Wednesday, December 30, 2009

An Evolving Christian Population in Israel

The French original can be found here.

An Evolving Christian Population in Israel

by Jean-Marie Allafort

As in every year at Christmas, the Israeli Bureau of Statistics publishes the official statistics about the Christians living in Israel. According to the figures from the Ministry of the Interior, 81% of Christians are Arabs and the others are immigrants from the ex-USSR who are officially registered as Christians. However, the officially counted Christian population, which numbers 154,000 people at the end of 2009 underestimates the number of Christians living in Israel, both citizens and non-citizens such as foreign workers (Philippinos, Africans, Romanians,…) and religious workers (priests, pastors, monastics,…).

At the end of 2009, 154,000 Christians live in Israel, making up 2.1% of the totality of the population of Israel, which has 7.5 million inhabitants. These statistics do not include the Palestinian Christians in the Territories, except those living in East Jerusalem. 81% of the Christians are Arabs and almost all are Israeli citizens.

The great majority of Christians (98%) live in cities and 70% live in the north of the country. The largest Christian community in Israel is in Nazareth (20,100 people). Next come Haifa, with 14,100 Christian Arabs, Jerusalem (12,800), and Shefaram in Galilee (9,100).
Israel also counts almost 29,000 non-Arab Christians who are mostly from the countries of the former Soviet Union- 3,400 in Haifa, 2,600 in Tel Aviv, and 2,600 in Jerusalem. They declared themselves as such to the Ministry of the Interior. We should also note that 300,000 non-Jewish “Soviet” immigrants are not registered as Christians but are counted in a category specially created for them called “without religion,” a large proportion of which regularly go to churches.

This new, non-Arab Christian community has another statistical influence. An Israeli Christian family is now made up of an average of 3.4 members, a significant decrease since 1992—the average size of a Christian family was then 4.2—since Christian families of Russian origins have far fewer children than the Arab Christians. The growth rate of the Christians is the lowest of all the communities in Israel: 1% for non-Arab Christians and 1.3% for Arab Christians, compared to 1.7% for the Jews and 2.8% for the Muslims, who have the strongest demographic growth among Muslims in the Middle East because of a lower death rate compared to neighboring countries.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Forgotten Palestinian Refugees

Even in Bethlehem, Palestinian Christians are suffering under Muslim intolerance.

Wall Street Journal
December 24, 2009

(Bethlehem) Meet Yussuf Khoury, a 23-year old Palestinian refugee living in the West Bank. Unlike those descendents of refugees born in United Nations camps, Mr. Khoury fled his birthplace just two years ago. And he wasn't running away from Israelis, but from his Palestinian brethren in Gaza.

Mr. Khoury's crime in that Hamas-ruled territory was to be a Christian, a transgression he compounded in the Islamists' eyes by writing love poems.

"Muslims tied to Hamas tried to take me twice," says Mr. Khoury, and he didn't want to find out what they'd do to him if they ever kidnapped him. He hasn't seen his family since Christmas 2007 and is afraid even to talk to them on the phone.

Speaking to a group of foreign journalists in the Bethlehem Bible College where he is studying theology, Mr. Khoury describes a life of fear in Gaza. "My sister is under a lot of pressure to wear a headscarf. People are turning more and more to Islamic fundamentalism and the situation for Christians is very difficult," he says.

In 2007, one year after the Hamas takeover, the owner of Gaza's only Christian bookstore was abducted and murdered. Christian shops and schools have been firebombed. Little wonder that most of Mr. Khoury's Christian friends have also left Gaza.

A demonstration of power: Muslims praying in Manger Square, Aug. 7, 2009.
On the rare occasion that Western media cover the plight of Christians in the Palestinian territories, it is often to denounce Israel and its security barrier. Yet until Palestinian terrorist groups turned Bethlehem into a safe haven for suicide bombers, Bethlehemites were free to enter Israel, just as many Israelis routinely visited Bethlehem.

The other truth usually ignored by the Western press is that the barrier helped restore calm and security not just in Israel, but also in the West Bank including Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity, which Palestinian gunmen stormed and defiled in 2002 to escape from Israeli security forces, is now filled again with tourists and pilgrims from around the world.

But even here in Jesus' birthplace, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Christians live on a knife's edge. Mr. Khoury tells me that Muslims often stand in front of the gate of the Bible College and read from the Quran to intimidate Christian students. Other Muslims like to roll out their prayer rugs right in Manger Square.

Asked about why Muslims would pray so close to one of Christianity's holiest sites, Pastor Alex Awad, dean of students at the Bible College, diplomatically advises me to pose this question to the Muslims themselves. Mindful of his community's precarious situation, he is at pains to stress that whatever problems Christians may have with their Muslim neighbors, it's not the PA's fault.

"Muslims and Christians live here in relative harmony," he tells reporters, only to add that Christians "feel the pressure of Islam . . . There is intimidation and fanaticism but these are little instances and there is no general persecution."

Samir Qumsieh, the founder of what he says is the holy land's only Christian TV station, also stresses that there is no "Christian suffering" and that the Christians' problems are not orchestrated by the PA. Yet his stories of land theft, beatings and intimidation make one wonder why, if the PA doesn't approve of such injustices, it is doing so little to stop it?

Christians have only recently begun to talk about how Muslim gangs simply come and take possession of Christian-owned land while the Palestinian security services, almost exclusively staffed by Muslims, stand by. Mr. Qumsieh's own home was firebombed three years ago. The perpetrators were never caught.

"We have never suffered as we are suffering now," Mr. Qumsieh confesses, violating his own introductory warning to the assorted foreign correspondents in his office not to use the word "suffering."

Always a minority religion among the predominantly Muslim Palestinians, Christians are, Mr. Qumsieh says, "melting away," even in Bethlehem. While they represented about 80% of the city's population 60 years ago, their numbers are now down to about 20%, a result not just of Muslims' higher birth rates but also widespread Christian emigration. "Our future as a Christian community here is gloomy," Mr. Qumsieh says.

Palestinian plight not attributable to Israel barely seems to register in the West's collective conscience. As Christians around the world remember Jesus' birth, perhaps we can think of Mr. Khoury and those Christians still suffering in Gaza and Bethlehem.

Mr. Schwammenthal is an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe

And, despite what the Wall Street Journal might have one believe, Palestinian Christians are treated at least as bad by the Jews. An Israeli friend tells me that such graffiti has been found on churches all over Jerusalem----

"Death to Christians": Hebrew graffiti next to Upper Room in Jerusalem

The graffiti was immediately removed to avoid exacerbating tension between Christians and Jews. Those responsible are probably young Orthodox Jews. In the area of close to the Upper Room many other offences against priests, nuns and holy sites. Doubts about the ability (or willingness) of the State to protect the places of Christendom.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Graffiti in Hebrew, with the words "Death to Christians" appeared two days ago near the Upper Room, one of the most precious holy sites of Christendom. The vandalism took place in the Vatican in Rome the Plenary of the Bilateral Permanent Working Commission between the Holy See and the State of Israel was being held.

The graffiti in black paint appeared along the wall of the Basilica of the Dormition on Mount Zion, a few meters from the place where Christians remember the birth of the institution of the Eucharist and the Church at Pentecost. The writing was immediately removed in order not to exacerbate tensions between Christians and Jews.

Church sources say that the authors are probably young Jewish nationalists, members of some yeshiva (Jewish seminary). Is not the first time that these young people have tried to offend the Christian presence and the holy sites in that area. Often, on the doorstep of the church of the Cenacle Room, run by the Franciscans, these groups carry out their physiological needs in open contempt of the site; other times, in dozens of cases, they spit at priests or nuns passing along the street; once they destroyed a stone cross along the wall.

The Church of the Cenacle is not the Upper Room itself, the place where Jesus instituted the Eucharist. This holy place is now owned by the government of Israel, although since the 14th century it had belonged to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. In the 16th century the Ottomans expelled the Franciscans, but they have never renounced their right to the property.

The graffiti incident took place while discussions were taking place in Rome regarding the return of the Cenacle and other holy sites to the Catholic Church. In this regard, Daniel Ayalon, Deputy Foreign Minister and head of the Israeli delegation, before and after the meeting said that "Israel would not give up its ownership of the Upper Room or other holy places under its direct sovereignty."

This episode and other offences cast a shadow of doubt on the ability (or willingness) of the State of Israel to protect the holy places and especially the Upper Room.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

+Georges Khodr on St. John of Damascus

The Arabic original can be found here. It's worth remembering that this was written in his column in the secular but Orthodox-owned newspaper an-Nahar. While on a scholarly level I wouldn't endorse all of his historical opinions, his understanding of how St. John of Damascus relates to the modern Arab Christian situation is of interest.

Saint John of Damascus

Saint John of Damascus, who was called Mansur ibn Sarjun in the world and took his monastic name in the Monastery of Saint Sabbas which still stands today near Bethlehem, was the grandson of Mansur ibn Sarjun who worked for the Byzantines in Damascus, governing the city. In the Caliphate of Mu’awiya the elder Mansur was appointed to manage the treasury. This was a matter with serious and profound ramifications and the office extended to his son and then to his grandson who bore his name according to this custom in those lands of naming a child after his grandfather.

It is clear that the Umayyads maintained the Christians in the positions they had occupied during the Byzantine period, because the various bureaus kept their records in Greek until they were arabized under Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. At that time, Greek was still the language of the people in the cities, just as Aramaic was the language of the people in the countryside. In the time of Yazid ibn Mu’awiya, Orthodox Christians had management over the treasury, even though the Jacobites (that is, the Syriac Orthodox) were the majority in Syria. The only explanation I have for this is that the Arabs maintained those whom they found in the bureaus during the Byzantine period and these were necessarily of the religion of the Byzantine rulers.

At the time of the conquest, the Arabs were not able to have administrative positions on account of their ignorance of the language of administration, which was Greek. The political situation was such that the Arab rulers had control over the caliphate and the army. That is, the Arab Muslims were entirely dependent on Christians in their administrative centers to the point that Mu’awiya put the elder Mansur ibn Sarjun in charge of the building of the first Arab fleet at Tripoli, with the goal of occupying Constantinople. In other words, Mansur’s responsibility was to build a fleet in order to attack the capital of the Orthodox world. It was not pleasant for a man who attended the liturgy in the port of Tripoli on Sunday to prepare the Muslim Arab army to attack Constantinople. This was not something easy for him, but he and the sons of his Church understood that the Muslims conquered Syria in order to stay there and that the Christian people of the land had no hope of the Byzantines’ regaining Syria.

To what people did the family of Sarjun belong? I have no evidence that they belonged to an Arab tribe, though there were Arabs among the Christians of Syria prior to the conquest. My opinion is that they were of old Syriac stock and had adopted the Greek language on account of their culture. (Syriac does not mean that they were of the Syriac Orthodox creed, as they were Chalcedonians and both churches used the two main languages).

The fact that Saint John did not write a single line of Arabic does not mean that he was completely ignorant of the language, especially since he and his family mingled with the Umayyad caliphs on account of their administrative work. The reason that John of Damascus did not use Arabic was that this language had not yet become the language of the Christians. But how did Mansur ibn Sarjun the younger, whose name became John of Damascus, address the Caliph Yazid when he would see him every day for consultation about matters of the treasury, when Yazid only knew Arabic? It seems to me that Mansur ibn Sarjun at the very least spoke to the caliph in colloquial Arabic, and everything points to the existence of a colloquial dialect among the Muslims. Saint John of Damascus composed a “Dialogue between a Christian and a Muslim” that has been read by Christian and Muslim men of culture since it was translated from Greek into Arabic and published in Egypt around sixty years ago. This proves to us that John of Damascus knew something about Islam from his friends. Despite that, I do not think that he read Surat al-Ikhlas, which he cites, since he makes a mistake in his translation of a verse. However, there is no doubt that he talked about Islam with Yazid, since he was not particularly pious. That said, Saint John of Damascus did not write anything else about Islam, despite what some scholars have thought.

In the end, the two men parted ways because Yazid attacked some Christian leaders, which caused the saint to leave Damascus for Palestine, where he became a monk. There in the Monastery of Saint Sabbas he composed the Fount of Knowledge which comprises a hundred chapters and is his book about the Orthodox faith. He begins it with a philosophical preface. German orientalists say that it was the foundational source for Islamic philosophy, which began in the Umayyad period. The philosophical problematic in the history of Islamic thought rests on the basis of the Fount of Knowledge.

John’s value in that book is that he is the first writer to put in writing the framework of thought of Christian theology. That is, a writing arranging all Christian thought. Before him, there had only been various compositions on this topic or that, one person writing on the topic of the Trinity, another on the incarnation or redemption, but John summarized all of Christian thought in interrelated chapters.

It becomes clear to one who examines this book that its author knew the early Fathers very well and that he compared them and chose from them as he saw fitting and that he depended in philosophy on Aristotle. Specialists have debated his creative power. No doubt he was less innovative than the greatest of the fathers. Perhaps that is the lot of one who receives a well-established intellectual tradition tied to logic. However, it is his merit that he was the first Christian to cast the faith in one book. He was the initiator of systematic theology. Thomas Aquinas drew on him frequently and in the Summa Theologica he cites him hundreds of times.

It was not enough for Saint John of Damascus to be erudite in theology, because he also practiced asceticism and mystical contemplation and composed numerous church services, including the Paschal hymns that all the Orthodox of the world chant to this day. Besides these texts, he composed the eight tones that till today dominate our chant after there having previously been another system of music. He was thus not simply a man of abstract intellect, but rather his heart was filled with the presence of the Lord.

Naturally, the determination of the family of Mansur in two matters draws our attention. First, that they held fast to their faith completely and with knowledge, and second, that they remained in their faith while honestly serving the government in a state that had become dominated by Arabness at all its levels. I think that the behavior of John of Damascus and his father and grandfather is a model for the stance of Orthodox Christians in an Islamic state, whether or not it accepts them with complete sympathy. They act based on their morals and the state according to its morals.

What is important in this behavior is that the inspiration for these eastern Christians was not based on a nationalism that had not yet been discovered then. Love alone was what motivated them and profound knowledge supported this love. Before the language of the Christians became arabized in Syria, and that took a very long time, the family of Mansur appeared there in complete harmony with the state and they historically received the glory that they deserved.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The New Hieromartyr Philoumenos

The following is translated from the website of the Archdiocese of Tripoli. The original can be found here. A more detailed life of the Hieromartyr can be found here.

Nablus (30.11.2009)—Yesterday, at the Orthodox Church of Jacob’s Well in Nablus the beatification of the martyr Philomenos and the placing of his name in the Synaxarion of saints of the Orthodox Church was officially announced by the Holy Synod. His Beatitude the Patriarch presided at the Divine Liturgy, along with the bishops of the patriarchal see of Jerusalem and a number of bishops from the Church of Cyprus, in addition to a delegation from the Russian Church. The relics of the saint are preserved in the church in which he was martyred.
During the Divine Liturgy, the decision of the Holy Synod to place the martyr Archimandrite Philoumenos in the Synaxarion was officially announced. His annual commemoration will be
November 29, the anniversary of his martyrdom.

The Hieromartyr Archimandrite Philoumenos was the abbot of the Monastery of Jacob’s Well in Nablus. On November 29, 1979, as he stood in the church praying vespers a group of extremist Jewish settlers entered the church and brutally killed him using sharp objects. He fell, spilling his blood in the church where he had served and where he had prayed. It has been forty years since his martyrdom and his relics have been a place of reverence and humility for visitors to the Holy Land.

The hieromartyr was born in Cyprus and went to the Holy Land while he was still young. He served a number of monasteries and churches and he became a monk and was ordained deacon then priest. The last place in which he served was the Monastery of Jacob’s Well in Nablus, where he became a martyr.

His holy relics are a source of grace and blessings and have healed many people of their illnesses. His body gushes myrrh and those who enter into the church smell myrrh coming from the body of the holy martyr.

A special service has been composed for the Hieromartyr Philoumenos and an icon has been written of him.

Yesterday was a historical day in Nablus and thousands of believers and pilgrims attended and were blessed with the relics of the saint and his icon as they took part in this great celebration for the Church.