00 5/8/2009 7:23 AM

Posted by benefan:

Palestinian Christians look
forward to papal visit

By Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D.


JERUSALEM (Inside Catholic) - Palestinian Christians are wondering aloud whether the upcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Holy Land will bring greater media attention to their dwindling numbers.

They fear that, at the top, the Pope's agenda will be dominated by his continuing effort to smooth the ruffled feathers of Muslims (after his 2006 Regensburg speech) and Jews (following the recent trouble over the anti-Semitism of Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of St. Pius X).

Building better relations with Israel, the international Jewish community, and Muslims is the "story line already written by the media for the papal visit," one Vatican observer told me.

But the real motive behind the visit, according to the same observer with close ties to the Vatican, is the Pope's desire to make a "personal pilgrimage" to the holy sites. His message will be a message to the Church, he continued, and should not be expected to target "specific problems" on the ground.

It's impossible, however, for a papal visit to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan not to be scrutinized from every possible angle. Everyone in the region, and many around the world, will be listening for any possible comment on the ongoing occupation by Israel of the West Bank and its impact on the historic Christian communities of places like Bethlehem, Nazareth, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour.

Opinions differ on the primary cause for the departure of Christians out of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Some point to the rigors of the occupation, especially restrictions on the freedom of movement imposed by checkpoints and security walls.

Others talk about the mounting tensions between Christians and Muslims in towns like Bethlehem, where their families once lived side by side without rancor as far back as anyone can remember. Indeed, on this, my fourth trip to the Holy Land in six years, I have heard more about Muslim hostility to Christians than ever before.

My own observation is that, when people are locked in a prison with little hope of ever getting out, they turn their gaze inward. Divisions that once didn't matter become very relevant. Similarly, when two peoples live together under an occupation without the freedom of movement, they start finding more fault with each other.

Bernard Sabella, a professor at Bethlehem University and a Christian member of the Palestinian legislature, offers another explanation for the exodus. "The main reason is unemployment. If the young people can't find work, they leave, it's that simple."

Sabella's research has found that in good economic years, about 200 to 300 Palestinian Christians between the ages of 25 and 30 leave the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In bad economic times, the numbers shoot up to between 900 and 1,000 a year.

With only 50,000 Christians in those areas, the net result is a steadily shrinking community whose recovery is dependent on the return of a robust economy.

Sabella adds, "How can you have a strong economy with plenty of jobs for young people out of college when they cannot, for example, even leave the city of Bethlehem but only rarely?"

Without freedom of movement, Sabella argues, the economy cannot grow, more and more Palestinians will depend on foreign aid for subsistence, and young Christians will choose to leave in search of better lives. Sabella's analysis, although beginning with the problem of unemployment, points back to the impact of the Israeli occupations and, particularly, the more stringent measures taken since theintifada that began in 2000.

If Benedict addresses the root causes for the declining Christian presence in the Holy Land, he will very likely offend both Israelis and Muslims, the very parties with whom he might have hoped to strengthen ties. Yet this is the moment when Christians living under the occupation need a word of support from the leader of the Church.

After the Gaza campaign and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, they have little hope that Israel will pursue a two-state solution. They also put little faith in the promises of the Obama administration -- not because of Obama himself, but because of their disappointments in previous U.S. presidents.

One frustrated Christian put it to me bluntly: "The Pope must do something for his Christians here in the Holy Land, or there will be none of us here in 20 years."

This father of two young children, living in Bethlehem and struggling to keep his family on the West Bank, is considering the option of immigrating for the first time in his life. His attitude, I am told, is becoming widespread among educated Palestinian Christians.

Benedict has already shown himself capable of rising to the occasion to overcome controversy, as on his trip to the United States a year ago when he defused the criticism awaiting him about the priest sex scandal. His proactive comments to the media on the flight to Washington, D.C., let the air out of the balloon of invective that was ready to burst upon his arrival.

The Holy Father may well find a way to navigate through the more rocky shores of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Palestinian Christians caught in the middle.

Deal W. Hudson is the director of InsideCatholic.com and the author of Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Simon and Schuster).



While we can all understand and sympathize with the frustration of the Palestinian Christians, I think it is most unrealistic - and unfair - of them to expect the Pope to be able to do anything about the poitical situation that is at the root of the socio-economic problem that is driving away Christians from the places like Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

And very wrong of the Western media to feed their unrealistic expectations with agenda articles like this, no matter how well-meaning.

Fourteen years and two Popes - and still, the Vatican has been unable to finalize a status agreement for the Catholic Church in Israel! And we have just been warned that the Pope's coming visit is not bringing the question to any conclusion soon.

If something that should not be a problem - the Israeli Parliament passed a 'general' agreement 14 years ago, cynically leaving all the devils loose in the details - has proven so intransigent, what makes the Palestinian Christians think the Pope will be able to do something about their infintely more complicated problems that decades of undoubtedly well-meaning work by the great political powers have failed to resolve?

I'm sure every conscientious Christian prays constantly for 'peace in teh Middle East and a good life for all its peoples'.

But he must also ask himself over and over why the land where God walked the earth has been the world's bloodiest battleground driven by sheer hatred for much of its history. The more so if the Christian happens to live in the Middle East today.

And the best answer one can give is that God's ways are unfathomable. One must live with the situation given each of us by Providence which does not necessarily play favorites. Different trials are imposed on each of us, and in different degrees. And we must each respond to these trials as best we can.

The Pope and the Church will continue to do what they have been able to do - give moral support and prayers, along with whatver material support it is able to do through Caritas and other Church-based or Church-associated institutions.

But it is totally unrealistic to expect that the Church can ensure the material terrestrial future of Christians in the Midcle East.

One frustrated Christian put it to me bluntly: "The Pope must do something for his Christians here in the Holy Land, or there will be none of us here in 20 years."

This father of two young children, living in Bethlehem and struggling to keep his family on the West Bank, is considering the option of immigrating for the first time in his life. His attitude, I am told, is becoming widespread among educated Palestinian Christians.

If immigration is the better option, then why not? Iraqi Christians have been forced to do it in the past 6 years, and some of them are starting to come back now. It's a decision parents have to make with the good of their children in mind, and for which they have to temporarily renounce sentiments of patriotism and attachment to one's native land.

But history has shown that in situations like these, there will always be a chosen few who will remain and persevere and survive - placeholders for those who are constrained to leave, as well as, perhaps, the stuff of saints.

The Pope has always spoken of this trip as a pilgrimage to pray for peace. More than anyone else, he knows none of us can read God's mind. And that it is part of man's lot to ask unanswerable questions.

Why does a child get cancer? Why did the Holocaust happen? Why is the Middle East so torn apart by hatreds? And if the last two, for instance, are traceable to political and ideological reasons, their undeRLying question is: why is man capable of such evil? But that is why we all need salvation. And why ultimately, we only have our faith to live by.