Religion

EASTER IN THE HOLYLAND

Violence and economic dislocation are fuelling an increasing exodus of Christians from the places where their faith was born 2,000 years ago

JONATHON GATEHOUSE April 21 2003
Religion

EASTER IN THE HOLYLAND

Violence and economic dislocation are fuelling an increasing exodus of Christians from the places where their faith was born 2,000 years ago

JONATHON GATEHOUSE April 21 2003

EASTER IN THE HOLYLAND

Religion

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

Violence and economic dislocation are fuelling an increasing exodus of Christians from the places where their faith was born 2,000 years ago

THE SUNDAY MORNING congregation in the grotto barely outnumbers the humble shepherds who the New Testament says came here to worship on a winter’s night 2,000 years ago. Two young families and some elderly men and women stand against rough stone walls that have been blackened by the smoke of centuries, watching richly vested Armenian Orthodox priests prepare the sacrament. Their songs of praise and the clinking chains of incense burners echo hollowly in the former stable. When the service is done, there are no pilgrims waiting, as they used to, to kneel in the worn grooves on the marble floor and touch the silver star that marks where the baby Jesus lay in his manger.

The turnout for the Roman Catholic mass in the modern church next door to the ancient Basilica of the Nativity is healthier, but the church is still little more than half full. As soon as the priest motions to the parishioners to start coming forward for communion, the teenage boys bolt for the exits. Smoking and socializing in the courtyard while their parents, grandparents and sisters finish their devotions, they talk about the future. A life away from the curfews, poverty and violence of Bethlehem and the rest of the occupied territories. A Holy Land with fewer and fewer willing custodians. “If I got the chance, I would leave the next morning,” says Shadi Qatema, a heavily gelled 17year-old in a tight white T-shirt. “Everyday it’s the same routine here. There’s nothing to do, only violence and killing. There’s no future here.” His friend, Nacheleh Keseah, hides a cigarette behind his palm and holds his breath until a scowling Franciscan friar strides past. “I’d like to go and join my uncles in Chile,” he says. “My parents have already told me to go if I get the opportunity. They don’t want me to end up like them.”

It’s been more than 50 years since Christians were the majority in what was once known as the city of King David. The 1948 war between newly established Israel and

surrounding Arab nations, as well as subsequent battles, brought thousands of Muslims to the rocky hillsides, just a 15minute drive from the gates of Jerusalem. But now, 2V2 years into the latest Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation, a new migration is happening, from Bethlehem and other Christian communities in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. An exodus of people tired of being eternally caught in the crossfire between the Jewish state and radical Palestinians. A rapidly expanding flight that threatens to transform some of the holiest sites in Christendom from vibrant communities to empty museums.

“My outlook for the future is that we will end up in 20 to 25 years with no more than 25,000 or 30,000 Christians, mostly older people,” says Bernard Sabella, a sociologist with the Middle East Council of Churches in Jerusalem. “The youth will leave. If the bread and butter are somewhere else, we can’t be telling people to stay and hold on to the holy places.” Sabella, who studies the Christian community in his work with the MECC and Bethlehem University, estimates that more than 2,000 Christians have left the territories since the start of the second intifada alone, and points to similarly shrinking numbers in Israeli cities like Haifa, Nazareth and even Jerusalem. Official government statistics, released last December, peg the population of Christians living in Israel at 142,000, or 2.1 per cent of the country. The Palestinian Authority says 1.7 per cent, or 50,000, of its three million citizens are of Christian background, but Sabella says that in both communities the actual numbers are significantly smaller, and still dropping. Lower birth rates are part of the problem—on average Muslim families have IV2 to two times as many children as Christian Arabs—but the occupation and its fallout are what is really driving the diaspora. “Those who have options are leaving,” says Sabella. “And if the situation continues to be so bleak and my three children had the chance to go

abroad, I certainly wouldn’t hold them back.”

Bethlehem, with a population of28,000, a little less than half of them Christian, is a microcosm of the problems facing the wider community. Unemployment, which was running at eight per cent before the peace process broke down in the fall of2000, now tops 40 per cent. Tourism, once the backbone of the local economy, has completely dried up—there’s room at the inn, and in the restaurants. Most of the shops can’t even be bothered to open, their metal shutters and commercial signage long since plastered over with spray-painted slogans of Palestinian resistance. Christians are not prominent in the intifada, but their sympathies are with it, and they too can be found among the names and photos of “martyrs”—both active and passive—to the cause.

There’s a cross on the poster paying tribute to the most recent addition to the list. Christine Sa’ada, a 12-year-old, died in a burst of gunfire March 25 on her way to school. She, her parents and her older sister had the misfortune to find themselves driving behind a vehicle that Israeli authorities say was carrying two senior Hamas terrorists responsible for a Jerusalem bus bombing that killed 12 and wounded 45 in November 2002.

Sitting on a living room sofa beneath framed icons and a large portrait of Christ, Christine’s parents, George and Najwa, receive the sympathies of visitors and recount the horror of that morning. “No one told us to stop,” says George, the principal of a local Greek Orthodox high school. “They just started shooting from all directions. All the windows in the car shattered and I felt the bullets hitting my left side.”

It took surgeons at a Jerusalem hospital more than five hours to remove the nine automatic-rifle slugs from his body. Christine, who was hit in the head, died before the ambulance made it past the checkpoint on the road out of town. “She liked studying, she liked praying, she wanted to be a nun,” says George, his voice thick with emotion. “She was a very quiet little girl who just liked to help other people.” According to data collected by a Palestinian human rights group, Christine was the 406th child killed by Israeli forces in the course of this intifada.

In his office overlooking Manger Square, Mayor Hannan Nasser says that such despair and the lesser privations of occupation threaten to sink his city. “It’s inconceivably

bad here,” he says. Where 1.5 million tourists used to come every year—15,000 to 20,000 pilgrims on Christmas Eve alone—now only a handful are willing to brave the roadblocks, razor wire and armed soldiers. Israeli Defense Force incursions into the city, like the 39-day standoffbetween the army and Palestinian militants who holed up in the Basilica last spring, have caused more than US$5 million in damage to the local infrastructure, says the mayor. “We can’t collect taxes because people aren’t working. They don’t have the money to pay their municipal electricity charges or their water bills. We’re troubled. We’re stuck in this mud.” Government plans for the army to build a defensive barrier of concrete slabs, ditches and electrified fences to cut the occupied territories off from Israel can only make matters worse, Nasser says.

On the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road, now known as Yasser Arafat Street, the construction of what locals call “the wall” has barely begun, but the effects are already being felt. The doors of the shelland firescarred Paradise Hotel, Balloons Café, Memories Souvenirs, and dozens of other businesses, are padlocked tight. The once bustling commercial strip used to boast 87 businesses. Today, only eight remain. Standing behind the counter of his mini-mart, Amjed Awwad surveys the notice Israeli authorities served him with regarding their plans to build a barrier four to eight metres high down the middle of the street. He can already see the future, a couple of hundred metres away, in the giant concrete slabs and guard towers that surround Rachel’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site. Awwad’s biggest concern is that, as with 40 other mostly Christian families in the neighbourhood, his house and his business will be on opposite sides of the wall. “Once the barrier goes up it will never come down,” he says. “We’ll be guests in our own home. Anybody who wants to come and visit us will have to seek special permission from the military.” Awwad and his brother, who owns the pharmacy next door, are planning to stay no matter what happens, but he can’t say the same for his friends and fellow Christians. “I’ll stay to the end, but I understand why others might leave. This wall will destroy Bethlehem.”

AT THIS TIME OF YEAR, the streets of Old Jerusalem should be teeming with the faithful. Devout pilgrims tracing the final steps

of Jesus along the via dolorosa. The religiously curious. Tourists. The intifada, Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq have changed all that. There are no lines of people waiting to ascend the steep curved staircase in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that leads to the heights of Golgotha—where the Crucifixion took place. No praying crowds are gathered before Christ’s tomb. Only a few bored

guides haunt the recesses of the sanctuary, waiting hopefully for the second coming of the foreign visitors.

In an ornate side chapel, Abu Issam crosses himself as he stands before the goldframed altar. When he leaves in a few months to join his son and daughter-in-law in the Czech Republic, his home church in the West Bank city of Ramallah will have to find

a new candle-lighter. There will be few candidates for the position. “When the intifada started, most of the Christians who live in Ramallah asked their families in the States and other places to help them get out,” Issam says. Less than a fifth of the community remains, he adds.

It’s the kind of story that angers Archbishop Aristarchos, secretary of the Greek

Orthodox patriarchate in Jerusalem. “We shouldn’t leave so easily—we should be following the example of the Israelis,” he says. “We should love and cherish the Holy Land as the Jews love and cherish the Holy Land. We have to stay, to insist to be here.” It’s a message he and representatives of the other Christian denominations have repeatedly stressed from the pulpit, but to

little avail. When asked if he’s worried, the Archbishop sighs and seeks solace in the past. “We’ve been through this many times before,” he says. “Christ himself, immediately after his birth, had to flee to Egypt to avoid persecution. It seems that there are always Herods and Pilâtes in history.”

What many Christians in the Holy Land feel most acutely, however, is a sense of abandonment by their brethren in other nations. The Palestinians in the territories receive support, charitable and otherwise, from Muslims around the world. The Jews can count on the backing of their diaspora and the substantial financial and military aid of the United States. But little help has come from the Christian churches and their millions of adherents. “Anyone who depends on the income from the pilgrims is suffering,” says Father Athanasius Macora, a lanky, balding Franciscan, who presumably was known by a far different name growing up in Austin, Tex. “And when the local community starts to leave, it puts an enormous strain on the institutions they leave behind, schools especially.”

In a good year, 1,800 groups, with somewhere between 30 to 50 pilgrims each, would come to the Holy Land from Italy alone. The millions of lira, francs, and dollars travellers spent in hotels, restaurants and religious souvenir shops, much of it going directly

‘Christ himself, after his birth, had to flee to Egypt to avoid persecution. There are always Herods and Pilâtes in history.’

into the pockets of local Christians, has not been replaced. The Catholic Church and its donors have provided some funding to build new low-income housing developments in several hard-hit Christian communities, but so far such efforts have done little to stem the tide of out-migration. “I think people can hang on in Jerusalem, but I can’t say that for Bethlehem and other places in the West Bank,” says Macora, who works on the interfaith committee that oversees the “shared-custody” holy sites.

To the north, 120 km away in Nazareth, Jesus’s boyhood home, the merchants in the marketplace outside the local basilica are finding few takers for the lurid Virgin Marys, pouting angels and suffering Christs that line the shelves of their cramped shops. Many are ready to throw in the towel. “I’m going to America just as soon as I get the papers,” says Kohar Kumojiah, an Armenian woman with a severe topknot and a thick patina of sparkly gold eyeshadow. “In the future,

the only people here will be the Jews and the Arabs fighting each other.” Samira Abu-Nassar, the owner of the Bible Land Travel Agency across the street, will stay, but only becausefter extended family owns too many local businesses to think about picking up stakes and starting over again. “We open sometimes and sit in the office from 9:30 in the morning until 6 in the afternoon without serving a single person,” she says.

Despite the damage to the local economy and the malaise that comes from living in the middle of a seemingly endless conflict, the Christian community in Nazareth—a part of Israel proper—is in far better shape than its counterpart in the occupied territories. High on the green hillside overlooking town, the Anglican Church has recently built a sprawling new elementary and high school that would be the envy of many Canadian cities. “Many people in our community sought refuge in the West, but after years of being in the States or elsewhere, they’ve been coming back in recent years,” says Hanna Abu El-Assal, the headmaster. And there is promise for the future. El-Assal has 1,040 students enrolled this year—40 per cent of them Christian, about the same percentage as the town—and 1,200 registered for next year.

On this day, the school has a special visitor, its namesake and the headmaster’s dad,

the Right Rev. Riah Abu El-Assal, Anglican bishop of Jerusalem. Resplendent in a purple robe, he chats happily with students in the hallways, but being charged with the big picture—his diocese is responsible for Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territories—he is less optimistic than his son. “The whole Christian community throughout the Middle East is in difficulty,” he says. “This war in Iraq has left great grudges and serious hatred in the hearts of people here. It has contributed to the misunderstanding that Christianity is of the West and not of the East. And it will cause greater harm to the Christians than anything else.”

BSHARA NAZZAL walks through the rooms of his family’s cramped apartment in Beit Jala, just outside Bethlehem, showing off the bullet holes in the walls, windows and furniture. A year ago, snipers took up positions in a building up the street and started taking potshots at houses in Gilo, a Jerusalem suburb a few hundred metres away across the olive groves. Israel responded with machine guns and tank shells. Nazzal’s father was wounded in the fighting. He has already left for Chile. Bshara, his wife, Nahil, and their newborn son, Mark, will follow in a matter of weeks. “We’re looking for better times,” says Bshara. “It’s going to be a better future for the baby, safer, calmer,” Nahil adds. They are going to make sure that Mark’s name is never spray-painted on a martyr’s wall.

GRIEF IS A GREAT EQUALIZER. The

loss felt by families who have fallen victim to the region’s pernicious violence is the same regardless of how they worship God. There is an incomprehensible dignity and grace with which they suffer the gawking and questions of the media, the endless condolences of strangers. Like many others, Christine Sa’ada’s family are sharing their torment with the world in hopes that it will do some good. While they talk, George and Najwa constantly reach out to touch and hug their remaining child, 15year-old Marian. They speak of Christian forgiveness, and say they are praying that their wounds, physical and spiritual, will be healed. “We have no hate for anyone. As Christians, we want peace and love and security,” says Najwa. Unlike many of their friends and neighbours, they will stay in Bethlehem. “It’s hard to think about leaving,” says George. “This is my country, this is my city. Where would I go?” Their faith was born just up the road two millennia ago. And Christians in the Holy Land have never been able to forget that their Saviour knew suffering too. “To me it’s very simple,” says George. “Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, and so was our Christine. They both died violently. But the message is the same. It’s a message of peace for the whole world.” I?]

jgatehouse@macleans.ca