Homes damaged in shooting between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers, livelihoods vanishing like the tourism, and the closures of their towns, the Christian community urgently needs help. But while larger churches and affiliates have dispensed many thousands of dollars in aid, some smaller ones are finding themselves hard-pressed to meet their own needs.
Some 80 percent of Arabs employed in the tourism industry are Christian, estimates Father Raed Abusahlia, Chancellor of the Latin (Catholic) Patriarchate of Jerusalem, just inside the Old City's Jaffa Gate. Given this concentration, he adds, the drop-off in tourism since October has hit the Christian community especially hard; many have been jobless for nearly six months.
Of the Arab-run hotels in Bethlehem, East Jerusalem and Nazareth, he estimates around half their workers lost their jobs. The Episcopalian Cathedral Church of St. George in Jerusalem - only meters from Road No. 1 on one side, and the Justice Ministry on the other - runs a guest house, as do many church-affiliated institutions in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In the wake of travel advisories issued by the British Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department, says Cathedral Dean Father Michael Sellors says, "Insurance was not possible for a lot of groups and so they canceled." As a result, staff at the hostel were employed only part-time over January.
In the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, a magnificent Catholic hotel gracing the skyline beside the Old City, an average night finds fewer than 20 people in the 150-room building, says its director, Father Aldo Tollotto. "An effort was made to retain all 155 staff members at the hotel, in the knowledge that Notre Dame is supporting 155 families," he says. But to do so, it was necessary, as of late November, to ask staff to work without pay one week each month.
The Lutheran Church, in the heart of Jerusalem's Christian Quarter, has closed its 45-bed guest house and 60-bed youth hostel altogether. It has opened only sporadically since October, on occasions when a tour group decided not to cancel its booking. "We plan to open the guest house again at Easter [in April], as we are expecting a group of 20 pilgrims," says the administrative director of the guest house, William Alonzo.
One way the Latin Patriarchate has sought to bring relief is to make extra efforts to encourage Christian pilgrims from abroad, despite the violence. Besides regular visits by the heads of the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches to those in distress - and prayer sessions by every church - several groups have come to the region on solidarity visits, says Fr. Abusahlia. "Not only is their presence appreciated as a gesture of support, but their spending helps to generate revenue to keep the community afloat."
It is precisely the lack of spending power in the community that has rapidly compounded the problems faced by the Christian community: Once incomes dry up, spending shrinks and the circulation of money, even among the employed, begins to slow. Shops and businesses are not the only ones to lose out; Catholic schools in the region are also finding it impossible to make ends meet.
Since the network of Catholic schools is independently run, they get no funding from Israel, the Palestinian Authority or Jordan, where they operate; they rely instead on tuition fees to cover some two-thirds of the costs of running the system, and make up the rest with donations, says Fr. Abusahlia. "Since many families can't afford to pay these fees," he says, "the Latin Patriarchate is finding it difficult to raise even half the running costs for its schools."
At the Catholic school in Beit Jala, for example, only around $800 of tuition fees were collected for the month of December - not enough to pay the salaries of two teachers, let alone the other 38 members of staff at the school, he remarks. And with 2,000 teachers to pay across the region, the patriarchate faces a bill of $500,000 every month for staffing, alone. This year he says he expects the school system to be $3-$5 million in deficit.
The tourist stay-away has affected the churches more directly in some cases. Several have had to tighten their belts in cases where hostels are not affiliated, but provide essential revenue for the whole institution. Monsignor Andre Bedoghlian, exarque of the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate, says that this past Monday night, a solitary pilgrim was staying at the church's guest house. Such poor showings have left the Armenian Patriarchate with only enough money to keep the staff paid and the building lit, he adds.
Mgr. Bedoghlian says St. Joseph's Catholic hospital in Jerusalem even offered him an extension on the due-date for payment of his hospital bill after he was released last week, so empty are church coffers. So there is nothing available to offer needy families, he adds.
In such circumstances, one of the few practical measures the Catholic churches can take is to help the Catholic aid organizations that collect money from overseas ensure that funds reach those they know most need it. "Ten thousand dollars a day is needed to meet the needs of all those who contact the office each day," says Fr. Abusahlia; the Patriarchate cannot afford to dole out such sums, but "the relief agencies are working on an emergency scale," he says.
Among the groups active in this field is the Pontifical Mission (based in the Christian Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem), which receives money from the Vatican and U.S. Catholics for distribution to local needy families. Together with other Catholic aid groups such as Caritas, the Pontifical Mission has channeled funds to Christian areas around Jerusalem, particularly to families whose homes have been damaged by Palestinian bullets or Israeli artillery fire. Fr. Guido, director of the mission, says that since the intensified violence began in October, he has visited at least 100 families in homes damaged by shooting. Fr. Abusahlia at the Latin Patriarchate estimates at least 160 Beit Sahur homes have been damaged.
Much of the churchmen's attention has focused on Bethlehem and the villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour - all to the south and south east of Jerusalem. In Beit Jala, for example, "I can say with confidence that $98,000 has been spent there by the Pontifical Mission on supporting the families there," says Fr. Guido. "We try to give families somewhere between $500 and $1000 each. Some people said we should give food, but I decided against this, because if money is given instead, then it will be spent in stores and will go to shop keepers too. It also helps to guard their human dignity."
"Other people said we should insist that families use the money to rebuild their homes," he adds, "but we decided that the people themselves would know best how to use it. They are the ones who are suffering, and the suffering is very great due to the lack of income."
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, by far the largest of the churches in the region, has also concentrated on these villages. Church heads regularly visit these areas to provide comfort and financial help to those whose homes have been damaged or destroyed. Some $500,000 has been dispensed by the Patriarchate to Christians suffering hardship in the territories since November, Metropolitan Cornelios says on behalf of the church.
A poignant example of the problems churches face is offered by Reverend Shemun Can, parish priest at the Syrian Orthodox Church, which backs onto the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem. By Rachel's Tomb, at the entrance to Bethlehem, he says, is the skeleton of a petrol station that was destroyed in shooting between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers at the nearby army post. "The petrol station near the tomb has been destroyed, and those Armenian Catholics who worked there now have no livelihood. They must search for alternative work in order to pay for food for their families," says Rev. Can.
"We, along with the clergy from other churches, visited families who suffered [because of the violence], but we couldn't do much for them, because they had lost so much of what they had," says Rev. Can. The director of the Pontifical Mission tells the same story: "We don't have the finances to help them rebuild their homes, but we can buy the most necessary items that they need. While there is a lot we could spend money on, we only have so much, and if we spread it too thinly, it won't help anyone. So we help those who have been bombed, the elderly, and the sick."
Much of the Mission's work is focused on those who have been displaced. "In Bethlehem, the whole quarter around the [Israeli] military compound has been evacuated," says Fr. Abusahlia of the Latin Patriarchate. "Many families from Beit Jala have also gone to live in hotels or stay with relatives. Fifteen families are living in the Millennium Hotel in the village," he says, adding that they cannot afford to live like that for long. Yet Rev. Can says he has not heard of anyone getting offers of help from either Israel or the Palestinian Authority.
Bishop Nikiphoros, a monk at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, cautions against polemics. Speaking personally, he says blaming this or that authority or militant group will do little to solve the Christian community's problems. Although the Latin Patriarch, Monsignor Michel Sabbah, only last week issued a call for Israeli and Palestinian guns to be trained on churches, if need be, rather than on families and homes, the idea was to point up the church's opposition to all violent measures, rather than engagement with this or that side in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"It takes two to tango and there has to be an end to violence on both sides," says Father Sellors. He says he does not believe there will be real peace, "until there is mutual respect and mutual recognition of human dignity and the worth of human life." Meanwhile, says Rev. Can, "we, as Christians, must continually ask that those who have lost their property and well-being not to be forgotten.
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