The APPG welcomed four senior church leaders from Jerusalem to a virtual hearing on Christianity in the Holy Land on 25 February. It was the first ever joint appearance by the Orthodox and Latin Patriarchs of Jerusalem at a UK event, and they were joined by Archbishop-elect Hosam Naoum of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, and Pastor Carrie Ballenger of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby formally welcomed the guest clergy to parliament, to answer members’ questions about the status of Christianity in the Holy Land. The challenges brought about by the pandemic featured heavily, and the panel described the ever-growing hardship that Christian families and churches are facing through unemployment, uncertainty, and a lack of government support.
Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III outlined the pressures on churches and their communities. With many families relying on welfare services provided by the church, the Patriarch said “church funds are inundated with requests while no school fees or rents are coming in.” Despite churches all taking measures to reduce costs, the reduction in their income coupled with increased pastoral demands is putting huge strains on their finances.
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa said “the pandemic has completely shaken the Latin Church. Even through the intifada the churches were open, but now they are closed.” He cautioned that the worst effects of the pandemic were still to come saying “2021 will be even harder for Christian families, as savings will have dried up.” The economic crisis facing families is going to place a long-term strain on the churches and Christian social institutions which provide the health, education and welfare services upon which many depend.
Aside from the pandemic, MPs and peers asked about other pressures on the Christian community. Pastor Ballenger warned that “the Holy Land is seeing the long-term emigration of its Christians because of the intolerable conditions they face.” In addition to the economic situation, the issue of the permit regime was cited as an example; this prevents a Christian in Israel from living with a Palestinian Christian spouse as they are invariably denied the relevant permit. It creates huge strains on family life and mental health and has the effect of requiring Christians in Israel to leave the country if they want to live with their Palestinian spouse.
The panel was also asked about an alarming spate of attacks on Christian holy sites and places of worship. While the police often dismiss these hate crimes as the actions of petty criminals, their links to known radical groups which seek to drive Christians from the Holy Land is rarely acknowledged. Church leaders stressed that these radical groups do not reflect wider societal attitudes towards Christians, but the unchecked campaign of attacks creates an impression that Christians are not being adequately protected by the police or criminal justice system.
Asked about the Middle East peace process, the unanimous response was that religious communities should be consulted and included, especially where Jerusalem is involved. Patriarch Theophilos said “where conflicts are so entwined with religion, and where religion is often said to be part of the problem, it is important that religious communities are listened to so that they can be part of the solution. Our churches strive to be bridge builders and peacemakers. To this end, we are determined to make our contribution with our friends in Israel and Palestine, with people of all faiths and with parliaments around the world to foster peace and reconciliation in our time.”
The rare joint appearance by these Jerusalem Heads and representatives of Churches demonstrated one very positive aspect of Christianity in the Holy Land today. Unity amongst the Jerusalem churches is at a high-point. Archbishop-elect Naoum, who in May will become the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, serves as Secretary to the Council of Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in the Holy Land. Speaking about the role of the council he said, “the voice of moderation and reconciliation is very strong within our narrative.” It is this unity which is enabling the churches to now speak as one about the current challenges facing Christians in the Holy Land.