Five-year-old William Tabban gestures to a corner of his soon-to-be new bedroom, indicating where his bed will go once he and his family move into their new three-bedroom apartment. His brother, Michel, 3, hops around the freshly painted room but says he will still want to sleep in his parents’ bedroom at night.
The boys’ father, Tony Tabban, 37, a Syrian Catholic, has been waiting for eight years to move his family into the apartment — part of a larger housing project supported by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He paid for his apartment as a newlywed when the project was getting off the ground.
While they waited for the Jerusalem Municipality to issue the necessary licenses and building permits for the project, Tabban and his wife, Fatim, rented a one-bedroom apartment nearby. In the meantime, they are paying both a mortgage and rent.
A work in progress
Being constructed in four stages, the patriarchate’s project will eventually provide housing for 80 young families in four neighboring buildings in the Jerusalem village of Beit Safafa, located just outside Bethlehem and bordering the Israeli Talpiot neighborhood. For the first time in a Church-supported housing project, two of those families will be Muslim.
“When we got married we were looking for an apartment to buy, but it was very difficult,” said Tabban, the regional administrator for a Christian NGO. “There is very high demand for apartments in East Jerusalem with very little supply, so that raises the prices up and makes it unaffordable.”
It is very difficult for Palestinians to get a building permit in East Jerusalem, and indeed the four years the project waited to receive building permits is extreme even for Jerusalem’s notorious bureaucracy. Nevertheless, it is but a short time when compared to the 15 years the Franciscan Custody’s Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land needed to wait before it received permits for its St. Francis Village in Bethpage.
The Jerusalem municipality maintains that sometimes the issuing of permits in Palestinian areas of the city is complicated by the land-ownership registry, with ownership papers lost, unclear or nonexistent.
The lack of housing and lack of building permits leads to a situation that some see as a concerted effort by the municipality and the Israeli government to force Palestinians to move out of Jerusalem in their search for affordable housing.
Half of Jerusalem’s 13,000 Christians belong to the Catholic Church, said Latin Patriarchate Auxiliary Bishop Msgr. William Shomali, who was instrumental in getting the patriarchate behind the project. Some 600 Christian families are in dire need of housing, he told Our Sunday Visitor.
The patriarchate was given power of attorney by the families of the project so it could represent them in legal and financial matters. Its backing helped secure attractive mortgages for the apartments through the Arab Bank, which otherwise would have proved difficult because of the political sensitivity of the area. The project also received donations from the Italian government and private donors, ensuring the apartments will cost about half their market value.
The shortage of housing obliges Palestinians to choose to live outside of Jerusalem in places like Ramallah and Bethlehem, where apartments are half of what they cost in Jerusalem, said Msgr. Shomali, noting that Palestinians, unlike Israeli residents, risk having their Jerusalem residency rights revoked if discovered to be residing outside of the city for a few years.
A new hope
Anton Asfar, 36, had hoped that by the time he and his wife had their second child, due in six months, they would already be moved into their new apartment in the Beit Safafa. But the final date is being postponed due to municipal foot dragging over the water and sewage connection. An employee of the Latin Patriarchate, Asfar found himself, at 33 years old, still unmarried after returning from receiving his master’s degree in Belgium, where he turned down several job offers in order to return home to Jerusalem.
A year before he left for Europe, he got the ball rolling on the project in 2004 with some friends by passing around a survey about housing needs to young Christian friends and colleagues. Now he has cartons packed ready for the move, but no place to move them yet.
“The [first stage] of the project is finished. We are waiting, since September, for the connection to the water and sewage,” he said. “From the moment I left for Belgium I knew I would return. In my principles, I wanted to be in Jerusalem with my family.”
A handful of his friends have emigrated from Jerusalem in part because they cannot afford housing here and have few job prospects, Asfar told OSV.
“In itself [housing] gives them their dignity and more reasons to remain, but it doesn’t prevent them from selling the house [later] and moving to another country,” Msgr. Shomali said. “Housing is not enough, but it can encourage them to marry, and if they have a family and a house, they are less motivated to leave.”
Judith Sudilovsky writes from Israel.