Irish Catholics can support “dwindling” Faith communities in the Holy Land by visiting them and showing solidarity as they face increasing threat from Muslim extremism, an Irish bishop has said.
During a visit to Palestinian Christians in the occupied territories of the Holy Land this week Bishop Alan McGuckian SJ of Raphoe said the number of Christians has “melted away”.
“Here in the Holy Land there’s a long standing conflict between Israel and Palestine, the Christians are Palestinians and then they have this added and very, very serious disadvantage, they are a tiny minority in a Palestinian community that is being increasingly radicalised,” he said. “Being a Christian in an increasingly radicalising Muslim community is a difficult place to be.”
Bishop McGuckian was joined by Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor and Seán Farrell, Head of International Development with Trócaire, as well as bishops from across Europe and North America to promote dialogue and peace in the Holy Land.
The pastoral visit runs from January 11-16 and focuses on Christians in Gaza, East Jerusalem and Ramallah.
“We heard that in 1948 the Christians of Jerusalem were one third of the population, they’re now 1% of the population, their numbers have melted away over the last 60 years and they know that they are a twice disadvantaged people. For example in Gaza, they live in an area, I would say, not much bigger than an Irish county and there’s two million of them there.
“There’s very little movement in and out, conditions are very poor,” said Bishop McGuckian.
Trócaire’s Mr Farrell said that daily life is “massively interrupted” for people living in the occupied territories due to Israeli border controls in Gaza, describing it as an “open air prison” and that “80% of the population rely on humanitarian assistance, 50% unemployed, this is particularly true for Christian communities”.
“There’s a real sense of hopelessness among young people in Gaza. For the very small Christian community there it’s very hard to see how that community is going to survive economically and be a presence still in Gaza,” he added.
“Losing heart” is a big temptation for Christians, explained Dr McGuckian, but there needs to a balance between the community receiving outside support and themselves becoming more “confident and resilient”.
“Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a huge part of the economy and it’s very important that our pilgrims go into Bethlehem and into other parts of the Palestinian area and stay there, stay overnight in accommodation in Bethlehem,” he said.
Rather than going to the holy places and leaving, he suggested pilgrims meet Christian communities.
“I would love to see Irish people making the pilgrimage to the Holy Land which is a fabulous chance to be in touch with the very land of Jesus himself,” he added.
This annual visit was set up over 20 years ago at the invitation of the Holy See with the aim of visiting and supporting the Holy Land’s local Christian communities as they experience the political and socio-economic realities of living in the region.
The Irish Catholic will lead two Christian Solidarity Pilgrimages to the Holy Land in the autumn. For more information, see ‘Make 2020 a year to go to the Holy Land’