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Christians in the Muslim World

The Christian Adieu to the Holy Land


Migration is an intrinsic part of the human: man is always in movement, looking for better life conditions, an ideal habitat. The phenomenon of migration, therefore, is not new. For believers, it begins with the first man: Adam, expelled from the earthly paradise [Gen. 3:23]. Cain, in turn, became a wanderer [Gen. 4:12] and went to live in the country of Nod, to the east of Eden. Abraham left Ur, his native land, to reach the land promised by God; he did not know where this was but he and his family set out on a journey to find it. The whole people of Israel emigrated from Egypt and it took them forty years to cross the desert.




The Bible does not talk about Abraham’s migration but about Abraham's ‘vocation’. Vocation means a calling which cannot be answered without movement. Jesus himself, in his mission on this earth, was in movement: he even experienced the status of a refugee in Egypt, with his family, when fleeing from Herod. During his public life he roamed from one place to another, without a home to rest his head. Originally my tribe too, which is called Al Uzaizat and comes from the great Christian Bedouin tribe of the Ghassanids which fought on the side of the Arab prophet Mohammed against the Byzantines, was nomadic, always looking for new pastures.




In the modern and contemporary world the phenomenon of migration has become permanent and has taken on planetary dimensions: from North to South in the colonial period, from South to North nowadays. Today more than ever before we must recognise that the nationalist slogan ‘one land, one people’ is a thing of the past. Now we have before us: ‘one territory, many peoples’.




The migratory tendencies of the Christian Arabs of Palestine have been historically influenced by the political climate and the economic conditions that have generally dominated in the Middle East. Between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, migration was related to the general growth in population and the inability of the local economy to cope with this demographic pressure. At the present time, the malaise that causes the migratory flow of Arab Christians is, in this specific case, aggravated by other factors that add to those which pushed past generations to leave their country of origin. In short, they are connected with the conflict between Arabs and Israelis.




The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 provoked the exodus of fifty to sixty thousand Christian Palestinians out of 726 thousand Palestinians. In 1948, in Jerusalem, the Christian population of the city amounted to 31,300 individuals; today there are only 14,800. Since the second Intifada began (in the year 2000), the phenomenon has become even more evident, even though few people, to tell the truth, talk about it openly. The economic and social conditions, and demographic levels in Israel, by now reflect the existent relationships of power at a political and military level in this clash which by now is endemic.




The rate of demographic growth in this area has been very high and strongly influenced by political and ideological impetuses: Jewish immigration, encouraged by successive Israeli governments (and before 1948 by the world Zionist movement) has had as its corollary a high birth rate in the Arab population which is certainly connected with the precarious conditions of life but which also has an undoubted nationalist and religious component amongst its causes.




The Christian Arabs are excluded from this confrontation. Their tie of belonging to the land is less exasperated. The haemorrhage of Palestinian Christians is not as great as in Iraq but the sense of belonging to an increasingly slender minority is felt, and in a marked way. From 10% of the Arab population half a century ago, we have rapidly passed to under 2%: fifty thousand Christians in Palestine and little more than a hundred and twenty thousand in Israel. The entire Christian Arab population, which is divided into different rites, does not, therefore, reach the figure of two hundred thousand. This population suffers the disadvantages of a double minority status: Arabs in relation to Israel; Christians in relation to Muslims and Jews. The Christian Arabs, who are particularly concentrated in the West Bank, thus experience a double difficulty as they suffer the simultaneous pressure of Islamic fundamentalism and the isolation imposed by Israel.




In a context of political instability and economic recession, the lifestyle and high educational level of the Christian Arabs have become an additional reason for emigrating: they are, in fact, incompatible with continuous conflict and the lack of prospects for general economic improvement. This section of the Arab population is particularly affected by the economic and social malaise and the specific calamities due to the state of political tension: precarious security, the lack of prospects for peace, discrimination in the pathways of education and training, and difficulties in finding employment.




Emigration thus appears as a possible alternative for many Christians, especially for those who aspire to continue with their studies and their professional specialisation. An inquiry conducted in Jerusalem over ten years ago revealed that the percentage of those who intended to emigrate was double among the Christians than amongst the rest of the population. Occupying first place amongst the causes mentioned was the bad economic conditions; this was followed by the bad political conditions (in expressing their intention to emigrate, those interviewed at the same time stated that they would want to stay in the case of imminent peace); lastly, there was the factor of the presence of family members who were already resident abroad (almost all the Christians who wanted to emigrate declared in this survey that some of their family members lived abroad). Another recurrent motivation is, therefore, what usually happens when a migratory flow stabilises: joining family members in the country of arrival. The majority of the Palestinian Christian middle-class families already have relatives in the diaspora; among the Christians of the Jerusalem and Bethlehem regions the most inclined to leave are the Armenians, the Syrians and the Greek Orthodox because 40% of the members of these communities already have relatives abroad. Return migration is almost non-existent: if things go well not only do people not return but they attract to themselves, in their new homeland, their own world of affection.







Diaspora as Loss





Undoubtedly, the diaspora also has some positive effects, not only for the lives of the people involved but also for their countries of origin. First of all, from a cultural viewpoint, the opportunities to get to know new ways of life are multiplied for those who emigrate; this generates an increased mental openness and a different outlook, in addressing the historical problems afflicting this land as well. The encounter with different peoples and experiences, especially in the professional field, and the possibilities of exchange that are thus set in motion, constitute a resource with positive consequences for those who remain. And this is not to mention, secondly, the economic resource constituted by the remittances that are sent back by the immigrants to the members of their families who have stayed behind.




What certainly counts more, however, is the impact of the negative effects of this haemorrhage. Beside the loss of property and therefore the loss of land (a resource which enables families to be rooted to a territory), one of these effects is particularly insidious in terms of the future peace prospects for the region, and I would like to dwell on this issue in particular. Without perceiving it, many diaspora Christians or many Christian Arabs attracted by the idea of emigration, lose contact with the culture of their countries of origin and lose in particular their trust in the peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims in the East. The Islamophobic reaction produced by religious discrimination is nourished and matched by the prevailing anxious climate that today prevails, in the public opinion of the countries of arrival in the West, about relations with Islam.




The Sixteenth Congress of the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs’ Conference recently (October 2006) stressed the consequences of this demoralisation of the Christian Arab communities and the importance of keeping their identity: ‘Their presence without a sense of mission invites them to leave the country. Realising the missionary responsibility that Christians have towards their society is the most important factor that will encourage them to stay in their countries, facing all difficulties and participating in common efforts to save their countries and founding real democracies there rooted in the specific traditions of the Christian and Muslim Arab societies’. The thinning of the Christian presence in the Holy Land thus has heavy consequences on two fronts in particular: the cultural and the civil.




Although they represent less than 2% of the total population, Christian Arabs still make up 7% of the Arab population of Israel, and 58% of the Arab students of the University of Haifa are Christians. This tells us a great deal about the capacity of Christians to count sociologically more than their low numbers would lead one to believe: in fact the Christian elites maintain the means by which to count in Arab civil society. The brain drain is therefore tragic, causing the country to lose its best elements as a result of the migratory impulse. On the other hand, the weakening and the disappearance of these local Christian communities reduces the hope that the values of an open, pluralistic and civil society will be established in the region. The Christian element is one of the few elements that fosters and assures principles of moderation in the civil and religious clash which is tearing this region apart. Its reduction in size is therefore a loss for the peace process. Education has often accelerated emigration, pushing the better qualified Christians out of their country in search of more promising opportunities in more advanced countries.




The Christians of the Holy Land feel a strong sense of alienation, neglect and isolation in relation to Western Christianity. The Christians of the West, who often do not know about the real implications of the Arab-Israeli conflict, should realise the vital importance of the presence of Eastern Christians in the Holy Land at the level of their important role of moderation and mediation between two apparently irreconcilable worlds. To foster the permanence of the Christian Arab populations in their land of origin represents a natural counter-measure to the radicalisation of conflicts. To achieve this, Christian Arabs must be helped to remain and be themselves, faithful to their identity and their tradition of faith, so that they can support through their presence that bridge of dialogue and reconciliation which is indispensable to guaranteeing the stabilisation of the region.




All initiatives to support the Christian populations in Palestine are very welcome and should be encouraged because their main consequence will be a halting of the hemorrhaging of Christians from the area. At a more concrete level, the fields of intervention are: education and training – support for the schools and universities that are already present, and which are in large measure managed by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, could be flanked by more specific help to families through adoptions at a distance or scholarships for individual students; health-care and social works in large part managed by religious orders and charitable institutions – these provide the only qualified health care that exists in a context (that of the occupied Territories) which is deprived and without suitable means and structures; fostering pilgrimages – which represents a very important form of help that is within the range of everyone: for many Palestinian Christians welcoming and supporting pilgrims is a source of economic subsistence as well as an opportunity for Christian witness. A continual flow of pilgrims would help to exalt the universal value of these places (unfortunately only seen by world public opinion as a terrain of national conflicts) and to consolidate ecclesial communion. Last, but no less important, is the help that all Christians can give through prayer, to implore the Lord to enlighten the political authorities and sustain diplomatic efforts to attain a climate of peace and reasonable coexistence, especially at this delicate moment when it seems that the paths of dialogue have given way to exasperation and vengeance.