From Kerala to Tel Aviv: Life for Israel's Indian Catholic Minority

by Edward Pentin |  November 2, 2010

Baptising the child of an Indian family in Israel. (1/2)

Father Jayaseellan Pitchaimuthu OFM (39), from Tamil Nadu (India). (2/2)

In August, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, erected a mission to care for the souls of the patriarchate’s Indian Catholic migrants. The mission’s head chaplain is Father Jayaseellan Pitchaimuthu OFM. He told more about this little known Catholic minority in the Holy Land, the challenges and hopes they face, and the blessings of their evangelizing mission.

(Jerusalem) - In August, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, erected a mission to care for the souls of the patriarchate’s Indian Catholic migrants. From now on, with the appointment of a priest as a chaplain and two of its chaplain and curates (all three are Franciscan fathers from India), it’s hoped that the ecclesial life of these faithful may be much improved. The mission’s head chaplain is Father Jayaseellan PitchaimuthuOFM. He told more about this little known Catholic minority in the Holy Land, the challenges and hopes they face, and the blessings of their evangelizing mission.

Father Jayaseellan, could you tell us more about this community?
Only five years ago did Catholic migrants from India begin coming to Israel to look for better job opportunities and their number has been increasing ever since. Today there are approximately 5,000 migrant workers from India, of whom about 3,000 – 4,000 are Catholics. Most of them are from the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Goa and Tamil Nadu, as well as Maharastra and Gujarat. After arriving, they learn conversational Hebrew and Arabic and some converse very fluently in Hebrew. Most of them work as carers and are permitted to work in the country only 4-5 years. A large community of Indian Catholics, more than 2,000 faithful, reside mainly in the cities of Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Rameh, Tiberias and Haifa, where they work in different sectors of housekeeping.
Approximately 70,000 Jews of Indian origin live in Israel, who are citizens of Israel. The main wave of immigration into Israel from India took place in the fifties and sixties. But only less than a decade ago did many non-Jewish Indians, mostly Hindus and Jains, begin to migrate to Israel for better business opportunities. Indians, who are involved in diamond business, have the lion’s share in making Israel shine in the diamond market.

What is life like for the Indian Catholic Community in the Holy Land? What are the challenges they face and areas of concern to them?
It is a blessing as well as a major challenge. It is a great dream come true – and this is the case for many Indian Catholic migrants - to find a job opportunity in the land of our Saviour, who himself was born to a migrant family. It is a grace to make their livelihood in the Promised Land, where God promised Abraham, the father of Faith, that He would bless the land and the people, and make them prosper in number and in grace.
It is also challenge to live here, and not what they imagined before arriving. To be a carer demands staying awake the whole night to look after patients. Some families do not provide them with proper food, and rest. People have a different temperament and are not always so kind to strangers and foreigners. There are worries and anxiety about families: spouses, children, and parents at home. In a number of cases, there are worries about repaying large debts at home. Then there is fear of greedy agents who demand exorbitant broker fees, unmerciful employers, harassment from immigration police.

What brings these Indians to the Holy Land?
I have asked a number of migrants this question. Invariably they answered that it is because their faith is intimately connected to this land, and so they have opted to seek employment in Israel. Another reason is that most of them are unskilled workers. To be a carer does not demand great technical skill and educational qualification. Also the State of Israel offers better remuneration for carers, much higher than in their own country.

As well as being carers, what other kinds of work do they do?
Although a number of Indian scientists and computer engineers are employed in Israel, they only stay here for a short period of time. The only real employment opportunity for all foreigners is to be a carer: taking care of the sick, old, physically and mentally challenged, the bed-ridden, brothers and sisters in the families.

How assimilated are they into the communities of Muslim and Christian Arabs and Jews?
As a nation, India has good relations with both Israel and Palestine. Indian secular democracy respects every religion, culture, language and people. Often Indians expect the same kind of attitude when they go to another nation. But in Israel they see different attitude. Some Jewish Israelis are real gems: very generous, very friendly and helpful. They encourage Christian workers to go to Church on the Sabbath and on other festivals. Some are very curious about Christianity and ask about Jesus, the Bible, the Catholic Church, their faith and practice etc. Some other Jewish families like them because they are Indians, but do not like them as Christians and do not allow them to wear a cross, read the Bible, say the Rosary or practice other devotions. Some have told me that they cannot pray in a Jewish house so they pray in the bathroom where no one sees them.
Most of the migrant Christians work in the families of Israeli nationals. Most of them are Hebrew speaking or English speaking religious Jews and secular Jews. Very rarely they come into contact with the Arab community but meet them when they take taxis or minibuses or go to the shops. Some Muslims are friendly and sympathetic because they are Indians but not because they are Christians. Some of the Indians are shocked by the rude behaviour of Muslims in the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. Muslim businessmen try to take advantage of the foreign workers, to take their money and cheat them.
In the past, Indian Catholic migrants did not have much opportunity to have contact with local Christian communities in the Holy Land. However when they visit  parish churches in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Bethlehem and Haifa they have ample opportunities to encounter the local Christians. These have been amicable, encouraging and enriching encounters . Many of the local Christians communities are impressed by the deep religious faith of the Indian Catholic communities.
Most of the Jews and Arabs, also some Christians, think India is a Hindu country. They are surprised to hear that Christianity reached India in the year 52 AD, introduced by St.Thomas, the Apostle, and today Christians number around 30 million.

Why is the Latin Patriarchate now appointing priests to the community?
It was four years ago, when I had been serving at St. Anthony's Parish in Jaffa, that I noticed a few Indians who regularly came Saturday Masses. Through them I came to know of the large presence of Indian migrant Catholics who work in Israel. I made a few visits and came to know about their conditions: workers, foreigners, exploited, manipulated and harassed by local and Indian agents (middle men). And they were ignorant of the presence of the local Church in the City. They received the Eucharist once in few months, like at Easter and Christmas and Marian Feasts, from priests from India. Even after my transfer to the Holy Sepulcher, I continued to serve them.
For the past year another Franciscan from India joined me to help the Indian Catholic community. It’s all done in a informal way with the knowledge and permission the Very Reverend Custos and local parish priests. It was then that we decided to approach His Beatitude Fouad Twal to formally erect the Chaplaincy (Mission) for the Indian Migrant Catholic Community in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. We are grateful to His Beatitude and to the Custos for embracing the Indian Catholic community in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

How will you be involved in this new pastoral initiative?
I consider this a real mission, one of evangelization. As a I minister to migrants who are all involved in care-giving in Israel, I see myself as carer of all the carers. As a good shepherd, I assure them of my prayers, listen to them, offer them my heart, mind and time so they can build one vibrant faith-living and witnessing community in fellowship with the local Christian community in the Holy Land and with the universal Christian Community (Catholic Church). I always remind them not to neglect their spiritual well being as they strive for material good fortune in the Holy Land.
Most of them live in Jewish families (secular and religious). Through their generous, affectionate, kind service to the sick, bed-ridden, physically and mentally challenged, they witness to the Christian faith. Many Jews come to know of Jesus, the Gospel and the Christian faith through these kinds of migrant workers. There are many Jews who ask them to pray for them when they are in difficulties and sick. Many Indian migrants offer Masses for the well-being of their Jewish employers and ask for our prayers at the time of their death. It is real evangelization. It is a constructive, enriching dialogue and relationship between people of two great faiths. Many Indian workers speak fluent Hebrew and are well accustomed with religious practices of Judaism. It gives joy to serve these people in the Holy Land. Serving the Indian migrant Catholics in the Holy Land also offers an opportunity to build an enriching dialogue and a relationship between great faiths, peoples and cultures.

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