Does Christianity have a Future in the Holy Land?

In the autumn of 2006 Richard Goodman from Leicester spent three months in Palestine as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme for Palestine and Israel EAPPI organized by the World Council of Churches. In the UK EAPPI is co-coordinated by the Quakers.

At first Richard was based in Yanoun a small village near Nablus that has been subject to repeated attacks by Israeli settlers. Later he moved to Bethlehem.

Two weeks after we arrived in Palestine Team 19, the latest group of Ecumenical Accompaniers, had gathered at the Headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to meet with the Patriarch himself who was to give us his blessing for the work we were about to begin at our different locations. The Patriarch was a gently spoken man but, in his statement to us, you could see that he feared for the future of Christianity in this land. Of course, he said, churches would always exist and pilgrims would come but this didn’t necessarily mean a vibrant local community of Christians was something whose future could be guaranteed.

In giving his blessing to us and praying for our work, the Patriarch was representing all the church leaders of Jerusalem who had first called us to begin this work of helping not only the Christian community but Palestinian society in general.

He told us how important, in his view, this World Council of Churches’ program was.

On Sunday 15th October three of the Yanoun team, myself included, visited the city of Nablus to meet with some of the local Christians at the Orthodox Community of St Dimitrios. The Church was tucked into a small courtyard in the old city. Nearby were the obvious signs of damage from previous bombing raids on the city which we learned were occurring on a nightly basis at present. After the Liturgy had finished we were able to talk to this small Arab congregation about the situation they were facing. The priest, Father George Aw-ad, told us of a time when up to 50,000 Christians lived in Nablus just some 30 years ago but now they were down to less than 1,000 and many of these wanted to leave.

Fr George said he gave Christianity only 20 years in the city if present rates of decline continue – “all we can do is trust in God.” He then took out a photograph album showing us what the church looked like just a few months earlier. A bomb had gone off nearby and had badly damaged the church. All the windows were blown in, rubble covered the floor and icons had been blown out of the iconostasis at the front of the church . Yet this small congregation, with the help of some of the local Muslims, had repaired it for worship once again, at least until the next time. Michael told us how each night the Israeli army makes incursions into the city and each morning reveals some more destruction. How long will it be until the church is hit again?.

Huwwara checkpoint, Nablus, with soldiers pointing guns at drivers entering the city

Speaking to members of the church revealed how they felt trapped in the middle of this conflict and are viewed with suspicion by both sides, by the Israelis, who treat them in the same way as they treat all Palestinians, as well as by many in the Muslim community. They can be the first target to be lashed out at when the policies of the so called ’Christian West’ seem to make life worse for the Palestinians or the

Muslim world in general.

These Christians do not associate themselves with the political agendas of Mr Blair or Mr Bush. They are fully Arab Christians who can trace their historical roots back to Christ and the Apostles themselves. Yet recently two churches in the city were fire bombed following the quotations used by Pope Benedict about Islam.

Leaving this congregation left us with mixed emotions. They were warm and friendly yet felt somehow so beleaguered. We wondered what the future would hold for people like Michael and his young daughter.

Going through the streets of the old city the walls were full of pictures of young men who had obviously died in suicide missions against Israel. They are viewed as freedom fighters who had died as martyrs, but I had a certain feeling of darkness seeing these men who had decided the future was so bleak and the Israeli military presence so strong that the only thing they could do was strap explosives to their bodies and blow themselves up.

Leaving the city we had to negotiate the Israeli checkpoint of Huwwara, a seething mass of humanity trying to reach their homes or places of work on the other side of the checkpoint, but still in the West Bank.

Herded like animals the men in particular are searched and their bags emptied with no telling how long they might have to wait. Soldiers, barely out of school, brandish weapons as they shout out orders to the people. In situations like this it is hardly surprising that people want to escape the city or the West Bank altogether for a better life in the West. For the Christians, even reaching Jerusalem is impossible unless they can get a permit. Muslims face the same difficulties reaching their holy Mosque of Al Aqsa. Not only is economic life crippled but religious life is affected by the ongoing conflict. Many see their only hope of a brighter future as getting out altogether.

We can only hope some of the Christians of St. Dimitrios do stay, along with those of other churches, but ultimately all they can do, as has been said, is trust in God that one day true peace will come and end the tragedy that is Palestine today.

The Orthodox Church of St Dimitrios