“We are making history with ACN in the Holy Land”

George Akroush is the director of the Project Development Office at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), he speaks about the plans for renewing pastoral work among the Christians in the Holy Land, who are increasingly trapped by increasing extremism.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem covers the territories of Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Cyprus. For a variety of reasons, it is a very complex reality, with growing and diverse communities in Israel, but rapidly diminishing communities in Palestine and Jordan.

“In Israel, besides Palestinian Christians, we have two important vicariates: the Hebrew-speaking congregation – a group of 1,200 Catholics – and the Vicariate for Migrants and Asylum Seekers, who amount to approximately 120,000 faithful. That is why we say that despite all the challenges, and local Christians leaving the Holy Land, we have more asylum seekers and refugees coming to the area, and this will add to its diversity. So, overall, the Church is growing in numbers, but unfortunately the local Christians, who are from the first Church which was established, are leaving, and now we are less than 1% of the total population”, says George Akroush.

ACN in the Holy Land
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa with scouts in a procession

ACN has been involved in over 700 projects for Christians in Israel, Palestine and Jordan over the past 30 years, including over 100 in partnership with the Latin Patriarchate. But according to George Akroush this cooperation is about to go deeper than ever before. “ACN will support a major intervention with a special focus on the pastoral needs of the people. Surprisingly, despite our unique status as Christians from the first Christian community in the world, our people are far away from the Bible and its teachings, and there are major gaps between clergy and youth groups.

We have several Catholic scout groups, youth groups and prayer groups, but they are very disconnected from the Church. We must be brave enough to admit that in the past there was no real pastoral work but it was rather sporadic and fragmented with the youth groups, which are the future of our Church community. The Patriarchate is aware of this, and with the support of ACN we will launch a strategic programme targeting all the youth groups in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, including the Vicariate for Migrants and Asylum Seekers and the Hebrew-speaking congregation”, he explains.

The plan includes establishing youth chaplaincies and opening the Latin seminary to non-clergy. “For the first time in 170 years, you will find clergy sitting next to a scout leader, having lessons in biblical studies, philosophy and Christian values. This is very important, and we are making history with ACN, because it is the first time we are engaging in larger scale projects, instead of supporting more localised or sporadic projects.”

Less than 1%, but serving 40%

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem also hopes to reform the school curricula to help fight extremism, at a time when society seems to be becoming more secularised. “Despite our tiny number, less than 1%, we still serve 40% of the Palestinian people. Despite all the challenges the Church is facing, the best schools, the best hospitals and the best institutions serving people with disabilities, orphans, the elderly and refugees, are all Christian. The most important tool for change might be the Christian organisations affiliated with the different churches, especially the schools. The Church runs almost 200 schools in Palestine, Israel and in Jordan, and they teach hundreds of thousands of people.”

ACN in the Holy Land
Youth participating in activities of the St Catherine’s parish

“We want the new Palestinian generation to be open minded, more accepting of others, especially Christians. We have to employ this tool to change the way of thinking of the new generation. Because the majority of our students are Muslims, and this is a positive thing, since otherwise they will go to other education systems where fanaticism and radicalism exist. Our schools have this duty to enlighten the new generation, to teach them to be more tolerant, more accepting, and to instil in them the Christian values of love, tolerance and acceptance.”

Trapped by radicalisms

Unfortunately, carrying out these projects on the ground is difficult. On one side there is the growing fundamentalism and hopelessness in Palestine, especially in Gaza, with no peace agreement on the political horizon and widespread corruption among the public sector, but on the other hand Israel continues to make life difficult for Palestinians, including Christians, as George experiences in his own family.

“I have an Israeli ID, but my wife is a Christian from Bethlehem, so she does not. Because of this, she is not allowed to drive a car, and she cannot use the Israeli airport! I can travel from Ben Gurion airport, she cannot, she has to go to Jordan. Sometimes they grant her a permit for Ben Gurion, but you never know until the day before, so we usually have two reservations, one from Jordan, one from Israel. Simple things that are taken for granted everywhere in the world are very complicated and very political in our situation”, he explains.

Another problem is rising anti-Christian sentiment among ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. Spitting on Christian clergy is a daily occurrence, but more recently the aggression has been getting more serious, with attacks on Churches, including on the Church of the Multiplication, in Tiberius, which was burned, and cost over two million dollars to restore.

ACN in the Holy Land
Fire and graffiti devastated part of the Church of Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha, Galilee

“It is not only the Christians. Muslims are also emigrating, but since we are a small majority, emigration hits us harder. Under his Beatitude Patriarch Pizzaballa’s direction we are trying to create hope for our people”, George Akroush adds.

Holy Land present in Lisbon

Despite all the difficulties, more than 400 Christians from the Holy Land managed to travel to Lisbon in the first week of August to participate in World Youth Day.

“We had 150 from Palestine, another 40 from Israel and 125 from Jordan. And we also have people from the Hebrew-speaking congregation. Despite the difficulties, they still managed to travel there, to feel that they are not alone, they are part of the global Catholic Church.”

“Their presence is important at a psychological level. It is really moving for them to feel that they are part of a bigger thing”, he explains.

ACN has also been a part of this experience. In a partnership with Caritas, the pontifical charity was one of the organisations that provided rosaries made by Christians in the Holy Land which were distributed to all the pilgrims in Lisbon. “It is a major project, and it gives work to several Christian workshops in our area which lost their income after the Coronavirus epidemic and recent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, which had a very negative effect on the tourism sector on which many of these families depend”, says the director of the Projects Development Office at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

 

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