In the Holy Land there are 150,000 Christian migrants, 60,000 Catholics. They come from all over the world, with different hopes and motives: those looking for work, those fleeing from war and dictatorship. The Church of Jerusalem "A Mother where everyone can feel at home" gives them support. Grateful for the beauty of diversity. Asylum seekers are the most vulnerable, "productive" part of the Church and society.
Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) - Fr. David Neuhaus is the patriarchal vicar for Catholics of Jewish Expression, and deals with the Pastoral Center "Our Lady of Valor". In this interview, he shares the experience of many Christian migrants in Israel.
Speaking of migrant Christians, where do they mainly come from? Do they come with their families?
The migrants are divided into different categories. When it comes to the Christians, we are talking about 150 000 migrants divided according to the following categories:
- legal labour migrants – most of the Christians are care givers and come predominantly from Asia, the biggest group being Filipinos. The Catholics include Filipinos, Indians and Sri Lankans with smaller populations from West Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Legal migrants cannot bring members of their family with them however some of them establish families in Israel.
- illegal labour migrants – these are people who enter the country as tourists and stay to work. The majority of the Christians come from Eastern Europe and the countries of the ex-Soviet Union. They often have left their families behind.
- asylum seekers – these are people fleeing from their homelands and seeking refuge in Israel, having entered through Sinai. The border was sealed in 2012 and so these people, numbering about 40 000 all entered before 2012. The vast majority of Christians in this group come from Eritrea. A number of asylum seekers have families, some arrived with their families but most established families after arriving.
What kind of issues and struggles do they live in their daily life?
The most important struggle is to find a roof and a job and make enough money to pay the expenses of daily life. Most migrants are obliged to work very long hours in a system in which discrimination and exploitation are rife. The majority of migrants live in neighbourhoods that are very poor and crime ridden meaning that personal security I also an issue.
Another important struggle is when there are children, trying to educate them.
A catastrophe for migrants is dealing with illness as few have decent medical insurance.
As Church, we try to help with three levels of challenge:
- We establish parish communities, where migrants can continue their faith life in the language and with the traditions they are used to. These communities also provide a place where migrants can feel at home within their own culture and among their compatriots.
- We provide for the religious education of the children. Migrant children are educated in the government system but receive no faith education and so the Church organizes catechism, publishes books in Hebrew (the language the children grow up in), provides afterschool activities, etc.
- We are also involved in certain areas of crises: providing decent day care for infants (infants are not cared for in the Israeli system), caring for the sick who have lost their jobs and homes and supporting victims of human trafficking and torture (prevalent among the Africans some of whom have been kidnapped). The Church also has a team that offers support to those migrants imprisoned in Israel.
What does this Christian migration mean for the Christian communities in the Holy Land and their life?
The Church in the Holy Land must reach out to the migrants and yet the challenge is that the number of Christian migrants, about 150 000, is almost the same as the number of Christian citizens in the State of Israel, about 160 000. With regard to the Roman Catholic Church, the numbers are even more striking, about 60 000 Roman Catholic migrants as compared with only about 25 000 Roman Catholic citizens in Israel.
Another important challenge is that the Christian citizens are mostly Arabs and live in the Arabic speaking milieu in Israel whereas the migrants live in the Jewish Hebrew speaking milieu. Together with the Hebrew speaking Christian population, these migrants guarantee a vibrant Christian presence at the heart of Israeli Jewish Hebrew speaking society.
It is very important that the Christians in the Holy Land accommodate the migrants and make them feel at home. The migrants bring vitality, vibrancy and devotion to the local churches and the multi-cultural character of the Church in the Holy Land today can serve as a reminder that the Church of Jerusalem is indeed the Mother Church and in her all can feel at home.
Regarding Our Lady of Valor Pastoral Center in Tel Aviv, what would you like to share about this experience?
Our Lady Woman of Valour Pastoral Centre is an oasis in the midst of a slum neighbourhood in south Tel Aviv. We opened our days in February 2014, the first time a Catholic church was fully functional in the Jewish city of Tel Aviv. In the midst of poverty and crime, drug trade and prostitution, a place of prayer and community life radiates serenity, love, hope and community activism. At least eight Sunday masses are celebrated each week, welcoming thousands of faithful. 60 migrant babies are welcomed each day for eleven hours a day in the active day care centre that provides an alternative model to horrendous baby warehouses In the neighbourhood. Children come to the centre for assistance with their homework. Afterschool activities are offered to children and youth. Religious catechism prepares children for the sacraments and introduces them to the faith of their parents in the language of the society in which they live, Hebrew.
Stimulating healthy community life, encouraging relationships across the cultural divides and bearing witness radiantly to Christian faith in a multi-religious neighbourhood is invigorating. Here the Church is at the margins and collaborating with all those who are trying to build a future among the devastation of poverty, discrimination, exploitation and crime.
How do people of such diverse origins experience living their faith together?
Masses are celebrated in different languages with different traditions and musical traditions. However, the most beautiful moments are the celebrations when everyone comes together: special feast days, the Feast of Our Lady Woman of Valour (in the first part of May) and the World Day of Migrants in January. The beauty of this diversity is stunning and creates moments to give thanks amid the troubles and suffering. We work hard to ensure that cross cultural communication leads to harmony and understanding.
Are there many refugees and asylum seekers in the Center? How do they adapt to living in Israel?
The asylum seekers are the poorest and most vulnerable of the migrant groups. They have fled war, genocide and dictatorship in Eritrea and Sudan. They hoped to get refugee status in Israel however less than 0.1% of this population has been able to process their requests. The Church is active together with NGOs in trying to raise consciousness about their conditions.
Most of the asylum seekers are Ge’ez rite Orthodox Christians. There is a small parish community of Eritreans who are Ge’ez rite Catholics in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem. The life of these asylum seekers is particularly difficult as they have no guaranteed right to work, no health insurance, no long term status and no way to leave the country unless they are willing to be deported back to Africa. The authorities have increased difficulties in recent years in an attempt to pressure these people to leave. A detention camp in the Negev desert is home to thousands of unmarried asylum seeker men. Recently, the authorities have introduced new ways to tax any income that the asylum seekers might have.
It should be underlined that despite the dismal situation, there are many asylum seekers who work hard and provide for themselves and their families. We need to pray hard in the spirit of Pope Francis that the authorities will cease seeing these people as an enemy but rather as a potential source of productivity in our society. They are certainly a very vibrant and productive part of our Church.