“Living stones become dead ones”


Terror and violence convulse the Holy Land – this impacts the Christians


For weeks now violence between Israelis and Palestinians has been convulsing the Holy Land. Jerusalem in particular is again in the centre of the conflict. At the beginning of September, as in the previous year, conflicts broke out around the Temple Mount. The Palestinians accused Israel of wanting to grant Jews prayer rights and greater access to the Islamic sanctuary where the Jewish temple once stood. Israel vehemently denies this. Even so a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks was set in motion which Israel fought fiercely against. A chain of violence and counter-violence began. It has lasted for weeks and has to date claimed dozens of fatalities and injured on both sides. Fear and hatred are poisoning the relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Old City in Jerusalem with its Jewish, Christian and Muslim sacred sites is much emptier than usual. The shops in the Christian quarter are feeling the impact. “The customers are staying away,” says Alfred, talking to Aid to the Church in Need as he stands behind the counter in his empty shop. “People are really afraid of coming here. A lot of pilgrim groups have already cancelled. And that’s just the beginning.” He is a Catholic from a Jerusalem family and runs a small shop selling devotional objects at the New Gate to the Old City. You can buy crucifixes, rosaries and icons in the “Saint Francis Store”. The picture of Pope Francis in the shop window invites customers to drop in. “Many Christians in Jerusalem live off the pilgrims. We pay a price for every wave of violence, every intifada and every war in Gaza. I go into debt every time to get through the subsequent slack period. And what’s more I’m not alone. I have to feed my family and pay the children’s school fees. I can’t go on like this for much longer,” he says in a pessimistic tone. “We Christians have nothing to do with the Temple Mount. But yet we’re still the ones who suffer from the dispute between Jews and Muslims. We are hit harder because we’re a minority. We’re caught in the middle.”

Father David Neuhaus also views the current developments with concern. The Israeli Jesuit, a Jew who converted to Catholicism, is in charge of pastoral care for the Hebrew-speaking Catholics in the Latin Partiarchate. Talking about the conflicts surrounding the Haram Al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, as the Muslims call the Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, he explains: “I do not believe that the conflict is turning religious but rather that the national conflict is exploiting religion in order to make it an even more intractable and insoluble conflict. Trying to convince someone of the rightness of my cause is made all the stronger if I drag God onto my side.”

The Catholic Church, Father David continues, has a clear position on the conflict. “The hierarchy [of the Catholic Church] has repeatedly called for a return to sanity, to negotiations, to seeking for a way that allows Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims and Christians to live in peace. The hierarchy [of the Catholic Church], largely Arab in composition, is also very sensitive to the question of justice and the repressive nature of the occupation of Palestinian lands. However, at the same time violence is rejected in all its forms.”

Father David does not see the Christians in the Holy Land as being mere spectators to the conflict. “I do not think Christians are bystanders. On the contrary, Christians are part and parcel of the society in which they live.” There are Christians living in both societies, Palestinian and Israeli, Neuhaus explains. There are 120 000 Palestinian Christians in Israel, the Jesuit calculates, and about 50 000 in Palestine (including the Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem). In Israeli Jewish society there live at least 40 000 Israeli Christians who are not Arab and there are about 150 000 migrants living and working in Jewish Israeli society. “Our vocation is not to be bystanders but rather to be leaven in the dough, bridges and a light. Although we only constitute about 2% of each of the two societies, Israeli and Palestinian, we are called to engage in our societies, promoting the values that we preach: justice, peace, reconciliation, etc. We must avoid the tendency to enclose ourselves in ghettos, losing contact with what is going on in mainstream society. Rather we must be at the forefront of the struggle for a society that embodies the values we believe in, finding allies in our societies who believe in the same values!”

Father Neuhaus now sees the danger that Palestinian and non-Palestinian Christians will split along national lines. “[This] is a real challenge for the Church. It is also a golden opportunity to practice within the Church what we preach. Whereas national divisions are real, especially in our conflict situation, even more real must become the unity of Christians because of their shared faith and hope.”

Alfred in his small shop is determined to carry on as long as he can. “We Christians desire peace. And the best way for Christians from abroad to support us is to continue visiting the Holy Land. After all, if we Christians can no longer live here the Old City and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre will becomea museum. There will then no longer be any living stones, only dead ones.”

Oliver Maksan