BRIEFING ON THE CONDITION OF CHRISTIANS IN THE HOLY LAND AND THE FUTURE OF JERUSALEM
Hart Senate Office Building
April 7, 1999
My name is Father Drew Christiansen of the Society of Jesus. I serve on the Board of Advisors of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, which has invited me to speak today, and as Special Counselor to the United States Catholic on Middle East Affairs. I am here today to speak on the condition of Christians in the Holy Land, that is, Israel, the Palestinian Self- Rule Areas, and Jerusalem, and on the Catholic Church's hope for the future of Jerusalem.
As we speak, a critical situation is unfolding in the Israeli city of Nazareth. You may have read press reports the last couple of days of Easter Sunday riots between Muslims and Christians and of a subsequent general strike on the part of shopkeepers in the city.
This situation has been developing for more than a year. It was begun and is driven by Muslim Fundamentalists and has divided the Muslims as well as the wider Arab community in Israel. Tensions have been aggravated by divisions between different ministries of the Government of Israel on how to respond to the tensions. Opportunistic electioneering by right-wing Israeli politicians have also aggravated an already volatile situation.
These religious tensions in Nazareth are especially alarming because for fifty years Christians have been able to prosper, relatively speaking, in Israel, with the population quadrupling in the last half century.
While Israeli Arabs generally suffer the disadvantages of second-class citizenship, Christians have been able to lead relatively secure lives in Israel proper. Nazareth has been a major Christian center.
The present tensions are distressing because they threaten to stimulate an increase in Christian emigration from Israel, resulting in the rapid disappearance of the Christian population in the land of Jesus. They also forebode grave ethnic and religious tensions in Israel and an ominous collaboration across religious lines by radicals against moderates.
In the Palestinian Self-Rule Areas, the Christian proportion of the population has shrunk from about ten per cent of the total fifty years ago to about two per cent.
In the period since the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank, through the Intifada and the interim Self-Rule period, as the West Bank and Gaza have suffered economic decline and varieties of repression, Christians, with education and international contacts, have tended to emigrate to escape the hardships of life under occupation and to find a better future for themselves and their children.
Those who remain identify as Palestinians and continue to suffer with their compatriots through an elusive and painful peace process. The Palestinian Authority has been firm in dealing with acts of intolerance against Christians.
Accusations by Israeli authorities that the PA has orchestrated persecution of Christians is wrong. In addition, charges that President Arafat controls the now largely Palestinian hierarchies of the churches are a deliberate miscontrual of the fact that most of the Patriarchs and bishops are now locally born, Palestinian Christians. Their nationality reflects the de-colonization and inculturation of the Church which has taken place worldwide over the last forty years.
The bishops' as defenders of justice and human rights and spokesmen for their people means that they have often been critics of government policies both in Israel and the Palestinian areas, and so they are perceived by some officials as unfriendly actors on the scene. For this reason, they have on more than one occasion been defamed by public authorities and politicians.
In Jerusalem, a variety of Israeli policies, at the local and national levels, have both directly and indirectly diminished the Christian population of the Holy City. Chief among these have been the withdrawal from Palestinians of Jerusalem residency permits and the denial of building permits for construction, expansion and repair of housing in the Old City and East Jerusalem.
The deterioration of the housing stock has led to patterns of late marriage and emigration, which have prevented the natural growth of the Christian community and accelerated its reduction.
Finally, a word about Catholic hopes for Jerusalem. These have been laid out in a series of statements by the Vatican Secretariat of State, and in addresses by the Vatican foreign minister, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, in addresses last October in Jerusalem and again last month here in Washington.
The Holy Father in his annual address to the diplomatic corps last January noted that "It is not reasonable to put off until later the question of the status of Jerusalem, to which the followers of the three monotheistic religions turn their gaze."
For brevity's sake, let me make just three points.
First, as the future of Jerusalem is negotiated in the months ahead, the Holy See has asked for the drafting of "a special statute" for Jerusalem which would affirm the city's universal religious significance as home to three monotheistic religions.
Secondly, the Holy See asks that such a legal instrument include guarantees i) for equality of rights and services of adherents of the three faiths in Jerusalem, ii) for the three religious communities to function freely in all dimensions of their communal lives, and iii) for freedom of access to the holy places for all pilgrims, local (i.e., Palestinian) as well as international.
Finally, the Holy See proposes that these guarantees which would be negotiated by Israelis and Palestinians, be further supported by international agreement. Such special arrangements, in the view of the Holy See and of the local church, would assure that Jerusalem realizes her vocation as a city of peace and a place of encounter with God for all humanity.
I have taken more than my share of time. Thank you for your attention.
Washington, D.C. Rev. Drew Christiansen,S.J.
April 7, 1999
Senior Fellow Woodstock Theological Center
Georgetown University Washington, D.C.
Special Counselor United States Catholic Conference