Aid should not be based on religion, but Christians face specific challenges

Breda O’Brien – Sun Jun 9 2024 – Irish Times

Bethlehem is a ghost town. It almost entirely depends on tourism, or more accurately, pilgrimage, to the place tradition says is the birthplace of Jesus. Since October 7th, no foreign visitors have wanted to risk visiting the West Bank.

Tourism figures in Bethlehem have reflected the general state of Israel-Palestinian relations. They rose with the Oslo I Accords in 1993, dropped precipitously after the collapse of peace talks in 2000 and the second Intifada, gradually improved and then were hit by a factor no one foresaw – Covid-19.

When things were good, Bethlehem had anywhere between one and two million tourists, particularly at Christmas. Last year, it cancelled all festivities and held only religious services, partly as a pragmatic response to falling numbers and partly in solidarity with the bombardment of Gaza. Today, Manger Square is eerily silent. Shops and hotels are closed. A sense of hopelessness prevails.

It is not that life in Bethlehem was all that wonderful before October 7th, either for Muslims or Christians. In the 1950s, Christians comprised more than 80 per cent of Bethlehem’s population. By 2016, it was down to 12 per cent.

Jerusalem is only ten miles from Bethlehem but access is subject to Israeli permits for Bethlehem’s residents, whether or not they have family there. Jerusalem is bustling, but not with Christian pilgrims. Instead, Jewish visitors are coming in solidarity from all around the world.

While, on paper, Israel upholds complete religious freedom, the situation on the ground is different, particularly for those who wear Christian religious garb in Jerusalem. Attacks on Christians such as spitting, physical violence and graffiti on churches have multiplied in recent years.

Journalist Michael Kelly, the newly appointed director of the Irish branch of Aid to the Church in Need, has witnessed spitting attacks. When far-right nationalist and religious extremists marched this week through the Old Muslim Quarter, they were also targeting Christians.

Radical Jewish elements have been emboldened by ultranationalists in Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, like Itamar Ben-Gvir, the internal security minister, whose brief includes the police force. He addressed the marchers, assuring them that “Jerusalem is ours”.

The situation of Christians in Gaza is far worse. There are about 550 Christians holed up in dire conditions in the Catholic Holy Family Church. This includes 140 children, of whom about 54 have disabilities. The latter are cared for by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.

Last December, mother and daughter Nahida and Samar Anton were killed in the Holy Family compound by IDF (Israel Defence Force) snipers, while 7 others were wounded. Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, reported in May after a visit that 36 in the community had died, from snipers, bombings or lack of medical care for injuries or underlying conditions.

About 140 Christian families are sheltering along with Muslims in the Orthodox Church of St Porphyrius, which was bombed by Israel last October, killing 16 people.

There have always been tensions between Christians in Israel, with particularly unedifying squabbles over the supervision of holy sites. Muslim families are keyholders to several famous pilgrim churches because the Christian denominations cannot agree on who should hold the keys. Ironically, the need for a common identity in crisis has led to much more co-operation in practical terms among Christians.

However, a new division has arisen. Nearly three-quarters of Christians in Israel speak Arabic, but there are also about 100,000 Catholic immigrants and asylum seekers, who started migrating to Israel in the 1990s from the Philippines, Kerala and Sri Lanka to work primarily as carers and cleaners.

Since 2021, these have been under the care of a vicariate established by the Vatican for Hebrew-speaking Catholics. Some of them fly under the radar, unwilling to draw the attention of their employers to their Christian identity and meeting in secret for liturgies. Many of their children have been born in Israel, speak Hebrew and identify with the state of Israel, leading to understandable tensions with Arabic-speaking Christians.

While the arrival of Hebrew-speaking Christians in one way helps the numbers in a church facing so many challenges, it does not change the fact that the oldest Christian communities in the world are under severe stress.

It is believed that there are more Palestinian Christians in Santiago, Chile, than there are at home. At least five successive generations have fled to Chile, where they are a powerful pro-Palestine lobby. While numbers of Christians in Israel have risen in recent years to 1.9 per cent of the population, at the end of the Ottoman Empire it was 11 per cent.

Christians in Israel are typically well-educated, especially women, who feature strongly in graduate and postgraduate education. Many speak three or four languages, which creates greater opportunities for emigration, and who can blame them?

As the Irish State lobbies on behalf of Palestine, it should be mindful of the Christian minority in Israel and Palestine. Of course, aid should not be based on religion but Christians face specific challenges. Bethlehem and Gaza are home to some of the oldest Christian communities in the world. It would be tragic to see their churches become empty museums through western indifference.

Breda O’Brien – Sun Jun 9 2024 – Irish Times