Pope Francis’s three-day visit to Jordan, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Israel came at a time of diminishing significance of Christians in the Holy Land, especially in Jordan, the West Bank, Jerusalem and within Israel itself.
Pope Francis’ visit seemed timed to shore up the remaining Christian communities in Jordan and Israel, especially Jerusalem, in order to ensure that in the wake of the diminishing Christian population, especially in the West Bank, the Catholic and Orthodox churches would at least be able to hold on to property and land currently owned by the churches. Some of the property, land and Christian sites have been lost over the past 66 years due to the conquest by Israel in 1948 and the conquest of the West Bank by Jordan in 1967. The growth of metropolitan Jerusalem over the past 30 years has also contributed to land and property losses. Many Christian sites are also religiously and nationally important for Israeli and Diaspora Jews. This means that nearly all sites are contested.
This concern of the Catholic and Orthodox churches was made clear when the pope met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of İstanbul, who is the leader of most Orthodox Christians, especially in Russia, Ukraine, Greece and in many Balkan countries. Both churches are particularly concerned about the decreased presence of Christians in the Holy Land. Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are faced with many challenges. The following problems seem to be of particular importance.
Seeking unity between the churches
They seek more unity between the two churches, which are the most strongly represented among Christians in Jordan, the West Bank, Jerusalem and within Israel itself. It should be noted that it was only in 1964 that the leaders of the churches — Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras – met, for the first time since the 11th century. The two churches have much to sort out theologically and politically. Israel’s absorption of Jerusalem and great swathes of the West Bank have led the two churches to think that with the further diminishing of Arab and Palestinian-Arab Christians, the remaining vitality of Christianity will be lost and that Christians will be left with mere Christian shrines absent Christians in the Holy Land. Currently there are an estimated 250,000 Christians among Jordan’s population of 6.3 million, 60 percent of whom are Palestinians who were expelled by Israel in 1948. There are an estimated 38-40,000 Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, 2,000 in Gaza and 50,000 in East Jerusalem; in Israel, there are an estimated 161,000 Christians, 80 percent of whom are Palestinians. Christians represent only 2.1 percent of Israel’s citizens.
The failures of the latest John Kerry-led negotiations and Israel’s continued annexation of the West Bank undoubtedly make Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew think that, indeed, time is running out for the living Christianity in the Holy Land.
The fears of Christian leaders are manifest regarding Christian and Jewish contention over the Cenacle on Mt. Zion where the Last Supper reputedly took place. With the exception of one room, little of the compound remains open to Christians; the rest has been taken over by Jewish institutions.
In order to maintain the presence of Christianity in the Holy Land, Pope Francis presented balanced views on the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and terrorism against Jews. He laid a wreath at the tomb of Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism. He noted the misfortune and pain of the tragedy that has befallen Palestinians epitomized by the Wall of Shame and the statelessness of Palestinians. In order to reconcile the three faiths, he was accompanied by two clergymen from his native Argentina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Islamic studies professor and Muslim leader Omar Abboud. He also announced that he had invited Israeli President Shimon Peres and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and President of the State of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican on June 6. Notably, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not be able to attend.
It seems sure that nothing will come of the June 6 meeting. For one thing, the United States and nearly every US president since 1980 has made clear that nothing will break the “unshakable, enduring and sacrosanct” relationship and geo-strategic alliance between the United States and Israel. This includes the dusk of Christianity in the Holy Land.
Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst based in Lexington, Kentucky. This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman.