‘Soon there will be no Christians left’
The Patriarch of Jerusalem tells Ed West that the only thing that will keep the faithful in the Holy Land is a lasting peace.
'Thank you for this interview, I hope you can help us through your good influence on the news," says the man opposite me, His Beatitude Fouad Twal, Patriarch of Jerusalem.
It's not often one meets a man just one rung below the Pope in the pecking order, or the man who leads the oldest Christian community on earth, so his modesty is touching, but the Patriarch of Jerusalem is a warm and charming man. But one with a depressing message.
"We were the first Christian community in the world. We were not converted to Islam, though lots of people were converted by force. And soon - and it is important - there will be a Christian population no more!"
Indeed. At a speech in Westminster Cathedral this month he made this depressing prediction: "From limiting movement and ignoring housing needs to financial taxation burdens and infringing on residency rights, Palestinian Christians do not know where to turn. The number of Jerusalem Christians, for example, is expected to fall from 10,000 to 5,300 in the coming seven years, if these policies are carried out at the same pace."
Things are very bad for the oldest Christian community on earth - comprising 10 per cent of British Palestine in 1948, they make up just two per cent of the Israel/Palestine area today, and are continually leaving for Europe, Australia, the United States and Latin America.
Being disproportionately middle-class and highly skilled, Palestinian Christians are quite welcome in the West, where there are many large communities already there to help any newcomer.
As well as these strong pulls there are equally strong push factors: a 60-year-long conflict and the economic problems that come from endless violence and the restrictions that follow.
Today, the greatest source of daily inconvenience and resentment is the fence/wall, called by the Israelis "the separation barrier" and by the Arabs the "racial segregation wall", from which it has become the "apartheid wall" in English. It was built to keep out suicide bombers travelling into Israel proper, and has succeeded, but it also divides towns and communities and forces people to wait for long periods to make their way through security checkpoints (priests included). The Patriarch calls it "the humiliation not just of people, but of a people".
Before the Pope's visit in May he even asked the Israeli authorities to make some "courtesy gestures", but nothing happened.
The Holy Father's visit was inevitably controversial, a diplomatic nightmare for a German-born pontiff visiting the Jewish state in conflict with predominantly Muslim enemies and a shrinking Christian minority, in a city claimed by all three Abrahamic religions. It's not even ammunition for Richard Dawkins - more like artillery.
But the Pope, he says, did everything right. "His speech was very well-balanced. He came as a man of peace and dialogue, a good pastor about his flock, and he made a call for Christians to stay, stay, stay in their land. He made the link between the Church of Cavalry, the agony of our Lord, and our agony, our suffering.
"There were 350,000 Christians in Jerusalem before 1940, now there are 10,000 maximum. Israel needs to allow young people to work, and the reunification of families. In 1948 they [the Arab nations] said: 'Go outside for some while and come back.' But they never came back," he shrugs.
The Palestinian Christian diaspora is quite enormous. Outside the Middle East itself there are 35,000 in Canada, 25,000 in Honduras, 5,000 in Mexico, 15,000 in Britain and almost 40,000 in America. Palestinian Christians, he says, are "everywhere".
The Catholic Herald