When I think of the Middle East, I think of conflict and war, of terrorism and problems between Muslims and Jews. I picture angry men in bandanas waving rifles and shouting words I don't understand.
But I don't think of Jesus.
I forget that the Middle East is first and foremost the place where Jesus walked and taught and lived and died. Neither do I give much thought to the Christian community there who continues, year after year, to celebrate his birth, death, and resurrection. These are the descendents of the first disciples—the true living stones who have refused over the centuries to convert to other religions. They have persevered, and they have preserved for all of us the holy places of Jesus and the early saints.
Feras Qumseya is one of those Christians. He's a 24-year-old Palestinian Catholic and one of the most impressive young men I've met. He tells me how he's watched the Christian community slowly disintegrate in his homeland and the tragic consequences already in rapid progress.
Feras's father was a professor at a Catholic school in Jerusalem but eventually found it impossible to get to his job because of Israeli checkpoints and road blocks. To support the family, he turned to a trade he learned at his father's knee-olive wood carving. But when the tourism died, so too did the sales, and he was forced to join his son, already studying in the United States.
A 24-year-old Palestinian Catholic, he tells me how he’s watched the Christian community slowly disintegrate.
"It was good timing as things were very bleak with my father's work, and my brother was having a hard time getting to high school," explains Feras. "They arrived just in time to attend my wedding."
Butros Qumseya, is now a full-time student and continues to promote the handicraft industries of the Holy Land. The senior Qumseya is also founder of the Holy Land Christians Society, an organization dedicated to supporting the Christian communities in the Holy Land.
The Qumseya family joins thousands of other Christians who've left the Holy Land since 1948. The exodus in the past 10 years has been particularly dramatic. Christians used to comprise almost 30% of the small area's population. Now fewer than 1.8% reside there, and the numbers continue to drop. At this rate, the Christian population will be extinct in 20 years.
Most of the Christian families—almost exclusively Palestinian-—live in the West Bank and Gaza. Every day they deal with the restrictions and poverty imposed by the Israeli occupation, and at the same time, the rise of Islamization—political and religious militancy among Palestinian Muslims.
According to Feras, Christians and Muslims used to live in harmony in the Holy Land. Two things have changed that: an influx of individuals from other Arab nations like Syria, Jordan and Lebanon after the Oslo Accords in 1993, who weren't used to harmonious relations with Christians and caused frictions; and the Israeli occupation which elevated tensions to the point where many of the social welfare agencies and programs closed shop, making room for extremist groups like Hamas to offer assistance to families in need.
Now, the Christian remnant in the Holy Land has been brought to a new state of discouragement with Israel's security wall. If completed as planned by the end of 2004, the more than 400 mile wall will isolate and encage all Palestinians—and some Jews as well. Though Israel claims the wall is a protective measure for self-defense, it's being built not on Israel's borders (known as the Green line), but through neighborhoods and private properties—separating farmers from their olive groves, children from their schools, workers from their jobs, and even nuns from their convents and the people they serve.
Every day they deal with the restrictions and poverty imposed by the Israeli occupation, and the rise of Islamization.
When Sister Marie Dominique opens the front door of Our Lady of Sorrows Home for the sick and elderly she now stares at a 30 foot high concrete wall that splits the neighborhood in two. Cut off from staff, family, supplies, and transportation for their patients to hospitals, the sisters' work has grown incredibly difficult.
"We want to (help) these voiceless people here who each day have to fight their way to reach their workplaces, schools and families, to say nothing of all the sick who die for want of medical treatment," wrote Sister Marie Dominique in a recent email.
The same wall will soon block all access to the Emmanuel Sisters' convent in Bethlehem. They were offered an olive branch when they complained—the Christian homes next to their convent can be demolished instead so the sisters can have their pathway.
Further north, the wall is creeping closer to a school run by the Rosary Sisters. A 24 foot high barrier is rumored to be going up next to the school playground. A bit of a problem, considering the area around the wall is considered a military zone and anyone found near it can be shot.
The wall is making it increasingly difficult for Christians to maintain the daily functions of life. The Church—particularly the nuns, priests, and dedicated staff who run schools, hospitals, churches and social services—has been especially heroic in its efforts to help the people; faithfully maintaining a presence in the midst of violent and extreme conditions, including the confiscation of their own church property.
The Christian community has always been a voice for peace and reconciliation, of moderation and mediation in the Holy Land. This isn't just part of their faith, it's part of this community's tradition. The Christians are, in a very real sense, brothers to both Israelis and Palestinians. They provide a bridge, made credible by their relationship with both Jews and Muslims over many years.
The Christians are, in a real sense, brothers to both Israelis and Palestinians.
No agreement or treaty will solve the problems of the Middle East—there have been too many broken treaties and agreements. Logistics won't fix it, and neither will governments. They can help, but lasting peace must come from and through the people.
Feras believes it's possible. "We can't look merely at short-term solutions, we must look at solutions that help the peoples of the Holy Land understand each other as brothers," he says.
If Christians maintain an important place in the Holy Land, they can help facilitate the process of bringing the sons of Abraham together—for meetings and reconciliation and communication—step by step.