Christianity in the Holy Land
Identity, present situation, expectations and needs
By Father William Shomali

I feel very privileged to be present this evening among the Ladies and Knights of the Lieutenancy of England and Wales and to give a talk about Christianity in the Holy Land. I thank H.E. David Hirst and his council for this opportunity and you all for attending.

Jerusalem was, during these last weeks, on the top of the news because of the political situation. Whatever happens in the Holy Land has immediately an international echo because Jerusalem is important for the believers of the three monotheistic religions. They believe it belongs to them. It is the city where every one says: “Here I am born”, a city which, in God’s mysterious plans in human history and salvation, never remained for one only religion. A lesson to all human presumptions: the city of God should remain a spiritual home for all.

It is the city of the redemption and resurrection, the City where Jesus gave many of his teaching and operated many miracles. We feel that in a certain way, we are citizens of Jerusalem and of the Holy Land. It is true for every Christian. How much more for you, knights and ladies of the Holy Sepulcher. You are interested in the Holy Places but much more, I am sure, in the living stones that continue to be witnesses of Jesus Christ in his own land.

Speaking about the Church of the Holy Land, I will focus on:

-         its identity

-         its present situation

-         Its expectations and needs.

-         its mission


            The first church was born from the Synagogue. The first Christians were Jews, then pagans, converted to the good news like Cornelius and his family. Despite the harsh persecutions against Christians during the first three centuries, the Church knew some prosperity from the fourth to the seventh century. Then, following the Persian and the Arab Moslem conquests of the 7th Century, the Church was gradually weakened and turned back to be a small Church and remained so over the centuries until today.

The reason behind this, according to a theological analysis done by Patriarch Michel Sabbah, is the following: "the Church born in Jerusalem on the Calvary remained a Church of the Calvary. The land where Jesus lived remained with a small Christian community until today. It is only in relation to the mystery of Jesus-Christ Himself, that we can understand the nature and the situation of the Church and of the Christian presence today in the Holy Land. It is intimately bound to the mystery of Jesus-Christ. It remained a small Church and a sign of contradiction."  (Patriarch Michel Sabbah, lecture on Jerusalem, Jerusalem 2000).

 It is important to emphasize that Arab Christians are so from centuries. They are not converts from Islam. On the contrary, we lost many of our numbers through ages because of conversion in the other direction.

It happened to me one day that coming back to my parish in Shatana, Jordan, I accepted a hitch-hiker who wanted to go the near village Nuaimeh. Incidentally, his family had the same name as my family. He was very religious and invited me to convert to Islam in order to join the religion of my forefathers. I answered him that the contrary is true and the religion of our forefathers cannot be but Christianity since conversion to Christianity is not allowed by the Law. The harsh discussion went friendlier until we reached his house.

Besides being small, we are many and divided. Today we are thirteen Churches: each one with its own independent jurisdiction in Jerusalem and all over the Holy Land, that means in Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Three Patriarchs reside in Jerusalem, the Greek Orthodox, the Catholic Latin, and the Armenian. Ten other Archbishops and Bishops are also there: three Orthodox: Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian; five Catholics: Melkite, Maronite, Syrian, Armenian and Chaldean; and two Protestants: Anglican and Lutheran. To start, we have to recognize with a feeling of joy and satisfaction that relations between all these Churches are warm and fraternal. We meet frequently to discuss common questions. We address common messages to our faithful and we take common decisions. For the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, we have created an interchurch committee, in order to prepare common events to be celebrated, besides particular celebrations in every Church. This is the situation His Holiness Pope JP II found when he came to Jerusalem as a pilgrim. All the churches very well received him.


To put it in figures, we are more or less 300,000. Out of 12 million people living in the three countries, Palestine, Israel and Jordan. This makes 2.5. /. of the whole population.

The Arab-Israeli conflict and the tenuous political atmosphere it created have shaped our demographics.  What was a sizable Christian community has been reduced due to years of fighting and both wanton and forced exodus primarily during the 1948 and 1967 wars.  Today the Christians living in Palestine and Israel are only 150,000 (or 1.8). In Palestine alone, i.e. West Bank and Gaza Strip including East Jerusalem, we are 50,000 (2.2%) of the Palestinian population estimated in mid-nineties at 2,500,000. In Israel, we are 100000 out of 5m and a half. In Jordan we are around 150000 (3.8. /.) out of 4 m Jordanian.

Although our number seems insignificant, the Christian presence is valuable and strong in the Jordanian and Palestinian society. Arafat himself and the king of Jordan recognize this on the highest level. In his book entitled "the Christians", the former Crown Prince Hassan paid tribute to the Roman Catholic community which, despite the small number, is efficiently and strongly present in the Arab society.

The phenomenon of emigration has reduced the number of Christians in the Holy Land to a fraction of what they were in years past.  [For instance in Jerusalem before the 1948 war broke out we were 25,000 (16.7%) while now we are about 10,000 (2.1%)] However, few of us share the opinion of some pessimists who say that the Christian community of Palestine is extinguishing. The Holy Land still has a vibrant Christian Palestinian and Jordanian community.

Political situation

The political situation conditions the life of Christians in the Holy Land. They are, like Jesus, incarnated in a history and geography. Paradoxically, because of the importance of the geography of the Holy Land, Arab Christians had to suffer the consequences of the conflict which opposed Jews and Arabs for one Century. Let me summarize the phases of that conflict:

·      In 1948 the British Mandate ended in Palestine. Jews who owned only 5.9% of the land in Palestine at that time were granted by the UN permission to form a state. At the end of the Arab-Israeli War in that year, Israel had seized control of 78% of the country. Refugees who fled as a result of ethnic cleansing or left areas of conflict numbered about 750,000 people. At that time, the West Bank came under Jordanian control and Gaza under Egyptian administration.

·      In the June War of 1967, Israel invaded the West Bank and Gaza, expropriated 73% of the land and has gradually moved Israelis into 194 settlements on seized land in contradiction of international law. By 1998, Israeli settlers numbered 172,500 excluding Jerusalem. (Israel Central Bureau of Statistic)

·      A grassroots uprising called the Intifada began in 1987 to protest the harsh military occupation; it lasted until the Oslo Declaration of principles in September 1993. In July of 1994 the Palestinian Authority was established and was slowly given complete authority over cities, towns and surrounding areas totaling about 37% of the WB and 60% of Gaza.

·      The Camp David meeting called by the US government in 2000 resulted in a final breakdown of seven years of peace negotiations.

·      The visit of Sharon to the Al Alaksa Mosque was the sparkle witch started a violent up-rise.  This coincided with the failure of Oslo to be a framework for negotiations. The USA were no more impartial and honest brokers in the eyes of Palestinians. Despite the many concessions the Israelis have offered in exchange of peace, Palestinians were unhappy because of the delicate question of Jerusalem and the negation of the refugees right of return. Palestinians wanted to send a message to the world. It means the following:

1)     All the Old City of Jerusalem, as an occupied city, should come back to Palestinians.  The Wailing Wall and the Jewish Quarter may have a special status.

2)      The settlements are illegal and should be dismantled

3)     Israel has a great responsibility in the refugees problem. Refugees have the right to return.

4)     The need of an international peace keeping force to protect Palestinians.

5)      The negotiations were not held on equal terms. Palestinians wanted to reinforce their position in the next step of talks thanks to the psychological effects of the up-rise.

The immediate results of this up-rise can be differently evaluated:

-     It raised great solidarity with the Palestinians in the Arab and Islamic world. Some sympathy arose also in Europe and the States but it was very quickly stopped by the killing of the two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah by the angry crowds in a savage way.

-         It strengthened unity among the Palestinian grassroots.

-         But on the other hand, Palestinians suffered enormously: more than 310 killed, 10000 wounded, many of them handicapped for their life, unemployment which reaches 40. /. even more in Gaza, poverty,  restricted movement of goods and people between the cities. The situation will become much more difficult in the future. Israel would like to oblige Palestinians, in this way, to surrender and to accept its conditions of peace while Palestinians think to win and to have a stronger position in the following phase of negotiations.

The way to peace

Peace is not the result of signatures on paper between two antagonists. Justice followed or accompanied by reconciliation and forgiveness must be won for all. Only when justice is achieved can education for peace in human hearts begin.

Peace is not the pure absence of war, nor is it limited only to assuring the balance of opposing forces, nor can despotic domination or a military occupation create it.

"Peace is directly related to God who in himself is the fullness of love. He sent his Word and only Son to gather into one the dispersed sons of God and to destroy the wall which separates them. (cf. Jn 11:52) "On the other hand, peace is also a task God has entrusted to us as a good to be continually sought and defended. Peace is never achieved once and for all; it must be worked for constantly. It is the fruit of a permanent struggle. " Patriarch Sabbah

This struggle takes the peaceful form of negotiations. The Holy Father recently wrote in a letter to Patriarch Sabbah and to the Catholic bishops of the Holy Land: “Only a return to the negotiating table on an equal footing, with due respect for international law, is capable of disclosing a future of brotherhood and peace for those who live in this blessed land”.  He continued, “All individuals [must] see their fundamental rights guaranteed: both the Israeli people and the Palestinian people are equally entitled to live in their own homeland in dignity and security” (Letter to the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, November 6, 2000).

In fact, negotiation is the most civilized means in seeking justice. However, negotiations should consist of real dialogue mediated by an impartial party to the conflict. An agreement should not be made under threat.  The ever-recurring cycle of state-sponsored acts of aggression unfortunately pushes towards the last resort, armed conflict. On the other hand, the benefits for Israelis would be security first of all, international recognition, and acceptance within the Arab and Muslim worlds. It is a truth that once Palestinians are enjoying their rights Israelis will automatically enjoy the so longed for “security.” It is reciprocal.

What are the main issues that negotiations should handle and heal?

1-Jerusalem question:

"We daily live in our hearts, souls and bodies this tragedy of division, hatred and even death. The city of reconciliation, the city of God, seems in her daily struggling life far from God."  (Patriarch Michel Sabbah, lecture on Jerusalem, Jerusalem 2000).

In the last months before the sad confrontations, there was a strong brainstorming among scholars to find a solution to Jerusalem questions, ranging from annexation to sharing or dividing. Any peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians must address the future of the Holy City of Jerusalem. During his historic visit to the Holy Land, the Holy Father witnessed to the universal religious significance of Jerusalem, calling for Jerusalem to be “a City of Peace for all peoples” (March 23, 2000).  The Holy See believes the difficult issues of territory and sovereignty should be resolved by negotiations. It also has repeatedly urged “an internationally guaranteed statute for the most religious parts of this unique city” (Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, March 9, 1999). Such a statute would provide guarantees for equality of rights for all residents, freedom of religion for all, and free access to and protection of the Holy Places. During his visit, the Holy Father has done symbolic steps to signify what he thinks of Jerusalem:

-         He visited in the same day the external court of the mosques and the Wailing Wall.

-         He insisted to attend an inter-religious meeting in Jerusalem. It was the most difficult celebration to prepare during the whole visit. Al this means that Jerusalem cannot be the exclusive property of one party. It is a city, which must be shared.

Jerusalem is at the heart of this conflict because it is the Holy City for all believers. It is also the national symbol for both Israelis and Palestinians. Therefore, this City is the key both to peace and to war. The recent turmoil shows how central Jerusalem is to the peace of the region, and how fragile this peace could be if the issues surrounding Jerusalem are not addressed properly in an equitable way.

"As do all Palestinians, we Christians of the Holy Land believe that for a solution to be just and viable it must take into consideration both the aforementioned principles of international legitimacy and the facts on the ground. West Jerusalem should remain under the Israelis and recognized as such. East Jerusalem, including the Old City, must be returned to Palestinians. The Old City in case you don’t know has a population of almost 32,000, less than 2000 of which are Israelis. Israelis would have administrative control over the Jewish neighborhood in the Old City and the Wailing Wall. Jerusalem would be an open city for all and both sides will share administrative control over the municipal services." (Father Syriani, Christians in the Holy Land, Jerusalem 2000).

2- The right of return and the refugees problem.

 The Israeli violence caused a massive exodus of around one 750000 refugees in 1948 to the Arab world (especially Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.) "Insofar as the refugee issue is concerned, Israel must recognize the principle of a right of return and compensation for Palestinian refugees as incorporated in UNSC 194. I personally believe that very few refugees would actually return to Israel and that most of them would either opt to stay in their adopted countries or else re-settle in Palestine. However, acceptance of the principle itself by Israel will indicate its adherence to international obligations and lead to a purification of memory that will inevitably foster some measure of goodwill amongst both parties." (Harry Hagobian, article on Jerusalem, Jerusalem 2000).

It is a problem of honesty and ethics that Israel recognizes its responsibility in the refugee’s problem. On the other hand, the Arab world should also compensate for Jews who left their homes in the Arab world if it is proven that they were expelled and expropriated.

3- settlements:

Settlements should be removed since they are illegal and will remain cause of unrest and confrontation between the two peoples. This concern upon settlements is one of the most important issues focused upon in the s Statement of the Bishops conference of England and Wales, whose title is: Statement on the importance of sustaining the momentum of the peace process in the Holy Land. While the negotiations are taking place and Palestinian people is uprising against settlements, "the Israeli Government, says the Statement, continues to build and expand settlements, so creating new "facts on the ground" at this highly critical stage of the peace process." We hope the Great Britain will have a more prominent role in resolving this question for many reasons:

-         the necessity of having a European role, moderating the USA pro-Israeli attitude.

-         GB had a mandate over Palestine and was historically involved in the Palestinian problem from the beginning.

-         GB is now close not only to Palestinians and Israelis but has also a common language with the USA and can help in finding a good historic compromise.

4- withdrawal:

As Israel withdrew from Sinai and south Lebanon it is time to withdraw from the Palestinian occupied Territories. It is not a question of concessions but an international obligation, which is stated in the UNSC articles 242 and 138. So far Israel withdraw from 40. /. of the Occupied Territories.

5- A Palestinian State:

 In an article in the Tablet of 11 November 2000, Rabbi Lionel Blue from England wrote:

" The present problem is not ownership but the fear and hatred which have become endemic in a small area about the size of Wales, with two nations claiming the same capital, and three religions each of which has its own memories and hurts… Two states must be accepted in that small country and must share Jerusalem equally and fairly. Israel-Palestine is home to all in it and all that regard it as home, whether Palestinian refugees or persecuted Jews. The heroic intelligence and determination which created the State of Israel can accomplish that too if it enables expensive "swords" to be turned into "ploughshares" of technology. The cost of the settlements which have held Israel to ransom is too high".

If both parties resolve the aforementioned problems, it would be easier to resolve together the many other problems like water shortage, education to peace, economical cooperation, rectification of borders through concessions on equal terms etc…

We spoke long about the political problem and almost forgot the pastoral one. What are the challenges and the expectations of this Church at the beginning of this new millennium?

- Peace first. This is the first need. If it comes it will stop the ongoing hemorrhage of Christians who leave the country every year to find a more secure space. Those who leave are the young, future of the Church, most of them holders of university degrees because they can be easily integrated in the West.

-Evangelization: the Church of the Holy Land is responsible about keeping on the treasure of faith. It should be conveyed to the young generations. Despite the high expenses of running schools, the diocese considers them as an indispensable means.

In the Holy Land there are around 60000 students in the Catholic schools. Half of them are Christians. The Latin Patriarchate alone runs 43 schools with 19000 students of whom two thirds are Christians. Many of these schools of the L.P. are in the poor rural areas of Palestine and Jordan. Our schools are financed half by tuition and the other half thanks to the generous contributions of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher or the Government subsidies (in Israel).  The GM gives us for the schools alone the yearly sum of 1800.000 besides their contributions in building new schools, maintenance making and paying compensations for teachers. The GM has also created a commission for the Schools of the Latin Patriarchate in order to upgrade the human resources, improve the quality of education, give a technical consultation concerning the geographical distribution of schools in different areas according to a scale of priority, in developing budgetary arrangements on annual basis and finally to have transparency in the accounts through accountability, auditing and reporting. During the many meetings we held together in Amman, Rome and Jerusalem, we used to repeat: "We have to help the poor but not in a poor way." .The Commission thinks of motivating the different Lieutenancies in helping our schools through the system of small projects. It prepares also a pension plan for teachers in order to motivate teachers to remain and for the sake of social justice.

This same commission is helping in preparing for the year 2001 a conference for all the catholic schools of the area in order to better coordinate all the efforts. Its title is "Towards a Common Vision for Christian Education in the Holy Land.

The last events put our schools in a difficult situation. In the Caritas appeal we read:

"Christian schools have not been able to collect all of the tuition fees for the current school year. It is extremely important for Christians that these schools remain open since it is here that they are taught catechism and are encouraged in the morals and expected behavior of their faith. One of the strongest witnesses of the Church locally is to the Muslim students attending these schools and to their families. It is in these schools that the personal attention and quality education is given to youth to provide them the foundation that will help them become vital adults prepared to take their place among the nations." (Caritas appeal. Nov. 2000)

-Lay formation: We understand in the Holy Land the importance of lay people in the Church, not only in teaching catechism and other subjects, but also in administration, consultation, communication and information. Many lay people received scholarships in Bethlehem University and in Rome to have major in theology, catechesis, cannon law and communication. Coming back they participate in the life of the Church and in the different offices of the Curia.

A parallel concern is given the formation of priests in Beit Jala Seminary. With 25 seminarians in theology and philosophy, and 65 minor seminarians, we have an average number of 2 ordinations per year. We are happy that the number of priests is stable from many years and that we don’t have the same shortage as in Europe.

"Short-term needs:

Because of the present gloomy situation in the Holy Land, the Church is being asked by the people to increase its response to their emergency needs. Families and parish priests are rightly requesting assistance that we are not able to meet. With the loss of income, the working poor are facing a situation, in which they need money for food, help with payments for family medical problems, school tuition, rent and utilities.

Long-term needs:

We must not only seek to meet the short-term relief needs of people, but also maintain long term programs. The Caritas, CRS, Pontifical Mission and other Catholic agencies have successful development  and health programs.

Because of the absence of good programs of development, the Church finds itself involved in such programs like housing projects, giving loans for people, caring for hospitals, clinics, kindergartens etc…


The Church of the Holy Land has a vocation and a mission.

- Our vocation is to remain, despite our small number, in the Holy Land, where Jesus preached, redeemed humanity and founded the Church.

-To be witnesses of Jesus Christ amidst a Moslem and Jewish majority.  This involves an important interfaith dimension. We have many things in common with each of the two above-mentioned religions. With Jews we have in common the Old Testament, Jesus Himself, Mary and the Apostles who came to us from Jewish roots. We cannot understand our own roots, our liturgy and many practices without reference to the Old Testament. With Islam we have in common language and history. This richness of the Arab Christian community living in the Holy Land qualifies us to be a bridge between Moslems and Jews without negating our origins as Arabs, Palestinians and Christians.

The Holy Father in his speech in Bethlehem addressed the Christians of the Holy Land: "Don’t be afraid to preserve your Christian presence and heritage in the very place where the Savior was born."  He expressed his feelings also under the form of a prayer which remains valid especially in this time of Advent: "O Child of Bethlehem: as we set forth in the new millennium, heal all our wounds, strengthen our steps, open our hearts and minds to "the loving kindness of the heart of our God who visits us like; the dawn from on high." (Lk 1; 78)

 Father William Shomali

London 30, 11, 2000.