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Monday, 1 November 2010

Can Housing Preserve Mideast's Christians?

AOL News Monday, November 1st, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (Nov. 1) -- Only days after a special Vatican Synod on the Middle East ended a week of deliberation about the rapidly shrinking Christian communities in the Arab world and Israel, Christians faced a massacre in Baghdad and renewed troubles in Jerusalem.

Fifty-eight people including a priest were reported dead Sunday after Iraqi troops stormed the Catholic Sayidat al-Najat church in Baghdad where gunmen linked with al-Qaida had taken dozens of hostages and begun killing them. It was just the latest bout of the anti-Christian violence that has sparked a massive wave of emigration from the troubled country in recent years.

In Jerusalem, it remained unclear what caused a blaze early Friday morning that swept through the Alliance Church on Prophets Street, next door to the Jewish ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. The use of the church by evangelical and Jewish messianic groups aroused suspicions that the fire could have been started deliberately, but Jerusalem police said their initial investigation did not appear to suggest arson.

Decades of discrimination, poverty and occasional violence have taken their toll on the Christians of the Middle East. Tens of thousands have left the region in recent years. Reversing the decline of the rapidly shrinking Christian communities in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and the Holy Land were high on the agenda of last week's Vatican Synod.

While the problem of violence in Iraq and elsewhere seems intractable for many Christians, in the Holy Land, church officials have hit on a novel solution: real estate.

Churches in Jerusalem and the West Bank, alarmed by the rapid rate of Christian emigration and the creeping loss of some church-owned land to Palestinian gangsters, have initiated a major building program to provide affordable housing to Christian families.

A 2006 survey carried out by Sabeel, a Christian think-tank in Jerusalem, showed that the 2005 Christian population of 160,000 in Israel and the West Bank had barely grown since 1945 due to massive emigration caused by continuous warfare, occupation and discrimination. More Palestinian Christians now live in Chile than in the Holy Land, where Christians account for less than 2 percent of the population. In cities like Bethlehem and Ramallah, which a generation ago had Christian majorities, they are now outnumbered by Muslims.

"There is a glaring shortage of houses in Jerusalem, at least at affordable prices," said Father Ibrahim Faltas, bursar of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. "We really want to help halt Christian emigration by making these houses available. Having a space of one's own and a house of one's own is an encouragement to put down roots and stay in this land."

The Custody owns 500 homes in the Old City of Jerusalem and more than 200 outside the walls. A recent ceremony handing over the keys to 68 apartments in 20 three-floor buildings of three- to six-room apartments near Jerusalem went on until 5 a.m.

"It was a magnificent night," said the Custos, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, lamenting only that there was a waiting list of 700 families who had hoped to receive one of the 68 homes.

The Custody project "Jerusalem: Stones of the Memory" has completed 100 refurbishments since 2007 at a cost of about $2 million. It has another 320 housing units in the pipeline at an estimated cost of about $10 million. Similar projects have been initiated by the Armenian, Lutheran and Orthodox churches in Jerusalem, Bethany, Bethlehem and Ramallah.

"The real danger is that immigration has become the easy solution for all problems, a trend followed by the young and in many circumstances endorsed and encouraged by the older generation," notes the Arab Orthodox Charitable Society in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. "Beit Sahour, home to the largest Greek Orthodox community in the Holy Land, is at stake of losing its strong Christian identity, preserved by the community against all odds thus far. Bethlehem and Beit Jala have succumbed long ago to the temptation of immigration and lost their Christian majority." The society has its own building project, "Dwellings for Newly Married Young Couples."

Monsignor William Shomali, auxiliary bishop at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, chairs a monthly gathering of Catholic church and charitable affiliates to monitor developments in the Catholic community. Among the projects under construction are 80 apartments in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa being built with the legal and technical assistance of the Patriarchate.

"These people came to us and said, 'We are homeless. We can not own a house.' They were young, either newly married or about to get married, and they had a problem of housing. It is cheaper to build a housing project than for everyone to build his own house because of the land and building license. So they put the project under our care," Shomali told AOL News.

Christian families traditionally were not landowners in the villages that have now become suburbs of Jerusalem, Ramallah and other major cities. That put them at a disadvantage when the population began to grow and land prices started rising.

Israeli restrictions on granting building permits to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have exacerbated the problem. Church figures show that while Palestinians make up 35 percent of the city's population, they receive only 7 percent of building licenses granted each year -- a policy that the church describes as "demographic control."

"The Christian families used to live in the Old City where there was not a lot of space to expand," Shomali said. "They were satisfied. They were in houses owned by the Franciscans or the Greek Orthodox Church. So they didn't think to buy outside the Old City when land was less valuable than it is today. Fewer people thought of it. This is the error committed by our community."

Jack Amer, 27, is hoping to move to his new home in the Beit Safafa project with his wife of two years and their infant son in 2012, thanks to a $150,000 mortgage from the Arab Bank. Amer, a native of Jerusalem who is now chief accountant at the Latin Patriarchate, told AOL News that it would have been impossible to raise a mortgage without the backing of the church.

"No banks can give us the loans that will help us because we have no guarantees," Amer said. "The church is helping Arab people to stay in Jerusalem and to let their sons and daughters stay here also.

"The Patriarch and the priests are taking all their time to help people stay in this place. We need to stay in Jerusalem. It's like you are in a war. You have to protect your rights," he said.

1 comment:

Duane Miller said...

Great news. Please update us on this from time to time. I recently found the Latins and Orthodox in Nablus are working on similar projects.