Heavily reliant on the tourism industry, Covid-19 threatens the livelihoods of many Christians in the Holy Land, writes Ruadhán Jones
On February 6 of this year, in complete innocence of what was to come, The Irish Catholic announced our annual pilgrimage to the Holy Land – the name typically applied to an area comprising Israel, Palestine, the Occupied Territories and Jordan. Those who intended to make the pilgrimage would have been among the millions visiting the Holy Land, a centre of worship for Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Now, for the second time since the Covid-19 crisis raised its ugly head, large swathes of the Holy Land are entering complete lockdown. This comes as a response to the increasing virulence of the virus in the region. In Israel, a record 8,000 infections were recorded on Thursday 24 September in a country that has already seen 215,000 cases.
The tourist industry, a vital cog in the economy, has been shut-down since March and is unlikely to pick up again until well into 2021 – and that’s a generous estimate. Though a minority in the region, the faith community most heavily reliant on tourists and pilgrims for their income are Christians, according to the Order of the Holy Sepulchre (OHS), a Catholic order dedicated to the Holy Land.
“The result of the pandemic has been dramatic,” Peter Durnin, Lieutenant of the Irish branch of the order, told The Irish Catholic. “The community – in particular the Christian community – is very dependent on the tourism-pilgrimage industry. That effectively has stopped since March this year. That means that in certain of the political jurisdictions there, there is no social welfare and no economic support systems. So, shops have closed, hotels are closed, hotels consequently are not buying in food, they don’t have staff – all of those people are suffering because there is no income.”
This sentiment is echoed by the Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). In a report from the end of March, they said that the collapse of the tourist industry leaves many Christians “teetering on the edge”: “In the past, when the Holy Land experienced wartime conditions, some managed to find an economic niche outside tourism temporarily,” the report said. “Now with the pandemic, all business sectors are affected, everything is closed, and it is impossible to take the risk of moving to another place to do something else.”
Christians make up around 1-1.5% of the 25 million people living in the Holy Land. As a result of the pandemic, they have become especially reliant on the work and donations of charitable organisations.
As has been typical of the virus, those worst affected among the Christian community are those least able to afford it – families with young children. Peter Durnin explained that schooling there is largely unsupported by the state and so the burden falls back on parents and parishes to pay for staff, resources and so on.
“With the exception of Israel, you have to pay for your education in the Holy Land, so parents of children have to pay fees,” MrDurnin said. “Much of our (the OHS) funding goes towards schooling – we fund the Latin Patriarchate to fund the salaries of teachers and support staff and the erection and maintenance of schools.”
In a statement from May 2020, the Latin Patriarchate appealed for urgent funds to make up for the deficit in 38 schools around the Holy Land.
“The ability of the parents of 12,456 students who still owe a tuition balance in our 38 schools in Jordan and Palestine became next to impossible,” the statement read. “At the same time all schools turned to distance learning immediately after the lockdowns were imposed and teachers responded and continued the educational process from home under very challenging conditions. Ethically and morally they should be compensated for their services. The total owed to date is €6,153,433 which is a phenomenal amount.”
Among the organisations providing aid to address some of the Christian’s needs is MrDurnin’s order, the OHS. Following the Latin Patriarchate’s appeal, the Grandmaster of the OHS, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, appealed to the order’s 30,000 members for donations to a special “Covid-19 Humanitarian Support Fund”.
Since May, around €2 million has been donated specifically for the Covid-19 Fund, in addition to €1 million for more general humanitarian costs. Thus far, the Order’s Irish arm has donated €65,000.
“We felt we had a legal and moral obligation to totally support the grandmaster’s appeal,” MrDurnin said. “We received cheques from €50 to well in excess of €5000 – 5% of our members donated in excess of €5000. I expect that we will send out an additional €50,000, in addition to normal donations, in the next 2-3 months.”
The funds, once received by the Latin Patriarchate, are distributed to the families most desperately in need. The CEO of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Sami El-Yousef, summarised the actions undertaken so far.
“With the humanitarian aid received, we have been able to help over 2,400 families at more than 30 parishes with basic needs including food coupons, hygiene and baby supplies, medicines, and electric meter refills,” said Mr El-Yousef. “This was done through the parish priests and parish councils who collaborated with local authorities to ensure fair distribution. Furthermore, 1,238 families in Jordan and 1,180 families in Palestine were supported with their unpaid tuition fees.”
However, the situation in the Holy Land, as in various other countries, continues to be critical. In the following weeks and months, the funds sent will continue to be deployed in order not to abandon those who continue to find themselves in a state of need.
“Christians are the minority of the minority and they are in need of support and encouragement, in remaining there, in living there, in marrying there, in having their children there, in continuing to work there,” said MrDurnin. “This is something we’d be encouraging people to recognise.”