As we sat down for dinner at the 2009 Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation [HCEF] Awards Banquet, the question caught me by surprise. By chance, I had been invited to it, but in all honesty I knew very little about them. Thanks to that question I know much more and why priests, Catholics and Christians of all faiths should be deeply concerned about today’s Arab Christian Palestinians.
One reason that immediately comes to mind is that Palestine is where Christ lived, worked and died. The very stones upon which Christianity is built reside there. It is also because of our solidarity with believing Christians, no matter where they live. When they suffer, so do we suffer?
Today, Christian Palestinians are not only suffering, but becoming extinct in their homeland. In a study conducted in 2001 by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, it was determined that 53% of Christian residents of Beit Sahour (a predominately Christian town adjacent to Bethlehem) had taken steps within the last year to acquire emigration visas.
In 1948 the Christian population of the Holy Land was more than 18%. Today, it is less than 2%. In Jerusalem in 1944, Christians numbered 30,000. Today, that number has dwindled to 2,000.
Christians face violence daily. Their homes are often confiscated or demolished and they are rarely issued permits to build new ones. Jobs are scarce, medical assistance is sparse, and water is routinely cut off.
How can we respond to this crisis? Study is the first imperative because, like the above question asked of me, it moves us out of our provincialism, prompting us to enter into the lives of others. One of the projects HCEF sponsors is The Child Sponsorship Program in which children in the U.S. and Palestine exchange letters. This project is aimed at countering provincialism, educating and heightening awareness.
HCEF also hosts local conferences and presentations by experts on the Holy Land, and publishes the news letter Living Stones: The Voice of the Holy Land Christians [www.hcef.org.]
As the Christmas season approaches, one way to enter into it more fully would be to study the Holy Land and the awesome role it fulfills in our Christian lives. Here is where the most wonderful promise ever made on earth took place: Christ came among us.
When we are touched with sacredness, awe follows. In today’s world, barbarism is found in much our daily existence, so much so, we tend to take it for granted. The more we learn about Arab Christian Palestinians and the Holy Land, the more power does sacredness contain in fighting barbarism.
Fr. Eugene Hemrick
National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood
Washington Theological Union