A group of international bishops has been urged to take home their concerns about how the recent Israeli nation-state law affects the rights of Christians living in Israel.
The Holy Land Coordination is made up of bishops from across Europe, North America and South Africa who make an annual pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a sign of solidarity with the local Christian community.
The bishops’ Jan. 12-17 visit focused on the challenges and opportunities facing Christians in Israel.
In July, the Israeli legislature decided to define Israel as “the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” a decision which has upset the non-Jewish citizens of the country who make up around 25 percent of the population.
While certain elements of the law have stirred little controversy – such as its enumeration of the flag, the national anthem, and the state emblem – it is the specifications making Hebrew the nation’s official language, support for Jewish settlements, and the seeming overall lack of concern for the country’s minority populations that have caused controversy.
“They find the nation state law difficult to live with, because it puts them into a sort of second-class category. If we can support them in their protesting against the new nation state law, that would be an encouragement to them,” said Bishop Declan Lang of the English Diocese of Clifton, who chairs the organization.
“In general, they are certainly free to practice their faith, but they do live in a situation where – certainly with the most recent law – they are guests in a Jewish state,” Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. military archdiocese told Crux.
“The word that has frequently been used by the people we have spoken to is Apartheid, that Israel is headed in that direction, which would certainly be very tragic. I think the United States could have an influence in helping to avoid that kind of drastic situation,” he said.
The archbishop said American Catholics have a special role to play in trying to influence the Israeli government of guaranteeing that Christians and other minorities have the full rights enjoyed by the majority Jewish population.
“Since the United States is probably the strongest supporter of Israel, Christians in the United States could certainly make the case that Israel should respect democratic principles and they shouldn’t create a state which excludes a part of their citizenry,” Broglio said.
During their visit to Israel, the bishops travelled to the Galilee region, in the northern part of the country.
Bishop William Nolan of Galloway in Scotland noted the Christian community in this region is different than that around Jerusalem or Nazareth, or in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
“When you come to the Holy Land the Christians are all part of the pilgrimage trade, but people up here have other jobs and you don’t see the pilgrims,” he told Crux.
“There is quite a large Christian community that is non-Arab, so they’re not coming from the Palestinian experience at all,” Nolan said.
These other Christians come from a variety of backgrounds: Many come from Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union, and immigrated to Israel with Jewish relatives, others are migrant workers from the Philippines and Africa, and there are even a few converts from Judaism.
Nolan said when he visited Haifa, the major city in the area, he was pleasantly surprised at how integrated it was, with Arabs and Jews interacting with each other more easily than in other parts of the country.
“Elsewhere in Israel, everyone lives in their own little bubble: Whether it’s Jews, Christians, or Muslims, they don’t tend to mix together,” he said. “Haifa is one the areas where you have Christians, Muslims and Jews all living together fairly harmoniously.”
Lang pointed out that Christians still suffer identity problems, and people “sometimes regard Christianity as something that is foreign.”
“One of the problems [non-Arab Christians] still have is integrating into Israeli society, since they come from other countries. Those who are Arab Christians, they see themselves as players in the life of the country and very much want to be so, and they often do this particularly through the work of education and health care,” the English bishop said.
Broglio noted that Christians in Israel can face other obstacles.
“They could be challenged just by their ability to practice their faith, the ability to go to Mass,” since Israel observes a Friday-Saturday weekend, and Sunday is a workday.
“The Israeli government does not favor these immigrants having children or bringing children with them and of course they have,” the archbishop added. “They are dealing with some 4,000 children of immigrants in the country, generally the children of working single mothers. So there is a general problem of child care, because there is no one to leave them with.”
Despite the growing Christian presence within Hebrew-speaking society, 80 percent of Christians in Israel are still part of the Arab community, and despite their relative distance from the conflict, the Israeli occupation is a major concern for the community.
“They are Israeli citizens, but they have that sense of identity with the Christians in the occupied territories. They obviously see them as their brothers and sisters, and many of them have family members in the occupied territories as well, and they have that wish for them: That life could be better for them,” Lang told Crux.
Lang also said there is still a lot of distrust between the Hebrew-speaking and Arabic-speaking communities in Israel.
“We need to build bridges, and I think some of the Church institutions can build those bridges through education and through healthcare – reaching out to people who are in need and offering a service not just to Catholics or Christians … but to Muslims and Jews alike as well, so the Church is seen as a body that reconciles rather than divides,” the bishop said.