Our Christian Neighbors and the Problems They Face

by Rakheli Hever, ICCI’s Communications & Development Coordinator

I recently had the pleasure of participating in a study tour of the Christian and Armenian Quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem, sponsored by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJCR) and Kehillat Yedidya. Having taken part in coordinating this tour and the previous two as an ICCI staff member, I was grateful for the opportunity to experience the tour as a participant.

And so, on Friday, August 27th, I joined the other participants (about 30 people) at the entrance to the Jaffa Gate, where we met our guide, Hana Bendcowsky, Program Director at JCJCR. As we walked into the Armenian Quarter, Hana directed our attention to important Christian buildings in the area, and to the Christian symbols carved into the stones in their walls or appearing on signs. Soon, we met with Archbishop Aris Shirvanian of the Armenian Patriarchate, who spoke to us at length about the history of the Armenian minority in Jerusalem and the current problems they are facing, including the problem of being spat on by Jewish religious extremists as they go about their business, problems related to the legal status of mixed citizenship families, and problems related to inter-Christian factors (for example, the joint custody of some of the holy places in the city).

We continued to the Christian quarter, where we learned about the Greek Orthodox community in the city and the Catholic Franciscan Order, and met with Fr. Athanasius Makora, of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, who spoke to us about the Franciscan Order’s role as Guardian of the Holy Places, which involves great responsibility and sometimes great problems. He also spoke about issues such as the difficulty in obtaining entry/exit permits for Palestinian Catholics, and another pressing problem I’m sure every Jerusalemite can identify with: the disturbances caused by the ongoing Light Rail works in Jerusalem. Despite the seriousness of some of the issues he spoke about, Fr. Makora displayed a good sense of humor and remained positive.

Leaving the Old City via the New Gate, we then entered the St. Louis French Hospital just outside the walls. We enjoyed the hospitality of the staff and heard about the place from the charming Mr. Bassam Abid, the Administrative Vice-Director of the hospital, an Arab Christian from the North of Israel. We then visited the garden (in which there is a Loquat tree Sir Moses Montefiore once sat under…) and the chapel, and climbed up to get a rooftop view of both the old and new parts of Jerusalem.

Although the focus of the tour was the problems our Christian neighbors face, I was most impressed with the positive things I’ve discovered through the tour. For example, the significant contribution of the members of Catholic Orders in Israel (representing some 100 different orders!) and other Christian clergy to the foreign and local Christian communities, as well as to locals of other religions. They handle the upkeep of the holy places, offer religious, educational and welfare services, and provide medical and financial help.

I was also relieved to learn that—overall and despite the issues and problems they face—the Christians we spoke with had a positive attitude and reported that they did not feel discriminated against (for example, in the job market, or by government officials). I discovered also that there is a wonderful place in Jerusalem called the St. Louis hospital, arguably the only Christian hospital serving glatt-kosher food, in which local and foreign Christians, Muslims, and Jews do holy work to alleviate the suffering of patients from all three religions. This is exactly the sort of organic interreligious cooperation I, for one, would like to hear more about.

Additional images can be found on our Facebook photo album.

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