Three luxury coaches stand empty outside the Novotel hotel waiting for members of the River States of Nigeria Holy Christian Pilgrimage to take their seats on the next leg of their journey through the Holy Land.
If this group tour is like many others, pilgrims will be whisked from holy place to holy place in air-controlled comfort. Shepherded by professional guides, they will be discouraged from straying off the well-defined, much-trodden paths of the pilgrimage circuit.
Or, as Riah Abu El-Assal, the 13th Anglican bishop in Jerusalem puts it: “There will be no time to worship with local Christian communities, no time to speak to local Christians, and no time to stand by their side.”
Although the Anglican church as such came to the Holy Land as recently as the mid-19th century, Arab Christians proudly trace their roots as Christians to the first Pentecost. But their numbers dwindle by the year. It is estimated there are close to a million Palestinian Arab Christians in the world with only about 165,000 to 170,000 in the birthplace of their faith.
Church leaders such as Bishop Riah fear that if the decline continues, Arab Christians could disappear from the Holy Land and “the land where our faith was born and survived for 2,000 years will soon be empty of indigenous Christians and the living faith will be represented only by dead stones and their imported custodians.”
After more than a century of non-Arab bishops, Bishop Riah is the third Arab Christian bishop of a diocese that extends over five countries – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. A passionately outspoken man, he is a fierce defender of Palestinian human and civil rights. He believes his church is called upon to seek a just solution to the present bloody conflict and to build bridges of reconciliation.
In an interview in his St. George’s Cathedral office, a short walk from the Novotel hotel, Bishop Riah deplored the indifference of many western Christians and politicians to the plight of Palestinians under Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
“We can hardly move these days to visit our parishes and our institutions in Nablus, Gaza, Ramallah, Bethlehem and elsewhere because of travel restrictions and humiliation at checkpoints,” he says.
He is reminded of the story of the Good Samaritan who came to the aid of the man left half dead on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. “Robbed of everything, his homeland, his belongings, his home, his trees and, in some cases, robbed of family members he was left to die and many bypassed him,” he says. “And we continue to wait for the Good Samaritan.”
But Bishop Riah refuses to give up on hope. “People in the West close their eyes to what is happening, but I cannot lose hope,” he says. “If we as Christians lose hope then we become hopeless.”
What can churches do?
“The first thing that comes to mind is to make the churches aware that there are Christians who are Arab Palestinians who trace their beginnings as Christians to the first century,” says the bishop.
“Learn more about what is going on and support us. Try to discover who we are in our efforts to bring about an end to pain and suffering. And there is no way to bring an end to the suffering but by ending the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”
In recent years, the Anglican Church of Canada’s legislative body, the Council of General Synod, has voted to stand in solidarity with Palestinians and also condemned acts of violence on all sides of the conflict in the Middle East. The Canadian primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, traveled to the Holy Land in May, 2001, with representatives of other Canadian churches to convey a statement of support for Middle East churches.
There is evidence of Good Samaritans in the Holy Land where church and government agencies, humanitarian groups and individual Christians, Muslims and Jews work, against mounting odds, for a just peace.
The Anglican church itself supports 34 regional institutions that include hospitals, clinics, kindergartens and schools, vocational training programs, as well as institutions for the deaf, the disabled and the elderly.
The loss of a Christian presence in the Holy Land would result in a loss of humanitarian support, employment and programs that help build a strong civil society, says Craig Kippels, the Lutheran World Federation representative in Jerusalem.
“The churches are probably the best hope there is in finding a just peace to the conflict. They have the ability to view the situation from a human rights and justice perspective and to tell the story to the rest of the world. The telling of the story is important.”
Michael McAteer is a former Toronto Star religion editor. In December he spent seven days in Israel-Palestine on a Lutheran World Federation field trip. Attempts by the LWF to arrange meetings with Israeli government officials were unsuccessful.