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A church's youngest followers (Illustration) Photo: Yuval Chen
A church's youngest followers (Illustration) Photo: Yuval Chen
 
 

In the Holy Land, a changed Christian world

Last two decades have seen one of most significant influxes of Christians into Holy Land since Crusades, creating wholly new Christian landscape shaped by realities of Israel

Associated Press
Published: 10.30.11, 12:23 / Israel Culture

The schedules for Mass at the two Roman Catholic churches in Jaffa, on Israel's Mediterranean coast, reveal a change that has dramatically, if quietly, altered the face of Christianity in the Holy Land.

 

The two Masses in Arabic for the town's native Arab Christian population are outnumbered by four in English, attended mainly by Filipina caregivers. Then there are others in Spanish, for South Americans; French, for African migrants; three South Asian languages, including Konkani, spoken in the Indian district of Goa; and, for a generation of Christians raised among Israel's Jewish majority, Hebrew.

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In September, a colorful celebration for Indian Catholics alone drew 2,000 people. That's twice the total number of native Catholics in the parish.

 

For centuries, Christianity here meant the ancient communities of Christian Arabs. They were here when Israel was created around them in 1948, and they have kept their distinct identity within the Jewish state since. The past two decades, however, have seen one of the most significant influxes of Christians into the Holy Land since the Crusades, and it has created a wholly new Christian landscape shaped by the realities of Israel.

 

The newcomers include guest workers from dozens of different countries who provide the economy with cheap labor, and asylum-seekers from Sudan, Eritrea and elsewhere in Africa who sneak across the border from Egypt. And for the first time, there is a significant population of non-Arab Christian Israeli citizens, mainly immigrants from the former Soviet Union who, unlike Arabs, are fully assimilated into the Jewish Israeli mainstream.

 

Their presence has created new challenges for local churches that are simultaneously, like churches across the Mideast, facing the uncertain future of their local flocks. The numbers of Israel's 110,000 native Arab Christians have largely stagnated: They're not shrinking, but neither are they growing, as many young people leave for the West, squeezed by the conflict between Jews and Muslims and party to the general sense of neglect shared by Israel's Arab citizens.

 

Keeping community united

Father Ramzi Sidawi, an Arab Catholic from Jerusalem, is the parish priest in Jaffa. Outside the church windows, he said, he now listens every day to children from Africa and the Philippines playing in Hebrew, the language of their schools and their parents' employers.

 

"You have to divide yourself, switch between languages. We have to serve everybody," he said. "The biggest challenge is to maintain the community united and not divided."

 

That's a difficult task, considering the gulf of language and culture that divides the newcomers from each other and from Arab Christians. There don't seem to be overt frictions or resentments, but in practice, Sidawi said, there is little contact among them beyond shared Masses on Christmas and other festivals.

 

The non-Arabs who attend church in Jaffa, for example, live elsewhere, mainly in foreign worker-dominated districts of nearby south Tel Aviv.

 

If one counts all of the people in Israel who are neither Jewish nor Muslim, these newcomers outnumber Arab Christians by more than five to one. The number of newcomers who are practicing believers is far smaller, but by some estimates they equal or outnumber the members of local churches.

 

Hymns in Tagalog

"This creates concern for some that in the long term there could be a change in who the Christians of the Holy Land are, and concern about what will happen to the historic churches," said Amnon Ramon, who has researched these demographic changes as an expert on Christianity in Israel at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

 

There are enough newcomers now for a Catholic cathedral in every major Israeli city, said Rev. David Neuhaus, who heads the Church's vicariate for Hebrew-speakers.

 

"We do not have enough clergy, and we do not have enough places to pray," he said. So services are held in ad hoc locations or in the existing Arab churches.

 

Clergymen now find themselves dealing with problems like Sudanese asylum-seekers trying to prove paternity without papers, choir members deported by Israeli immigration police, and children who go to Jewish public schools and are drawn not by their parents' Christianity but by the culture of their Israeli peers.

 

On a recent Sunday, the chapel at the Ratisbonne monastery in downtown Jerusalem rang with the sound of hymns in Tagalog, one of the languages of the Philippines. Most of the worshippers were women who serve as caregivers for elderly Israelis.

 

There were 5,000 Filipino workers in Israel when Father Angelo Beda Ison, a Manila-born Franciscan who tends to the local Filipino community, arrived in 1991. Today there are 40,000.

 

For the first time, the Catholic Church has to deal with Catholic kids who are assimilating into a Jewish majority. There are now several thousand children born to foreign workers who speak Hebrew as a first language, celebrate Jewish holidays with their classmates and are subject, like children everywhere, to the pull of the mainstream.

 

To bolster their faith, the local church has produced a catechism in Hebrew "Meet the Messiah" provides classes on Christianity in Hebrew and invites them to a Catholic summer camp, Rev. Neuhaus said. The church now has 25 clergymen tending to the transient populations, some brought in from the workers' countries of origin, he said.

 

Catholics are not the only Church dealing with demographic shifts.

 

Immigrants from the former Soviet Union began moving to Israel en masse in the early 1990s. Among the 1 million who came, about a third were not Jewish according to Jewish law but qualified for citizenship because they had a Jewish spouse or lineage. Among them were an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 practicing Christians, mostly Orthodox.

 

So the Russian Orthodox Church now holds services in Hebrew every week in Jerusalem.

 

Cafe confessions

"The Church never dreamed of such an arrival," said Father Alexandr Winogradsky, the priest who leads those services and a convert from Judaism originally from Ukraine. His job is to "try to acculturate the Church within the new Israeli culture and language."

 

Some of the new members, especially the young, are so assimilated into the Israeli mainstream they are uncomfortable entering a church, he said. Winogradsky goes to meet them, dressed in cassock and cross, for confession in cafes instead.

 

The tiny Ethiopian Orthodox Church, too, has been dealing with its own newcomers: asylum seekers from Eritrea reaching Israel in increasing numbers, smuggled in from Egypt by Bedouins. At a baptism ceremony on the Jordan River earlier this year, Eritreans were the most noticeable group.

These disparate groups of Christians share one trait they have gone almost unnoticed by the majority of Israelis.

 

"This is a population that is present and absent at the same time," said Hana Bendcowsky of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations. "No one here knows anything about their lives."

 

 

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