CHURCHES and governments around the world need to do more to understand both the challenges that Christians in the Holy Land face and the invaluable part that they play in society, if they are to support them, a report has concluded.
The report, Defeating Minority Exclusion and Unlocking Potential, was published by the International Community of the Holy Sepulchre (ICoHS), a global UK-based body of advocates for Christians in the Holy Land, and the University of Birmingham. It was presented to parliamentarians, civil servants, and religious and charity leaders in Westminster on Thursday of last week.
The Christian community is “at grave risk, challenged in many ways — by wars, inter-religious and ethnic conflict, constraints on international investment and support, as well as fears of economic and legal constraints provoked by migration”, the report says.
One of the authors, Professor Francis Davis, Professor of Religion, Communities and Public Policy at the University of Birmingham, said: “Christianity in the Holy Land is globally and diplomatically significant because of its position at the heart of the region, but its economic, social and civic value for the people of the Holy Land have been massively underestimated. This contribution is disproportionate to the size of the Christian communities.”
The Christian community comprises just two per cent (180,000 people) of Israel’s population and 2.4 per cent (100,000) of the population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The report says that Christians in the Holy Land make “a ground-breaking and wide-ranging contribution to building civil society, new start-ups, excellence in education, health and other humanitarian sectors”. The authors argue that “a crucial part of the Holy Land’s ability to build back creatively and equally after the Covid crisis will be built on the current contribution and future potential of its Christian community.”
The report states: “A programme of briefing and education is necessary to enhance understanding in churches and governments of the value that support, investment and resources can make to stretched civic contributors in the region.”
The study says that the future of Christians is more vulnerable than it needs to be, because of insufficient global attention to their needs. The authors found evidence of “under-developed potential for international support”, and urge the world at large to “acknowledge the call from local Christian communities” for greater and more consistent help. They recommend that ICoHS “should establish a ‘Christian Funders’ Hub’ to enhance, consolidate, and deepen support from churches to Christians in the region”.
Greater understanding and support from outside would ease some of the burdens of Holy Land Christians, but not all of them, the report says. The authors found that, even where good local policy was in place, Christians reported discrimination on religious grounds, as well as “threat and abusive behaviour”. They found that a growing sense of “grievance and despair” among the majority Palestinian Muslim community was “increasing the risk of verbal and physical attacks” on Christians.
Another significant concern is emigration. The report refers to a study by the think tank PCPSR last year that found 36 per cent of Palestinian Christians expressed a desire to leave the West Bank and Gaza Strip and settle abroad. Evidence of population decline is stark: in Jerusalem, for example, Christians accounted for 20 per cent of the city’s inhabitants in the middle of the last century; today, the figure is two per cent. Only 1000 to 2000 still reside in the Old City.
Factors contributing to Christian emigration include political instability and lack of confidence in the peace process; the limited ability of Christians in the Jerusalem area to expand owing to building restrictions; the difficulties that Christian clergy experience in obtaining Israeli visas and work permits; and economic hardship compounded by the West Bank barrier and travel restrictions (exacerbated by the Covid pandemic).
The report quotes an Orthodox cleric as saying: “People are looking for the future of their children, to live in a more peaceful atmosphere and enjoy better conditions.”