Christians in the Holy Land


Universe Column

by David Alton

The decision of the Church authorities in Israel to close the doors of the Holy Land’s most sacred sites was a justified and urgent appeal to Christians in the West to  rally to the suffering Church in the Middle East

A few weeks ago I visited the site in Nazareth which triggered this protest. It is a prime piece of land immediately adjacent to the basilica of the Church of the Annunciation – where the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth to Jesus.

Some of the authorities had hoped that a flight of steps or some appropriate landscaping would link to basilica to the town’s centre. But next to the site is the grave of Saladin’s nephew, Shehab-el-Din and Muslim leaders were determined that a mosque should be erected which would obscure the basilica.

So, is this just another spat between two world religions vying for their place in the sun?

As with most things in the Middle East it is much more complex than that.

Nazareth was once a mainly Christian town. Today, Christians comprise about 30% of a population of around 60,000. Like other Christians from the ancient churches of the Middle East they have been facing systematic erosion.  Many have been forced from their homes and villages and many have emigrated. The previous Archdeacon of Nazareth – now the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem – once told me that Christian pilgrims come to the Holy Land to see the dead stones of holy places but seemed utterly indifferent to the plight of the country’s living stones. Their situation is worsening by the hour.

Yards away from the site of the controversial new mosque in Nazareth I spoke to Christian shop-keepers whose shops had been attacked and looted. They were frightened and felt isolated and vulnerable.

The Israeli authorities have done little to help them and were responsible for allowing the new mosque to go ahead. Even Yasser Arafat’s appeals to the Muslim leadership to think again have been ignored. Palestinian Christians are caught between a rock and a hard place.

The Catholic primate in Israel, the Latin patriarch, Michel Sabbah, expressed the growing sense of unease when he said: “It’s not a question of building a mosque – it’s a question of provocation.”

In his brilliant exposition of the plight of the ancient churches, William Dalrymple, in From The Holy Mountain, graphically describes the plight of Christians in Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt.  The “living stones” have suffered grievous persecution – and are hanging on in tiny communities, living on a knife edge.   As the people are obliterated evidence of their existence is frequently obliterated too.

Fifty years ago one of the founders of the modern state of Israel, David Ben Gurion, recognized that the young state’s reputation abroad would be judged by the way it dealt with its Christian minority. He issued instructions against the looting of Christian holy places such as Nazareth. Reading Dalrymple’s account of the preset day plight of the Armenian and Greek Christians of Jerusalem, Israel’s new leadership needs to rediscover that original good impulse.

The situation was summed up graphically by the Armenian Bishop Hagop who says “We have been here for 1,600 years, yet we cannot be sure what will happen tomorrow. I am seriously worried for our future. The Israelis have not granted one building permit to us since 1967. It took four years for us to get a telephone for our infirmary.”

In 1922 some 52% of the Old City of Jerusalem was Christian. Today they make up just under 2.5%. The systematic erosion of their rights lies behind Archbishop Sabbah’s heartfelt protest.  Will the West listen?

What an extraordinary thing if  the beginning of the third millennium  were to herald the destruction of the ancient Christian community in the land where Christianity was born.