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The Holy Land's Dwindling Christians
Christians are rapidly emigrating and shrinking to a tiny community
Yehonathan Tommer (tommery06)     Print Article 
Published 2007-12-23 04:31 (KST)   
"We must be realistic. The Christians of the Holy Land will be very small in the future. Their numbers have shrunk to under 2 percent of the entire population in the Palestinian territories and Israel," says Dr. Uwe Graebe, propst (provost) of the Evangelical German Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City of Jerusalem, which has a nominal membership of 23 million in Germany. "They will become even smaller but will not completely disappear."

Dr. Uwe Graebe.
©2007 Yehonathan Tommer
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The reasons are many. But Graebe confidently predicts that "there will always be a small number of indigenous Christians strongly connected to this country who believe that with suitable living conditions, they can continue to live here raising their families and never leave. The churches and their Holy sites will not become museums and they will be cared for and administered by this local band of dedicated people."

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The majority of Israel's 160,000 Arab-speaking Christians live mainly in the country's north, in the Haifa region and Galilee. Another 40,000 Palestinian Christians live in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Most of them belong to the Merkites, which split from the Greek Orthodox Church in the 18th century and joined the Roman Catholic Church but retained their Byzantine liturgy. The remainder owes allegiance to the Vatican. An unknown number lives prosperously in Jordan protected by the Hashemite royal family.

I spoke with Graebe at the priory offices alongside the Church. This was built in 1898 with a permit from the Turkish Sultan on the remains of a Crusader Church and hospital on Muristan Road, an untypical wide street in the heart of the Christian quarter. Its majestic belfry joins the city skyline, close by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (identified in Christian tradition as the place where Jesus was crucified and buried).

The Church of the Redeemer.
©2007 Yehonathan Tommer
The morning was quiet, even pastoral, as most of the Muslim-owned stores were closed behind heavy roll-down metal shutters during the four-day Eid al-Adha festival, or "Feast of the Sacrifice." I entered the New Gate and walked down the silent streets, passing by a small group of Russian-speaking pilgrims and a lone tourist who asked for directions to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Most of the passers-by were local Israelis looking for bargains in the main Shuk (marketplace) or Palestinian residents of the city.

Christians Are Emigrating to Improve Their Lives

According to Graebe, Palestinian Christians are emigrating in "terrifyingly large numbers." Just as Bethlehem is rapidly becoming a Muslim town, a similar demographic trend is changing the character of Old Jerusalem's Arab-Christian quarter. A decade ago they numbered 10,000. Today they are fewer. "We reached a watershed in 2000 and have now passed a point of no return in which the numbers will continue to dwindle."

A clash between Western Christian civilization and Islam is offered as one explanation. Christians are leaving because of Muslim persecution in the Palestinian Authority.

Another explanation for the Christian exodus blames the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories. As each ethnic group seeks its own space, the majority Muslim population shoves out the smaller Christian community.

Graebe doesn't buy into either theory.

Pragmatic responses are more persuasive, he says. It is normal for people to emigrate when living conditions are poor and they can do better elsewhere. "Christians don't suffer more than Muslims. They simply have better opportunities to emigrate because their families are significantly smaller, economically stronger and better educated and more highly skilled than their Moslem counterparts."

Nor is there any evidence for systematic persecution and religiously motivated murder of Christians by Moslems in the Palestinians territories, though there have been recent isolated incidents, he says. "These should be distinguished from ethnic murders connected to family conflicts involving honor, or property disputes between Christians and Moslems."

Graebe believes that Christian emigration from the Holy Land is irreversible. "Large and dynamic Palestinian Christian emigre communities abroad constitute a powerful magnet for the community's remaining local members."

However, the process, he believes, can be arrested through affordable housing to young families who wish to remain and live in a supportive Christian community. This is precisely what the Lutheran Church, along with other denominations, is doing with funds raised by congregations in Germany, Scandinavia and the United States. After a 10-year battle for a building permit with Israeli bureaucracy and the Jerusalem Municipality, groundbreaking will begin in the first half of 2008 for the construction of 84 apartments on the Mount of Olives, to be completed by 2011.

The inner courtyard of the Church of the Redeemer.
©2007 Yehonathan Tommer
Outreach Programs

Graebe, who speaks fluent Hebrew, heads the German-Speaking Evangelical Congregation, which numbers 200 registered and paid members largely from among German diplomats, representatives of German businesses and companies and NGOs, German theology students from the Hebrew University and volunteers stationed in Israel and the Palestinian territories for longer periods of time.

The Church of the Redeemer also maintains a similar-size Arab-speaking congregation and a smaller English-speaking one, which conducts Sunday services in the Chapel.

Graebe is responsible for the Church's entire affairs in the Palestinian territories, Israel and Jordan. He arrived in Israel with his young family 18 months ago to take up an extensive and busy post for a six-, and possibly, nine-year appointment.

Tens of thousands of visitors pass through their hands. 1999 was a peak year that brought 40,000 visitors. These numbers fell dramatically during the intifada years and have since steadily recovered to a projected 20,000 by the end of 2007.

Graebe's duties are as intense and diverse as the three principal institutions that he manages: a Jerusalem Foundation, which administers the Church of the Redeemer, the priory and a guest house; the Augusta Victoria Foundation, which manages the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives and hosts pilgrims and arranges guided tours of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land for German-speaking visitors from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands; and the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology, which works on sites in Jerusalem and Amman and which takes him regularly to Jordan.

The Church also provides individual spiritual counseling, organizes ecumenical Christian-Jewish-Muslim outreach and dialogue and lectures on theological questions of social responsibility and the Holocaust, as well as monthly concerts of classical music performed by local and international guest artists.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Yehonathan Tommer

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