• FEATURES \ Dec 13, 2005
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    The Invisible Christians of the Holy Land
The Invisible Christians of the Holy Land ROMA, March 28, 2005 ? 15,000 pilgrims from all over the world came for the Latin-rite celebration of Easter in Jerusalem this year, significantly more than in years gone by.

15,000 is also the number of Christians who live in the holy city today.

But these are not gaining in numbers; they are diminishing. In 1948, there were 30,000 Christians in Jerusalem. Normal demographic growth should have increased their numbers today to 120,000.

And the number of Christians has fallen sharply all over the Holy Land. A century ago, they were 10 percent of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea. Today they are less than 2 percent: about 130,000 in Israel, and 50,000 in the Palestinian territories and in Gaza.

But there are also Christians who are not counted ? and if they were, they would revolutionize these statistics.

Elisa Pinna, an expert on international religious questions for the news agency ANSA, calls them ?the invisible Christians? in her recent investigative book on ?The Twilight of Christianity in Palestine.?

Elisa Pinna writes:

?They are the most mysterious Christians of the Holy Land: the non-Jewish Jews, Christians incognito. They have never been Jewish, but they pretend to be so for the sake of convenience. It is a little-known reality, and one that is rarely discussed, because many find it embarrassing. This reality dates from the great immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union which took place during the 1980?s and ?90?s.

?Thanks to the law permitting their return, in just four years, from 1989 to 1993, more than a million Russian and Ukrainian Jews arrived in Israel, giving rise to the greatest ?alja,? or ascent to the promised land, since the end of the second world war. These ?olim,? new Israeli citizens, were sent to the areas where it was most necessary to balance the Arab demographic pressure in Israel, or in the Palestinian territories. A conspicuous number of them have established themselves in Galilee, at Nazareth.

?But many of the immigrants were not Jewish at all. The first to discover this were the Orthodox rabbis, who were indignant at finding out that the new arrivals were totally ignorant of the teachings of the Talmud and little disposed to respect the norms and prohibitions, especially in dietary matters.

?A study conducted in 1999 illustrates the scope of the phenomenon: of the approximately 86,000 new immigrants taken into consideration, all of them recognized as Israeli citizens by the authorities of the state of Israel, 53 percent could not be considered Jewish according to the law, because they did not have a Jewish mother, and 38 percent did not even have a Jewish father. It is not known how many of these are Christians, or what their real religious identity is. Many believe that these new Israeli Christians are even more numerous than the Palestinian Arab Christians. ?400-500,000 non-Jews have come from Russia, and most of them are Christian,? says Aristarchos, the spokesman for the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem. ?They are an ocean; it is difficult to say how many they are,? confirms the Latin bishop for the Christians in Israel, Boutros Marcuzzo. But he clarifies that many of them are de facto non-believers, or atheists, and cannot easily be marked down officially as Christians.

?The Israeli authorities hope that many of these immigrants without any religious identity will be assimilated by the Jewish majority, in part through the family ties many of them have with authentic Jews. [...] In order to confront the phenomenon of the non-Jewish Russian immigrants, a governmental organization was created at the end of the 1990?s: this was the Institute of Jewish Studies, and it was charged with promoting the Judaizing of new non-Jewish Israelis, who number about 250,000, according to the organization?s estimates. So far, about 2,500 immigrants have been involved in the institute?s initiatives.

?But an underground war for conversions has broken out. Or it might be better to say, from the point of view of the Christian Churches, that a ?re-evangelization? campaign has begun, in defense of the immigrants? original Christian identity. The newcomers are mostly Russian and Ukrainian, and as a result the overwhelming majority of them are Orthodox. But the crisis of the Greek patriarchate of Jerusalem, which is paralyzed by a struggle over leadership and by real economic and financial problems, prevents the Orthodox Church from adequately facing the challenge.

?This has created an unforeseen opportunity for the initiative of the Catholic Church, which has hastened to send a dozen Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking priests into this new area of evangelization, right in the middle of Jewish colonies and settlements. Their mission is a delicate one and requires discretion. It might lead to serious problems with the Israelis, for whom the newcomers? conversion to Judaism is an objective they cannot renounce. But this could also create serious complications with the Orthodox, who have for years engaged in a controversy with Catholics over proselytism in Ukraine and Russia: Catholic activism in those countries is one of the thorniest matters of contention between the Vatican and the patriarchate of Moscow. The extension of this controversy to the Holy Land could have serious consequences for the relationship between the two Churches. For this reason, no one at the Latin patriarchate talks about the activity of these priests among the immigrants. Officially speaking, they do not exist.?