It has become a tradition that every year after the Christmas season bishops from three continents visit Catholics in the Holy Land, to show their solidarity and support. The reason for their visit can be found in the complex history of that region of the world.
Christians in the Middle East, despite two millennia of citizenship in the various countries, are fleeing in increasing numbers. The number of Christians in the Holy Land has been in steady decline. Bethlehem serves as an example.
In 1948, just after the Second World War and when Israel was recognized as a country, Christians made up 85 per cent of Bethlehem’s population. It declined to 54 per cent after the 1967 war between Israel and the Arab countries that resulted in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, where Bethlehem is located.
As more Christians left and Muslims moved in, the Christian population in Bethlehem declined to 40 per cent in 1998, 15 per cent in 2009 and only 10 per cent in 2015. With the Basilica of the Nativity, Shepherds’ Field and other Christian shrines in Bethlehem, the Catholic Church is doing what it can to maintain a Christian presence in the town, although sometimes it seems to be a losing battle.
A major Catholic presence is provided by Franciscan friars, who have dedicated themselves to preserving the church in the Holy Land since 1333. Today, more than 300 friars work with 100 sisters from various congregations in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Cyprus and Rhodes. They are in charge of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, as well as the churches of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Annunciation in Nazareth.
Additional support is provided by supporters of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land. There is also the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, composed mainly of lay men and women throughout the world. The order traces itself back to the First Crusade, but its modern purpose is to try to maintain a Christian presence in the Holy Land. It does this mainly by supporting the Latin Patriarchate in the Holy Land headed by Patriarch Fouad Twal.
This order financed the construction of 40 schools for the patriarchate. Today, about 19,000 students attend these schools, from preschool classes through high school and in some technical schools that train craft workers, tradesmen and those working in the tourist industry.
The schools educate both Christians and Muslims, with a present breakdown of 60 per cent Christian and 40 per cent Muslim. The patriarchate and the order hope that people of different religions will learn to live in peace and mutual respect.
The Latin Patriarchate has 68 parishes as well as orphanages, clinics and a seminary. The costs for continuing them, including paying more than 1,500 teachers, put a heavy burden on the patriarchate, and these are relieved by the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
Other institutions supporting a Christian presence include Bethlehem University and The Ecumenical Institute of Tantur. The university, operated by the Christian Brothers and established in 1964, has 3,223 students, 78.3 per cent of whom are women. Its student body is now 75 per cent Muslim. Tantur was founded by the Vatican and is operated by the University of Notre Dame. It invites Christians, Jews and Muslims to meet there to try to find solutions to the Middle East’s problems.
The annual post-Christmas visit by bishops from Canada, the United States and South Africa is another means of support. One of the visiting bishops this year was Bishop Lionel Gendron of St. Jean-Longueuil, Que.
Gendron said he was impressed by the work the church is doing through its educational institutions and noted that, of the 900 students studying in the Catholic schools in Gaza, only 83 were Christians. The schools have remained coeducational despite requests by Hamas and some parents for gender-separate classes, he said.
The bishops’ visit to Gaza last year came after the war that left 100,000 Gazans homeless. This year saw more economic and building activity. “There is still a lot of suffering, but I’ve seen more signs of hope,” said Gendron. “Last year, I thought it was truly awful; this year, hope is there.”
Christians worldwide are being asked to support that hope, especially any efforts that lead to peace.