Holy Land’s Struggling Christians need our Prayerful Solidarity

April 12, 2013

Southern Nebraska Register, By Bishop James D. Conley

I’m filled with wonder at times, when I think of the size of our Catholic Church, and the range of peoples and cultures it includes. And I’m even more awed by God’s work and providence, when I think about our humble roots in the town of Galilee.

Almost 20 centuries ago, eleven men heard Jesus’ words: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Today, every member of Christ’s Mystical Body shares a profound bond with 1.2 billion people worldwide.

Despite our differences, we are a giant extended family – joined by our common faith, baptism, and sacramental life.

Unfortunately, many of our brothers and sisters live in places where it is difficult, even dangerous, to believe in Jesus and belong to his Church.

Christians suffer for their faith in two-thirds of the world’s 193 countries. Commenting on this fact in a February 2013 article, the Jewish rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein noted that, “Christians have succeeded Jews as the numerically most persecuted people on the face of the earth.”

Tragically, one of the most difficult places to be a Christian is that very place where the Church first began – the region we call the Holy Land.

The Holy Land is home to ancient Christian communities that existed long before the rise of Islam or the modern state of Israel. Many of these Christians are Roman Catholics, while others belong to the various Eastern Catholic traditions or the Eastern Orthodox churches. All are linked, spiritually and geographically, to the Church’s earliest days in Jerusalem.

Today, Christians in the Holy Land are caught in the middle of long-standing political and religious conflicts. Palestinian Christians face restrictions on commerce and travel, as well as anti-Christian attitudes and poorly functional government.

As a result, many of Christ’s faithful are leaving the region – permanently. Their reasons for emigrating are understandable, but the net effect is disastrous.

Approximately 150,000 Christians now live in the Holy Land. But this population is declining, with around 500 Christian families leaving the area annually.

At this rate, Church leaders fear that the Holy Land could lose its native Christian presence within decades. Jesus’ homeland would be reduced to a spiritual “tourist attraction”: a place that foreign Christians visit, but where native-born faithful no longer live.

This tragic situation has parallels throughout the Middle East, where native Christians fear that they will be forgotten and abandoned by the Western world.

Sadly, this fear is a realistic one. Americans often travel to the Holy Land as pilgrims, without gaining a sense of what life is like for its Christian residents.

The same holds true for nearby countries like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq: before these countries were in the headlines, few Western Christians knew much about their ancient Catholic and Orthodox communities. Even today, we often fail to look beyond the occasional shocking news bulletin.

Our ignorance is doubly tragic due to the impact of our country’s actions on these endangered churches. U.S. foreign policy has direct effects – sometimes good, but often seriously harmful – on our Christian brothers and sisters in the region.

Persecuted and suffering Christians are often forgotten by the world. But the Church does not forget her children – in the Holy Land, the larger Middle East, or anywhere else. The Lord wants us to reach out, with action and prayer, to the suffering members of his Mystical Body.

I commend the Knights and Ladies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, of whom I am member, and other groups like them, who raise money and support for the education, development and economic growth of the Palestinian Christian community.

Closer to home, this coming Sunday, April 14, we have a chance to reach out to our fellow Christians in the Holy Land. On that afternoon there will be a series of Holy Hours hosted locally by the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land. In the presence of our Lord, we will pray for peace and the preservation of struggling Christian communities.

These Holy Hours for the Holy Land will take place at 3 p.m. on Sunday, at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln, Saint Cecilia in Hastings, and Saints Peter and Paul Church in Falls City. A Holy Hour for the same intention will be held at Saint Patrick Parish in McCook, at 4:30 p.m.

If you can attend, I urge you to do so. The Gospel challenges us to live out our familial bonds with the global Church, in its joys and sorrows. This is part of being one body, as St. Paul reminds us: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”

Every Christian belongs to an enormous “extended family.” And no member of that family should feel forgotten by his brethren.

Our circumstances are very different from those of the Christians in the Holy Land. Yet we are closer to them than we know, linked by graces that transcend all distances and differences.

This Sunday, we will come before the Lord who unites us, to pray for the faithful in the land where the Church began.

Jesus Christ cares deeply about his Church’s continued presence there – and so should we.