By Lydia O’Kane
For over 20 years the Holy Land Co-ordination Group has been visiting this region to shine a light on the challenges Christians face and to tell them they are not alone and not forgotten. This year the Bishops are based in the city of Haifa and are taking part in inter-faith encounters as well as meetings with local politicians and visits to Christians school and hospitals.
Challenges and opportunities
The theme for this year is ‘Christians in Israel; challenges and opportunities’. Someone who understands well the challenges of this minority Christian community is Bishop Declan Lang, chair of the Holy Land Co-ordination Group. Asked about the changes he has noted during his visits here down through the years, he says, “I think the positive changes, and there continue to be changes, are the work that’s being done by people in education and healthcare… that continues to be a very impressive sign of hope. The disappointment I think, still is that there is political deadlock and there’s still a great deal of mistrust I think, between the different communities particularly between the Arab community and the Israeli or the Jewish community”.
One thing the co-ordination group has become more aware of this year is the outlook of the Arab Christian community who want to play a part in the development of the country, but as the Bishop notes, “feel prevented, as other groups do, particularly by the nation state bill that has been through the Knesset” (Israeli Parliament) which implies, he adds, but is not actually explicit, “that they are second rate citizens, and this they find very difficult.”
Dialogue between communities
Over the years projects and initiatives have been promoted that encourage dialogue between communities. “That dialogue” emphasizes Bishop Lang, “is still taking place, it’s mainly done amongst small groups; I think it’s got a firm foundation, but I think it’s still being done by groups that are quite small in number; it needs to expand”.
Christians in the Holy Land
According to statistics, the Christian population 60 years ago in Bethlehem and the surrounding villages was around 86% but, in the last few years that number has dipped to 12%. Bishop Lang says that on this visit, “the Christian community we’ve become more aware of this year round is a very varied community. Up here in Galilee where we haven’t been for quite a few years, the Christian community is a more prosperous community than it is elsewhere, but they do have this fear that they’re not regarded as people of this own country; that it’s not their country…”
For Bishop Lang, these visits to the Holy Land are about hope and standing in solidarity with Christian brothers and sisters so that, “when we return to our own countries, we are able to share with the people of the different countries of which we have come the situation of the Christians here in the Holy Land and to say to the people of this land you are not forgotten, because sometimes they do feel forgotten.”