Wanted: peace in the Holyland

  • May 14, 2009
{mosimage}Fr. Michel Lavoie, a native of Timmins, Ont., serves as a confrere at St. Anne’s Basilica in Jerusalem. Like all men of faith in the Holy Land, he prays that Pope Benedict XVI’s Middle East tour will help bring the troubled area closer to peace, because, without peace, Fr. Lavoie fears Christianity in the the land of Christ’s birth faces extinction.

“I’ve never met a Christian 35 years old or less who wants to stay,” said Lavoie. “They see no future for their children. I hope and pray that they will stay because I don’t want the Holy Land to become just a land of museums.”

The Pope landed in the Middle East May 8 for what was called a pilgrimage of peace but, in reality, was a mission of diplomacy to mend strained relations with the Jewish and Muslim worlds. It is no easy task. As one example, the Pope’s heartfelt plea at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem that the Holocaust “never be denied, belittled or forgotten,” was unfairly derided as insufficient by many Israeli politicians and media outlets.

Such criticism is probably unsurprising to Benedict, nor should it be overly disconcerting. He’s never going to silence the uncompromising shrill from agitators who are a bottleneck of peace. He is wise to focus on the bigger picture.

Amid the big-picture concerns is the plight of Holy Land Christians, some of whom probably descend from the early church. They are pawns in the political, religious and land disputes between Jews and Muslims. Predominantly Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, they are distrusted by Israelis because they are typically Palestinian and shunned (or persecuted) by many Muslims because they are Christian.

Their situation is acute in the West Bank and Gaza, where Israel’s security wall has virtually severed them from the rest of the world.

In Bethlehem, prior to the Palestinian uprising eight years ago, there were some 30,000 Christians, representing about half the town’s population of 60,000. Since then Christians have been fleeing and, today, only an estimated 8,000 remain in the city of Christ’s birth.

They are beleaguered souls. The 10-metre, concrete security wall has decimated Bethlehem’s tourism-based economy. Young Christians, seeing no prospects, have been emigrating in droves.

“If things continue this way then, yes, it is possible that some day there will be no more Christians here,” said Edward Tabash, a Bethlehem Christian whose once-thriving jewellery business is struggling to survive. “We need more jobs and more security.”

In Jerusalem, Fr. Lavoie says Christians have been encouraged to remain in the Holy Land. But it is a tough sell. They are being driven away by the political and economic fractures.

These Holy Land Christians, feeling abandoned by the Christian world, crave more than the Pope’s sympathy and blessing. They need him to be a catalyst for change. It’s a tall order because the only permanent solution to their plight is lasting peace in the Middle East.

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