National Catholic Register


In a Jam in Jerusalem

Housing Crunch Hurts Holy Land Christians

BY Michele Chabin

Register Correspondent

October 18-24, 2009 Issue | Posted 10/9/09 at 5:10 PM


JERUSALEM — Young Christians are being squeezed out of the Jerusalem housing market, accelerating the exodus of Christians from the city and endangering the Christian community’s future.

High prices, strict building codes and the bureaucracy involved in obtaining building permits — said to be even worse in the city’s Arab sector than the Jewish — means that singles and young families are finding it next to impossible to remain there.

Exacerbating the problem is Israel’s reluctance to grant residency permits to the non-Israeli spouses of Israeli (or Jerusalem-based) Christians. Consequently, most newlyweds move to the West Bank or out of the region completely.  

“Christians are lost here. We are caught between Jews and Muslims and are now just 1% of the population in the Holy Land,” said a young Greek Orthodox grocer, referring to the entire Holy Land. “In 10 years people will only be able to see the Christian community in a museum.”

While emigration has dealt a blow to almost every Holy Land Christian community, the problem is most acute in Jerusalem, says Msgr. William Shomali, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

Approximately 10,000 Christians live in Jerusalem, Msgr. Shomali said, including some 5,500 Catholics, 3,000 Greek Orthodox and 1,500 Christians from other denominations: Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Protestants.

The numbers do not include thousands of Christian foreign workers who receive housing from their employers and who rarely mix with the 10,000 indigenous Arab/Palestinian Christians.

Msgr. Shomali listed several reasons for the decline during an interview at the Patriarchate, located in the Old City’s Christian Quarter.

 “Christians are Arabs. We are Palestinians, and we have to deal with the same constraints other Arabs deal with,” the priest said, noting that while all city residents must contend with unwieldy permit delays, “It can take anywhere from two to 15 years in the Arab sector.”

The drawn-out process, Msgr. Shomali theorized, “is [the Israeli government’s] way to control the demographic growth of Arabs in Jerusalem,” who already comprise a third of the city’s population.

Divided City

The city, which was physically divided between 1948 and 1967, is today united under Israeli sovereignty. West Jerusalem, which was always in Israeli hands, is overwhelmingly Jewish. East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and which Palestinians claim as their future capital, is overwhelmingly Arab, although there are many Jewish neighborhoods on the periphery.    

The Old City, which is in East Jerusalem but adjoins West Jerusalem, has been home to thousands of Christians for centuries, and the fact that it is a protected heritage site has hurt Christians in particular.

“I understand that the municipality wants to keep the Old City’s character,” Msgr. Shomali said, “but there must be ways to allow some restructuring. They could be more flexible.” 

Obtaining permission to build in the Old City is a difficult process for people of every faith, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III said in a rare private audience in his wood-paneled office in the Old City. But he quietly acknowledged, “You cannot say there is equal treatment.”

Theophilos said he and other leaders “are trying to maintain good relations with the authorities by working according to the law. … It’s very delicate. We do not want to mix up politics and our religious mission.”

The Patriarch openly acknowledged that the young Palestinian Christians, sometimes championed by left-leaning aid organizations critical of Israel for house demolitions, do not always abide by the city’s regulations.

“They need more living space, and they fall into serious mistakes,” he said. “Some proceed arbitrarily, and it causes a lot of problems. I have instructed them to be very careful, that they must follow the law of society.”

Sami Wakileh, a Greek Orthodox Christian who has been heavily fined by the municipality for construction changes on the property he rents from St. Michael’s Monastery, says he “made mistakes, but do I have to suffer for these mistakes my entire life? All I did was alter an old roof.”

Stephan Miller, a Jerusalem municipality spokesman, told the Register, “Housing is an issue that spans religion, race, sector and geographic location for the residents of Jerusalem. Mayor [Nir] Barkat is committed to reducing the bureaucracy and providing more solutions for affordable housing — issues that affect all residents, not just one specific sector.”

The mayor “is working to streamline and expedite that process,” Miller said.

Amid the distress, there is some heartening news, Msgr. Shomali said.

“We recently obtained permission to build 72 apartments in Beit Safafa,” a heavily Christian village in East Jerusalem.   

Smiling broadly, he said, “It is a bit of a miracle.”

Michele Chabin writes

from Jerusalem.