Pope Benedict XVI will encounter an altered Church when he visits Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories this month.
Undoubtedly, he will be greeted with enthusiastic crowds, the warbled acclamations of Bedouin women, the shouts of schoolchildren and the chanting of college students. But unlike the March 2000 pilgrimage of his predecessor, the pope will be hard-pressed to find much hope among Holy Land Christians.
Just six months after Pope John Paul II returned to Rome, the Holy Land exploded in violence. A renewed intifada shattered the relative calm that had settled among Israelis and Palestinians after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. The increase of violence bolstered fears of insecurity and froze tourism. Unemployment and corruption undermined Palestinian central authority and ignited the rise of Hamas, whose presence provoked the Israeli invasion of Gaza earlier this year.
The rest of the region has fared no better. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. Ironically, the invasion unraveled the fabric that tied the nation together. Iran and Syria deployed operatives to exact loyalties and settle scores. In February 2005, Lebanon lost a leader, but gained a martyr. A year later, war between Hezbollah and Israel wiped out the gains the Lebanese had made since the end of the civil war in 1991. And for about six years now, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees have flooded Jordan and Syria, where security concerns have separated husbands from wives and fathers from children, thus creating a host of socioeconomic problems.
What has the Church to do with any of this?
All of these destabilizing elements, and their residuals, impact every man, woman and child living in the region, regardless of ethnicity, tribe or faith. And though a minority, the Christians of the Holy Land -- which encompasses Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria -- are as integral a part of the Middle East mosaic as the Druze and Jews, Shiites and Sunnis, Alawis and Yazidis. As with all minorities in the region, Christians are leaving, but in greater numbers.
"The fewer Christians there are, the more [Islamic] fundamentalism rises, fills the void and gains the upper hand," said Muhammad Sammak, a political adviser to Lebanon's Sunni grand mufti and a participant in a recent Roman forum on the subject of Christian emigration from the Middle East. If Christians disappear, he said, it would be like "pulling out the threads of a cloth," so that the whole social fabric risks unraveling.
"Christians possess a unique culture that displays the willingness to mediate," said the Latin Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad Jean Sleiman. We, therefore, "could do so many things because reconstruction [of a war-torn nation] deals with souls, cultures, mentalities."
Christians of the Middle East also offer a unique countercultural message: Jesus' message of forgiveness and reconciliation. But this powerful instrument of peace may no longer be heard as Christian voices dwindle, drowned out by the escalating clamor of bellicose nationalism and religious fanaticism. March 2000 may not have been a time of ideal peace and prosperity. But for the Christians of the Middle East today, it looks absolutely serene.
What the Holy Land's Christians lack in numbers, they make up in variety. Coptic Orthodoxy is by far the largest Christian community, comprising about a tenth of Egypt's population. Chaldean Catholics dominate the Christian community in Iraq, Maronites in Lebanon, Antiochene and Syriac Orthodox in Syria. Greek Orthodox and Latin and Melkite Greek Catholics make up most of the remaining Christians in Palestine, Israel and Jordan.
Complementing these larger Christian communities are smaller groups. Anglicans, Armenians, Assyrians, Lutherans, Syriac Catholics and evangelical Protestants also live in the region.
Unlike the strong denominational divide that exists among Christians in North America, the Middle East's Christians are considerably more ecumenical. Intermarriage is the norm; wife and children follow the rites of the father, thus complicating efforts to gather accurate numbers. Intermarriage also contributes to a marked degree of fluidity and a greater awareness of one another.
While the region's many Catholic churches are, with few exceptions, smaller than their Orthodox counterparts, Catholic social service institutions play a disproportionate and crucial role in serving and shaping the attitudes of entire societies, Christian and Muslim. Catholic clinics, Catholic colleges, Catholic orphanages, Catholic schools, Catholic soup kitchens and Catholic homes for the aged, the infirmed and the handicapped pepper the landscape, contributing invaluable services to a population weary from discord, violence and economic stagnation.
Movement of Christians
Christians of the Holy Land have been on the move since the apostles left Jerusalem after Pentecost. Whether hiding from persecution by Jewish leaders, Roman emperors, Persian forces, Byzantine bishops or Arab Muslim invaders, the region's Christians have demonstrated agility and tenacity. Maronite Catholics abandoned their monastic center in Syria for the safety of Mount Lebanon. Armenians have more than once shaken the dust off their feet and moved to more friendly terrain. Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriac Christians left their ancestral villages for Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus.
Since the late 19th century, most Christians have left the Holy Land for the West. Why? While there have been cases of persecution, this should not be exaggerated. "Most Christians feel a sense of exclusion from the predominantly Muslim or Jewish societies in which they live. But that there is discrimination against Christians in most Muslim countries is absolutely incontestable," wrote Msgr. Robert Stern in a recent article in ONE magazine, the publication of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which supports the peoples and churches of the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe.
In the last five years, much of the world has ignored the plight of Iraq's Christians, who have been targeted by extremists. Hundreds of thousands have fled for safety in neighboring Jordan and Syria. Not since the World War I era has a Middle Eastern Christian community battled extinction.
The West, too, has its attractions. Largely because of their Catholic educations, most Middle East Christians speak French or English and have family or friends living in Europe, the Americas or Oceania. Connected to the West, they identify with Western culture and desire the same freedoms and quality of life found there.
Is there a future for Christians in the Holy Land?
Yes and no. First, Christianity is not tied to any one government, ethnic group or culture. "Christianity transcends national, ethnic and cultural boundaries. Jesus came to save the whole world," Msgr. Stern wrote. "The Holy Spirit was poured out on the whole world. The mission of the Church is for the whole world. É Human nature being what it is, the Church may be, at times, entangled with a particular culture, ethnicity or politics, but it serves the whole world."
Not long after the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, I traveled there with a few colleagues. We traveled throughout the country, destroyed bridges notwithstanding, and found that country's Christians rolling up their sleeves and getting to work. We reviewed plans for the reconstruction of irrigation dams in the south, visited facilities for the handicapped and marginalized, winced as farmers cleared their fields of mines and cluster bombs, spoke to bishops passionate about rebuilding villages and schools and churches.
"Gentlemen," said Michel Constantine, our colleague in Beirut, "if it weren't for the Church, who would do this for Lebanon?" His question has remained with me everyday, particularly as I ponder the future of the Holy Land emptied of its Christians.
Should the Holy Land's remaining Christians leave, would their works of charity continue? These apostolates serve not just Christians, but men and women of all faiths. They inculcate solid values, introduce strangers to one another, foster coexistence, heal the sick, feed the hungry, house the homeless and educate the uninformed.
From our places of security here in North America, it may be easy to urge the Holy Land's remaining Christians to stay put. But it takes a valiant spirit to ignore the lure of stability, steady employment, educational opportunities and freedom. It is understandable that Christians, as well as Muslims, want to seek better lives elsewhere.
The departure of Christians from the Holy Land would rob the universal church of a rich patrimony and culture. But the migration of Middle East Christians to the West may leaven our own faith communities lulled by decades of complacency. Maybe from their new homes, Christians who hail from the Holy Land could learn they have an important role to play as bridge-builders.
Michael J.L. La Civita is executive editor of ONE magazine and assistant secretary of communications for CNEWA.
Who are the Christians of the Middle East?
There are about 12.5 million Christians in the Holy Land, less than 1 percent of the total combined population of 150.6 million.
8.5 million in Egypt
1.85 million in Syria
1.17 million in Lebanon
700,000 in Iraq
250,000 in Jordan
147,000 in Israel
40,000 in Palestine, about 37,000 in the West Bank and the balance in Gaza
Schedule of Holy Land visit
Arrival at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman.
Visit to the Regina Pacis center in Amman.
Courtesy visit to the king and queen of Jordan at the royal palace in Amman.
Visit to the Memorial Church of Moses at Mount Nebo (above).
Visit to the Hashemite Museum and the King Hussein Mosque in Amman, followed by a meeting with Muslim leaders, diplomats and rectors of the University of Jordan outside the mosque.
Celebration of evening prayer in the Melkite Cathedral of St. George in Amman, attended by priests, men and women Religious, seminarians and members of Church movements.
Mass at Amman's soccer stadium.
Lunch with patriarchs, bishops and the papal entourage in the Latin-rite vicariate of Amman.
Visit to Bethany Beyond the Jordan (left), the site where Jesus was baptized.
Blessing of cornerstones for a Latin Catholic church and Melkite Catholic church at Bethany Beyond the Jordan.
Welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Courtesy visit to President Shimon Peres in presidential palace in Jerusalem.
Visit to Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
Meeting with organizations involved with interreligious dialogue at the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center.
Visit to the Dome of the Rock (left) and courtesy visit to the grand mufti.
Visit to the Western Wall.
Courtesy visit to two chief rabbis of Jerusalem at the Hechal Shlomo center.
Brief visit to the Latin patriarchate's co-cathedral.
Mass in the Josafat Valley.
Mass in Manger Square.
Visit to the grotto in the Church of the Nativity (above).
Visits to the Caritas Children's Hospital and to the Aida refugee camp.
Courtesy visit to the president of the Palestinian Authority in the presidential palace.
Mass on Mount Precipice in Nazareth.
Meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at Franciscan convent in Nazareth.
Visit to the Grotto of the Annunciation.
Celebration of evening prayer in the upper Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.
Ecumenical meeting in the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Visit to the Holy Sepulcher.
Visit to the Armenian Apostolic patriarchate's Church of St. Jacob.
Farewell ceremony at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv and departure for Rome.