May 16, 2014


Christians in the Holy Land

(Editor’s note: The statistics in this editorial were taken from the translation of an article in the magazine Il Regno of Bologna, Italy, written by Giorgio Bernardelli.)

When Pope Francis arrives in the Holy Land on May 24, he’ll find a much different place than Pope Paul VI did 50 years ago when he became the first pope since St. Peter to visit the Holy Land. Pope Francis’s visit is meant to commemorate the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras.

Fifty years ago, there were many more Christians in the Middle East than there are today. In Bethlehem, for example, they were the majority. Even then, though, Pope Paul was able to see an approaching exodus of Christians. It was, in his words, to keep Christianity from becoming a museum piece that, after his visit, he made efforts to maintain a Christian presence in the Holy Land.

As a start, he established Bethlehem University, operated by the Christian Brothers, and he asked the University of Notre Dame to establish the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. Both continue their work today.

Fifty years ago, there was an atmosphere of optimism that Christians, Jews and Muslims could live together peacefully. Not so today. The Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to settling their problems. Syria is in the middle of a civil war. Egypt is unsettled. Iraq has been devastated. Millions of refugees are trying to find homes.

Through all this, Christians have been suffering terribly, and their exodus has continued.

It is estimated that, out of a population of about 550 million people, in the Holy Land and surrounding region there are now between 10 and 13 million Christians, or roughly 2 percent. But no one knows for sure.

Latin-rite Catholics are now thought to total only about 235,000 in the Middle East, about 7 percent of the Christians in communion with Rome. Of those, about 27,500 are in Israel, 18,000 in Palestine, and 50,000 in Jordan.

Those numbers, though, don’t include the large number of Catholic immigrants who have flooded the Middle East in recent years. It’s believed that more than 50,000 Filipinos now live in Israel, or about double the number of Arab Latin-rite Catholics.

The Israeli central statistics office reports that there are 158,000 Christians in Israel, about 2 percent of the population. Most of them live in Galilee. In Jerusalem, there are only about 6,000, half as many as 50 years ago while the city’s population has grown from 260,000 then to 780,000 today.

The Latin-rite Catholics, the Greek Orthodox and the Melkites have suffered the most from the exodus. The Greek Orthodox have two patriarchates: Jerusalem, with about 500,000 members in Israel, Palestine and Jordan; and Antioch, with its see in Damascus, Syria. It’s the latter that has suffered the most from the fighting going on in Syria. It’s believed that at least 450,000 of them have been forced out of their homes and are refugees.

The Melkites are an Eastern-rite Catholic Church that has been in communion with Rome since 1729. There used to be about 235,000 of them in Syria, but they, like the Greek Orthodox there, have been forced out by the war. There are also about 400,000 Melkites in Lebanon and smaller communities in Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

The Maronites are the Eastern-rite Catholic Church with the greatest number of faithful. According to the Vatican’s Annuario Pontificio, there are 1.6 million of them in Lebanon, which makes that country the one with the highest percentage of Christians in the Middle East, around 36 percent. However, many of them, too, left during the civil war there. It’s believed that more than 1.3 million Maronites now live in Latin America.

The Chaldeans, another Eastern-rite Catholic Church in communion with Rome since 1553, suffered during the war in Iraq. Its population dwindled from at least a million to between 300,000 and 400,000.

While in the Holy Land, Pope Francis will meet with Christian, Jewish and Muslims leaders as well as the political leaders of Palestine and Israel. It’s likely that, like Pope Paul VI 50 years ago, he will return from the Holy Land determined to maintain a Christian presence there.

—John F. Fink

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