(The Criterion) As we approach the feast of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, we must renew our prayers for peace in the Holy Land, and throughout the Middle East. Unfortunately, the situation of Christians in that area of the world got worse during the past year, mainly because of the Islamic State that is intent on driving Christians out.
The city of Christ’s birth continues to lose Christians. In 1948, just after World War II and when Israel was recognized as a country, Christians comprised 85 percent of Bethlehem’s population. That slowly declined, but it was still 54 percent 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 percent in 1998, 15 percent in 2009, and only 10 percent 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.
First, of course, are the 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 Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, as well as the basilicas of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Annunciation in Nazareth.
The Franciscans are assisted in their ministry by supporters of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land (www.ffhl.org), many of whom live in central and southern Indiana.
Then there is 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 pre-school 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 percent Christian and 40 percent 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.
Bethlehem University, operated by the Christian Brothers, was established by the Vatican after Pope Paul VI’s visit to the Holy Land in 1964. Today it has 3,223 students, 78.3 percent of whom are women. Its student body is now 75 percent Muslim because of the number of Christians who are emigrating.
Bethlehem also has the Holy Family Hospital. This hospital, mainly a maternity hospital, was operated by the Daughters of Charity until 1985, when it closed operations because of the Israeli-Arab conflict. It is now an institution of the Order of Malta, an international order whose modern purpose is to assist children, the homeless, handicapped, elderly, refugees, the poor and those with terminal illnesses.
It renovated the hospital, and opened it again in 1990. Since then, 60,000 deliveries have taken place there. Mothers come from long distances, from Hebron to the south and from villages east of Jerusalem.
The Ecumenical Institute of Tantur, founded by the Vatican and operated by the University of Notre Dame, is just on the other side of the wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Christians, Jews and Muslims meet there to try to find solutions to the Middle East’s problems.
Despite the declining numbers of Christians in Bethlehem and other parts of the Holy Land, the Catholic Church continues to serve the people there, especially those in most need of its help.
Just as it does in other parts of the world, including here in the United States, the Church doesn’t serve the people because they are Catholic, but because the Church is.
—John F. Fink