ROME (EWTN News) — After years of decline, Christian numbers in the Holy Land have stabilized and may even be on the way up, according to the Pontifical Mission’s director for Israel and Palestine.
“In recent years I think we have not witnessed any waves of emigration out of the Holy Land,” Sami El-Yousef told EWTN News while on a visit to Rome.
“Actually, we have heard of some Christian families who had emigrated in recent years to the U.S. and Europe for economic reasons that have now actually returned to the Holy Land,” he said.
The Pontifical Mission is the papal organization that supports Christians in a region that has often seen them face poverty, uncertainly and hostility from both Jews and Muslims.
That climate has led many Christians to leave the region in recent decades. In fact, it’s estimated that over 50% of Palestinian Christians live outside of the Holy Land.
At the same time, the Christian population of Israel and the Palestinian Authority stands at only 2.3%.
“The youth have a greater affinity to the land than older generations,” said El-Yousef, highlighting research carried out last year on Christian Palestinian’s attitudes on life and the future.
“Emigration is not something that is on their mind. But they say to us: ‘Give us the tools of survival; help me to get a decent education, decent housing and a job.’ So it’s our job not to disappoint the Christian youth.”
The Pontifical Mission has made it a priority to strengthen the social agencies of the Church in the Holy Land.
“They really are the arms of the Church and include such things as schools, universities, health centers, hospitals and clinics, old-age homes, orphanages and so on.
This to me is the primary target: to strengthen these institutions,” said El-Yousef.
These Christian institutions offer their services to all people regardless of religion. In fact, El-Yousef says that some Christian schools have a student body that is 95% Muslim. This means that the contribution of Christians to the life of the Holy Land is increasingly respected and cherished by non-Christians.
“The civil authorities, particularly in the Palestinian areas, have recently said that Christians are an important part of Palestinian society at large and have made great contributions in education and social services,” the Pontifical Mission director said.
Their contribution has even led the Palestinian authorities to call on Christians not to emigrate and for those who have done so to return home.
For those who do stay, said El-Yousef, there is a tremendous pride to be had from being a Christian living in the Holy Land. He himself is from one of the oldest Christian families in Jerusalem, a city he still calls home: “For me, it’s a privilege and an honor to live in the old city of Jerusalem and to know that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is only a five-minute walk, to walk the alleyways of the old city and know what the historical connotations are of them.
“It’s such an honor to have been born and to live there and to raise a family there.”