This Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion the liturgy turns our attention to Jerusalem, whose streets Jesus entered to great palm-strewn fanfare and not many days later left crushed under the weight of a cross.
Holy as those events made it, the ancient city is torn even today by violence, hatred and bloodshed, much in the name, scandalously, of religion. And those who bear Christ’s name are a tinier and tinier proportion of the region’s inhabitants, squeezed between the warring Jews and Muslims.
As Catholic Americans concerned about fellow Christians there (now estimated at less than 2 percent of the population, when just 60 years ago they numbered some 20 percent), we view with dismay the Israeli government’s recent decision to break from the U.S.-brokered “road map” for peace by authorizing new settlement construction of 1,600 Jewish homes in Arab East Jerusalem — on the eve of a visit from the U.S. vice president — putting the peace process in one of its worst spots in decades.
This embarrassment ought to prompt the United States to ask what more than 60 years of political, military and financial support has actually achieved besides thousands of casualties.
And besides the flight of hundreds of thousands of Christians. The conflict’s toll on the region’s economy and the lack of employment opportunities for educated Christians has prompted them to seek out opportunities in other countries, including the United States.
In some ways, the plummeting number of Christians is not as tragic as it would be for Jews or Muslims in a land that is holy for all three religions, as U.S. Cardinal John P. Foley, head of a Catholic organization dedicated to the welfare of Christians there, noted in a speech a year ago. Unlike Judaism and Islam, Christianity is not tied to a geographical location: It is “trans-national, -ethnic and -cultural.”
“The Holy Land is of immense symbolic importance,” the cardinal, grand knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, acknowledged.
“However, if it should happen that there be not one single Christian left in the Holy Land, it will not hurt Christianity fundamentally,” he said. “Sadly, at the rate things are going, we may be coming very perilously close to that.”
Even so, he noted, a Christian presence is vitally important for the future of the Holy Land. For one, Christians bring values that count, like reconciliation and forgiveness.
“Jesus taught his followers to renounce their legitimate right to revenge. This is a value that is totally different from the culture of the Middle East, and yet it is something that we bring to it,” he said.
That’s why it is so important that Catholics support the work of the Church in the Holy Land, and other trouble spots overseas. Even in apostolates like schools that may not have a high percentage of Catholics, Cardinal Foley said, “the work of the Church may not lead to increased numbers of Christians, but it’s immensely valuable” because it spreads Christian values that lead to more peaceful, integrated societies.
So, this Easter season, we are called again to pray for peace in the Holy Land and especially for the Christians, that they be given the strength and courage to witness Jesus’ reconciliation.
They need other support, too: our financial assistance, our presence in visits and pilgrimages, our promotion of human development in the region, our welcoming of refugees.
“Our mission,” Cardinal Foley points out, “is to help the survival of the Christians in the Holy Land.”