Vatican City (AsiaNews) – In the Holy Land Christians are but a small group, less than 1 per cent of the population, with no real political or economic weight, but with a great resolve to “be and stay there,” confident in a positive outcome to the negotiations between Israel and the Holy See despite the current deadlock on substantive issues. This at least is the view that Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy Land, and Mgr Antonio Maria Vegliò, secretary of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, share with regards to the difficult situation Christians face in the area. Monsignor Vegliò was also a member of the delegation which participated in the recent meetings of the joint bilateral commission in Jerusalem.
The current situation in the Holy Land is such that it prevents Benedict XVI from fulfilling his desire to visit the land where Jesus lived, this according to Fr Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, who reiterated what was said during the visit by Israeli President Simon Peres to the Vatican, namely that it is natural for the Holy Father to want to go but the “conditions for a papal visit, specifically the pacification of the situation in the region and the sending of positive signals by Israel in these bilateral negotiations, are not yet in place," Father Lombardi said. In essence, he said that “there are no concrete plans for a voyage to the Holy Land.”
Father Pizzaballa said Christians are suffering in the Holy Land. About 60 per cent of the 170,000 Christians in the area live in Israel and 99 per cent of them are Palestinian Arab. In general though, the situation of Christians is very much different depending where they live.
There is no structural poverty among Christians in Israel but one may speak of various forms of discrimination by Israel’s majority group against its Arab minority. Christians in Israel are by and large middle class and highly educated. but their main problem is remaining united to prevent dispersal. Schools play a fundamental role in this, and are important throughout the Holy Land.
The situation is very different in areas like Bethlehem that are under the control of the Palestinian National Authority. Here the paralysis of Palestinian political life has seriously impacted on economic and social life which is close to collapse despite this year’s upturn in religious tourism, which has even been better than 2000.
For Bethlemites, who used to work in nearby Jerusalem, the building of the wall and the difficulty of getting an entry permit to the city has sent the economy in downward spiral. Those who can, leave the city. Every week there are Christian families trying to sell their property to religious authorities of the Holy Land.
But there are also some positive signs. According to Father Pizzaballa first there is great resolve. “We are few and small,” he said, “but we are here and shall stay here. Our community is proud, with strong convictions. Not to mention the fact that the poor cannot emigrate and there are lots of poor,” he said. “The Church is very much present,” he added. In fact in the Holy Land the religious factor is very strong and does not only touch the private sphere. Religious communities do in fact play a socially relevant role by building houses, finding jobs, etc.
Another important feature of Christianity’s presence is dialogue with others. Dialogue does indeed go on, albeit on different bases, with Muslims, Israelis and among Christians.
In responding to journalists Father Pizzaballa and Monsignor Vegliò focused on two specific issues, the granting of visas men and women religious and the activities of the joint bilateral commission.
The difficulty religious staff and seminarians face in getting an Israeli visa is for Father Pizzaballa “a real problem.”
“They [visas] are hard to get even though there have been some recent improvements after the issue caused some controversy not too long ago. It remains however a matter that must be solve. We have had meetings with the government over the issue and the latter gave us reassurances. We would like to see some stability so as not to revisit the same situation every two or three years.”
“What we can say is that procedures are unclear and that the authorities are very stingy in granting visas, especially for people coming from Arab countries,” Monsignor Vegliò said, adding though that “the issue was not addressed in the recent meetings of the joint bilateral commission. Tomorrow however the nuncio will meet government officials to discuss the matter.”
As for the activities of the joint bilateral commission, “we are working on a joint document,” he said, “on condition that it is either accepted in its entirety or not accepted at all.”
The problem is that “when we discuss broad issues in smaller working groups, everyone agrees. But when we meet in plenary session and get to touchy issues like taxes we come to a standstill. At least it was a good thing that we greeted each cordially and that we should meet again in May in Rome.” (FP)