
"The Future of Jerusalem," Statement by Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, chairman, USCC International Policy Committee (11/17/98) (www.usccb.org/sdwp)
Holy Land Pilgrimage Guidelines, USCC Committee on International Policy (3/99) (www.usccb.org/sdwp)
"The Holy See and the Middle East," Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran (3/10/99) (www.usccb.org/sdwp)
For Further Information: Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J., 202-541-3199 (ph); 202-541-3339 (fax)