Israel, Catholic migrants and the great faith of those who suffer invisibility
By Gudrun Sailer and Francesca Sabatinelli
A year ago, Father Nikodemus Schnabel, a Benedictine monk of the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion, was appointed Vicar for Migrants and Asylum Seekers of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He thus leads a structure created in 2018 by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, to take care of migrants and asylum seekers - more than one hundred thousand Catholics - in all aspects, from pastoral care, to education, to the sacraments.
It is the sixth vicariate, alongside those of Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Palestine and for Hebrew-speaking Christians. "It is a huge vicariate with its approximately 100,000 Catholics," Father Schnabel explains to Vatican News, "a figure that can only be inferred, since many of the migrant workers, 90 percent of whom are women, have entered illegally, or have expired visas, or have entered as tourists and then gone into illegal work. The real challenge, therefore, for Father Schnabel, is to make the invisible visible.
Clandestinity and exploitation
Father Schnabel's community encompasses all nationalities, ranging from Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Indians, Chinese, and then Ukrainians, Poles, Romanians, English and French-speaking Africans - different communities, different customs and rituals.
As for the asylum seekers, they come mainly from Eritrea and Ethiopia, "they are those who have fled terror and war and are living in limbo, in a vacuum," he further explains, "they are not refugees, they are asylum seekers. That is, they hope to be able to move on. For them right now, paradise is Canada. This group is shrinking."
The other group – the migrant workers – is also growing. They are those seeking a secure future for themselves and their children. "Very often, it happens that a mother leaves children and husband at home, when the latter is also in another country, the children are raised by the grandparents. The parents then end up seeing their children, for years, only via Skype and Zoom."
These migrant workers are employed in three sectors, Father Nikodemus further notes. The women are employed in households or agriculture, and men in construction. "Many," the Benedictine adds, "begin their stay legally, there are agreements between Israel and Sri Lanka, Israel and India, Israel and the Philippines, but the working conditions are precarious. This means that if it doesn't work out with the employer, and in many cases, we hear of domestic violence, sexual exploitation and many other abysses that Europe does not want to know about, then these people go underground and continue to work, often living with 20 or 25 people in a room, working as cleaners, which is the classic field of work for illegal immigrants, or with families who then employ them off the books."
Assistance and protection for mothers and children
The situation of these people is made even more precarious by the fact that they cannot marry. Having a husband, wife or children is effectively denied them. The human right to a family, "is suspended, because those who marry automatically become illegal. And women cannot have children. Childbirth also means illegality. This means that the dramas related to unwanted pregnancies are my daily experience in pastoral care, as are the suicidal thoughts of these single women. And one can easily guess that these women often do not become pregnant by their own will in a loving relationship. There are also fates that are a result of tragedy.”
When Christians, then, say yes to life without compromise, this has practical consequences for charity. Expectant mothers need every assistance, every protection. That is why Fr. Schnabel, together with a number of women religious, has founded dozens of daycare centers for migrant women in the Holy Land. some of these mothers are even employed there, removed from the brutal labor market, the Benedictine says, so they can care for their own children and those of other women in similar situations.
The migrant chaplain also runs a home for children - the Guardian Angel Home. He recounts that "their fathers are not present and the mothers are so overwhelmed by her own life, by the struggle for survival, that we take in the children and them also. We look after them, we are there for them 24 hours a day. These are children who also need psychological and social care. This is a very important aspect of our work. Thus, to be consistent: if I encourage life, I also have to deal with the consequences."
These are the existential peripheries Pope Francis never tires of talking about. Nonetheless, the life of faith of the migrants in the Holy Land is strong.
"It is this positive side that shakes me deeply," is Schnabel's revelation, "they are brothers and sisters in the faith, because there is no German baptism, Indian baptism, or Sri Lankan baptism, there is only one baptism, and these are really my sisters and brothers. This means that when I talk about them, in addition to talking about the fraternity among all people, I am talking about my fellow baptized who belong entirely to my own church. And when I see the conditions under which they live and endure, and then see with what intensity they live their faith, really, this touches me deeply."
Father Nikodemus reports dozens of digital prayer groups at eleven o'clock at night or midnight - digital not out of convenience but out of pure desire. "It's also all streaming. It is quite normal for a worship service to go live immediately on YouTube, Facebook or Instagram. Digitization is a blessing for them, because it responds to their desire to want to go to Eucharist every day, but they can't and, even worse, not even on Sundays. There is an incredible desire to live the faith, for example among Indians: they have many Bible programs to learn more about the Bible. And when I preach, I'm always surprised that when I quote the Bible, they call out the passage!" Fr. Schnabel also deals with a very particular migrant community: the Chinese construction workers. "This community, although they are not afraid of deportation, because they are all in Israel legally, as construction workers, yet they practice their faith in hiding. It is actually one of the groups where I regularly have adult baptisms."
Faith and worship
The intensity of the faith of immigrant brothers and sisters in the Holy Land deeply touches the cleric. "When I am there at the altar," he concludes, "and I look at them, these modern slaves, marginalized and discriminated against, when I see with what joy and intensity they join in worship, I fight back tears, at every service, thinking that I am privileged as a priest, as a monk, as a doctor of theology, but these people are closer to God than I am.