How is the conflict between Israel and Palestine affecting Christians?
Only a few weeks ago, on 30 September, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, was named a cardinal in the consistory in Rome. His flock in Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Cyprus, including the Vicariates for the Migrants and Asylum Seekers as well as the Hebrew Speaking Congregation, rejoiced at the news. In hindsight, the symbolism of the red hat he received on that occasion, and which signifies the blood of the martyrs and his willingness to suffer for the Church, could not have been more apt.
Exactly one week later, on 7 October, Hamas carried out the brutal attack against Southern Israel which led to a reaction and counterstrike that has left more than five thousand people dead – 3600 Palestinians and 1400 Israelis – and 10 thousand wounded. Over 150 Israelis remain in Gaza as hostages.
As with the rest of the population, the Christian community in Israel and Palestine, has been living in a state of anguish, uncertainty and fear since that day.
Gaza: “We remain with our people”
In Gaza around 150 Catholics and 350 Orthodox Christians have taken refuge in the Catholic Parish of the Holy Family, along with a priest and religious from three congregations. This is around half of the total Christian population of Gaza, including Catholics, Orthodox and protestants.
Despite Israel’s recommendation to evacuate northern Gaza, ACN’s local project partner Sister Nabila, of the Sisters of the Holy Rosary, told the charity that the she is not going anywhere. “We need medicine. Many hospitals have been destroyed. Our school has also been damaged, but we’re not leaving. People have nothing, not even the basic essentials, where would we go? To die in the street? There are old people here, the Missionaries of Charity are with us as well, with a group of disabled and elderly. Where can they go? We will stay with them. Pray for us, for this madness to end”, she says. Sister Nabila has not slept in three days, and admits that news of the death of around 500 people in the courtyard of the Anglican hospital on Tuesday evening caused her deep suffering. The sisters’ school is in a neighborhood that has been totally destroyed by airstrikes.
The threat of Israel launching a ground offensive and invading Gaza is one of the major fears of the Christians in the region. Firstly, because of what that would mean for the civilian population of Gaza, and the massive death toll it would cause on both sides, but also because of Hamas’ possible reaction to the offensive. The group claims to still have 5,000 rockets, and even though 85% of them are intercepted by the radars and protection systems, the rest are enough to do terrible damage to the Israeli population, including in Jerusalem.
West Bank: Many were already poor, now they are desperate
The estimated 37 thousand Christians who remain in the West Bank are also living through days of uncertainty and fear. Israel is in a state of war. More than 90% of tourists have already left the country and future pilgrimages are being cancelled, including up to January 2024. “This will translate into a terrible economic crisis for many Christian families, since around 70% of Christians work in the tourism sector. Many of these earn a living from selling souvenirs, as bus drivers, receptionists, and so on “, says George Akroush, who is also an ACN project partner, based in Jerusalem.
Another major problem is the closure of checkpoints into Israel. Many Christian families prefer to live in the West Bank, because they have better access to education for their children, which is very important to them, but they commute to Jerusalem to work. Due to the state of emergency, and for security reasons, they have not been allowed to cross the checkpoints or to enter Israel since October 7.
“Those who suffer from chronic illness are in a terrible situation, but even basic necessities such as food, rent, water and electricity are a difficulty. Many were already poor, but now they are absolutely desperate”, says Akroush.
The West Bank is also home to the Beit Jala Spiritual Formation centre, a project of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem supported by different organisations, including ACN, which was officially inaugurated a few weeks ago and was meant to be a place where seminarians and lay people of the community could work and study together. In the meantime, it has been operating as a branch of the Latin Patriarchate, and many of the staff members who are unable to travel to Jerusalem because of the checkpoint closures have been working remotely from there.
Jerusalem, a city of peace in a state of war
In East Jerusalem, which is home to around 10 thousand Christians, the situation is also very difficult. Around 40% of them are also dependent on the tourism sector, and many have lost their jobs. The tourists have left, and the hotels that are empty are being used as quarters for the reservists or to accommodate Israelis who fled the southern parts of Israel close to the Gaza borders. Many of the Christians who worked in them have become unemployed.
“But faith remains strong in their hearts, and there are many signs of solidarity. Some of those who have maintained their jobs are donating 15% of their income to poorer families. The crisis is bringing the Catholic community closer together, but the health situation continues to be alarming”, assures Akroush.
Father Artemio Vitores, a Spanish Franciscan who care for the Cenacle church, tells ACN that he doesn’t want to be “too pessimistic, but very little about this situation is peaceful. Jerusalem should be a sign of peace and harmony for everybody, it is a Holy City for Jews, Christians and Muslims. This is so difficult! Peace is a gift from God, but it requires people’s cooperation.”
“The situation is very difficult, and we trust in God that it will not get worse. We have to ask the Lord, and Mary, the Queen of Peace, to prevent violence and intolerance from reigning, instead of harmony and love, and that the pilgrims be allowed to return to the Holy Land in peace and joy. Do not forget us in your prayers!”
Evil cannot have the last word
Finally, there is also a Christian community spread out over other parts of Israel, a very diverse community including visitors, students, volunteers, but also around 110,000 foreign workers.
All of them, foreigners from other countries, or people with dual citizenship, have been experiencing the fear of the terrorist attacks up close, as well as the pain and anguish of family, friends or colleagues.
Holly is one of them, she is an USA-American who was in Jerusalem when the world as she knew it collapsed. “These past few days have been terribly long and tiring. My heart aches because of the inhumane and unthinkable atrocities carried out by Hamas. The day of the initial attack saw the highest number of Jews murdered in a single day since the Holocaust. It is really unimaginable.”
Her family and friends immediately helped to find her a seat on an airplane home. “Even though I was still very concerned, I packed my bags. But on Sunday I received a message that changed all those plans in under a minute”, she explains. A humanitarian organisation had asked her to help look after displaced Jewish families from Sderot, on the border with Gaza.
“These families had to leave their homes at the last moment, fleeing from the merciless terrorists. Israelis from all over the country have opened their homes to these families, and I immediately volunteered to help”, Holly tells ACN.
“I had to stay. I want to help in any way I can. Telling my parents was very difficult. We were all holding back tears as I shared the news. They have been very understanding, and that means a lot to me. At the same time, I know that it is very difficult for them.”
“I lived in Poland for three years and I visited many of the horrible places where the Holocaust took place. As a believer and a Christian, I have asked myself many times why did all this evil occur? Today I have the opportunity to help, so I must do so.”
From all over Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel ACN is receiving stories of pain and fear but also faith, sacrifice and generosity. This is the Christian way of saying that evil should not have the last word.
When Pierbattista Pizzaballa was named Patriarch of Jerusalem he wrote a message to the Christians of his diocese: “The pallium reminds us that through our baptism we chose to take on the yoke of Christ, the weight and the glory of the cross, which is love given unto death, and beyond”
Lebanon: “We don’t want another war”
Another great fear is that a mass offensive might drag Lebanon into the war, which would entail a huge escalation of violence and death, which could spread all through Lebanon and Israel. Both countries have had their share of suffering from war.
In Lebanon, already crushed by a terrible economic and political crisis, there is anxiety, fear and expectation. Some faithful of Tyre, in the south of the country, have already sought already refuge in Beirut. The current situation reminds them of the difficult and painful period suffered during previous wars in their land.
Marielle Boutros is a young Lebanese who works with ACN projects in Lebanon, and says that “what we are witnessing now in Gaza and in the south of Lebanon is bringing back old fears. We feel haunted by the shadows of the war of 2006. As Christians living in Lebanon, we pray for the victims and their families, but we are also worried for our own nation: we don’t want to see Lebanon dragged into another war. My generation has already lived through two wars. We are not ready to go through it all again.”
A war that could spread to the whole of the Middle East
It isn’t only in Lebanon. Christians in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and other countries in the region look on this conflict with trepidation. During a visit to the headquarters of Aid to the Church in Need, in the past month of September, the Patriarch of the Melkite Catholic Church, His Beatitude Youssef Absi, highlighted the importance for the whole of the Middle East of finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The Palestinian issue is the main issue. This is very clear to all of us here. Without a solution for the Palestinian issue, there is no solution for the Middle East”, he said.
Chronic political turbulences, Islamic extremism, persecution, wars, socioeconomic injustices, and the discrimination Christians face has led to a terrible wave of emigration in all these countries. “The second intifada led to the emigration of 500 families from Palestine. I am very sorry to say that if this war doesn’t end soon, we will see another strong wave of emigration from the Holy Land. Therefore, we should do all we possibly can to save what can be saved in this critical time”, says George Akroush.