Beirut (AsiaNews) - The 'haemorrhage' of Christians from the Middle East, and especially from the Holy Land, can not only be blamed on "others" but also on Christians themselves, who do not understand the necessity of their unity, because "in the East, or we will be united or we will not be at all”. The sentence first pronounced in 1992 the first Assembly of Catholic Patriarchs of the East was once again among the reflections of Msgr. Rafik Khoury, of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, a professor at the Catholic University of Bethlehem who was recently in Lebanon at the invitation of the Episcopal Commission for Christian-Muslim dialogue of the Assembly of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops in Lebanon (APECL).
In a series of conferences to raise awareness about the challenge to the Christian presence in Palestine and other Arab countries, including Lebanon, Mgr. Khoury highlighted that only 50 thousand Christians remain in the West Bank, while another ten thousand in Jerusalem. The Christians of Palestine, he said in an interview in L'Orient Le Jour, are only 1, 6% of the 3.6 million inhabitants, whereas in the middle of last century, they were approximately 15%.
Msgr. Khouury himself is from Taybi - the Ephraim of Chapter 11 of the Gospel of John - a wholly Christian village near Ramallah, which today has 1400 inhabitants and 14 thousand emigrants. The prelate, however, has three passports - Palestinian, Jordanian and Vatican – in order to be able to move freely in his homeland.
Emigration, said Msgr. Khoury, is a question of stability, since it is directly linked to the climate of instability in which the Palestinians live. This causes two types of exodus: external to the West, and internal. The latter is a movement of geographic retreat of Christians from their communities. This stems partly from practical factors. Restrictions on movement created by Israel, have dramatically separated the Palestinian public services, schools, hospitals, homes are often separated on either side of the separation barrier. Jerusalem is detached from the West Bank and is not accessible, with the pass that must constantly be renewed. The fixed and mobile checkpoints of the Israeli army fragment the country, which makes movement painful and uncertain.
The political and sometimes military instability in which the Palestinians live give rise to ideological and religious factors. They provoke fundamentalists of all kinds: Muslims, Zionists, and even Christians. The latter are those Protestants who openly support Zionism and the colonies, in the naive belief it will hasten the conversion of Israel to Christianity.
The responsibility of Christians
But we cannot always blame “others” for all our problems: Msgr. Khoury notes that part of the answer to the exodus of Christians lies in their own hands. Like every Christian, he felt humiliated, at Easter, seeing in television the outrageous confrontation between Greek and Armenian monks in front of the chapel of the Resurrection. In his eyes, unity of Christians should be considered a priority concern, among Catholics, but also between Catholics and Orthodox. And he recalls, in this regard, the assertion of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops of the East "or we will be united or we will not be at all".
But what the patriarchs do in favour of such unity, beyond asserting its necessity, is quite a different matter. In practice, almost nothing, apart from some miserly housing project; this falls far short of stemming the exodus. In reality, each one continues to work for his own parish, deaf to the pressures of the faithful, who are known to favour unification since the episode at Easter. Each one speaks modestly of a lack of solidarity. But it is, in fact, lack of charity.
"Christians do not understand the divisions among Christians," said Msgr. Khoury, arguing that in the ecumenical field a middle ground between the impatience of the faithful and the slowness of the hierarchy is needed. Moreover, how is it possible not be saddened seeing how, in the name of past "wounds", Orthodox and Catholics jeopardize their future? Mgr. Khoury affirms the need for a new evangelization of Christians in Palestine, or Palestinian Christians, a step that must reawaken Christians to the missionary dimension of their presence in the Arab-Muslim land, of which they constitute one of the most ancient and noble components. Why should this missionary awareness be a privilege of "kibboutzniks" and why not voluntarily accept some sacrifice, if it can help the spread of Christianity? Obviously an Arab world without Christians would not be the same.
To stem the tide of emigration, finally, a role can be played by the powers, big and small. Without getting too deeply into political debate, Mgr. Khoury notes that Vatican diplomacy could be more rigorous towards the State of Israel. The Holy See he says has officially recognized Israel without getting in return the facilities that it has the right to expect; that State creates great difficulty in granting visas to priests and employees who are from the West and of which the local Church has great need to be able to accomplish its mission.
Returning to the theme of the new evangelization, Mgr. Khoury recalles that in their fourth message to the faithful, the Catholic Patriarchs of the East have called them to be "less community and more church", less closed in on themselves and more open. A victory of the Church over the "community" will be essential if Christians want to stay in Arab territory.