Christians in Israel, Numbers and Challenges |  January 13, 2017

Catholic worshippers during a Mass at the Latin parish of Jaffa, Tel Aviv. (photo CTS)

The figures announced each year by the demographers of the Jewish state describe a Christian community which remains a tiny minority but does not stop growing. The main threats include the drive towards assimilation.

(g.s.) – It is now an established habit for the Israeli Central Office of Statistics to publish figures on the Christian population that lives in the territory of the Jewish state every year around Christmas.

The figures highlight a slight but constant trend of the numerical growth of this community which in 2016 reached 170,000 people, equal to 2% of  the total population. The increase with respect to the previous year is 1.5%. It has to be considered that the Israeli demographers count the Christian citizens who are permanently and legally resident (and therefore exclude the foreign workers present in Israel only for  a few years, who are also a constant presence today in the Churches and Christian communities of the Holy Land). Having made this clarification, the other disaggregated data confirm what is already known:  78.9 per cent of the Christians are Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whilst the others immigrated in recent decades – especially from the countries of the former Soviet Union – following Jewish relatives, taking advantage with them of the benefits of the Law of Return, which encourages the Jews of the Diaspora all over the world to immigrate to Israel.

Let’s try to colour in this data cross-referencing it with what emerges from a talk on Christians in Israel, given on 6th December by the Jesuit Father David Neuhaus, one of the vicars of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and which can be found in full, in English, on the website of the Patriarchate.

The first annotation: Neuhaus has a pastoral view and considers all those who feel they are members of the people of God, whether they have Israeli citizenship or not. This leads him to include 160,000 foreign workers as well, who are generally temporary, and asylum seekers (of whom 35,000 are Africans, mostly from Eritrea).

In outlining the face of these Churches, Father Neuhaus mentions in the first place the kaleidoscope of Christian denominations represented in the holy places of the Redemption: Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics (Melkites); Latin and Maronite Catholics; Armenians and Syrians (also  in two communities: Orthodox and Catholics); Copts, Ethiopians, Anglicans, Lutherans and a plethora of evangelical groups. In addition to them, there are also the Messianic Jews, who do not belong to any ecclesiastical community but believe that Jesus is the awaited Messiah.

Neuhaus does not forget to say how since 1948, due to the wars that have studded the Arab-Israeli relations, the Christian presence in the Holy Land has been reduced to one-fifth: 70 years ago, one in ten inhabitants was Christian.

The drastic scaling down is the result of a massive exodus, but also of a birth rate which is far lower amongst the Christians than amongst the Muslims and Jews.

Nevertheless, as we were saying, in recent years there have not only been departures amongst the Christians in the Holy Land but also arrivals: the Israeli Jesuit mentioned the southern suburbs of Tel Aviv, where many foreign workers and asylum seekers are concentrated and places of worship, improvised and visible  to varying degrees, flourish, many  of which are run by pastors from the Protestant and Pentecostal galaxy.

Amongst the crucial challenges that Father Neuhaus identifies there is one that recurs: that of assimilation with the majority. Moreover, this challenge is common to many Western societies. Here there is not only a move towards positions of agnosticism or abandoning religious practice. In Israel, the Jesuit notes, “The State promotes conversion to Judaism for those perceived as having Jewish heritage and this is particularly the case within the Israeli army, where young people are encouraged to enter the “mainstream” by becoming formally Jewish.”  Then there are the children of foreign workers who may attend catechism and church together with their parents up to a certain age, but then they give in to the seduction of the vibrant secular culture which is prevalent amongst their peers and they desert the Christian community.

On the other hand, it would be important, according to Neuhaus, for Christians to keep their specificity and make their specific contribution to Israeli society, especially in sectors such as education, social services, health, but also adopting and promoting a language and a vision  based on love, reconciliation and the respect of human rights. For this to be possible, it is essential for Christians in Israel – but also in the rest of the Holy Land – to become aware of their special vocation to bear witness to the Gospel in the land which was the first scene of the history of the Salvation.

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