This Holy Week, Remember the Christians in the Holy Land

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri fears a mass exodus of Christians from the region, which has been home to the faithful for thousands of years.

Catholic faithful attend the Palm Sunday Mass at the Church of St. Catherine in Bethlehem on April 10.
Catholic faithful attend the Palm Sunday Mass at the Church of St. Catherine in Bethlehem on April 10. (photo: Hazem Bader / AFP via Getty Images)

When speaking of the Holy Land recent popes, including Paul VI and Benedict XVI, have referred to it as the “Fifth Gospel.” Indeed, this is the place where millions of faithful have come to see with their own eyes where Jesus prayed, walked and suffered.

A few months ago, even Pope Francis spoke of the “Fifth Gospel,” quoting Benedict XVI:

There ‘we can see, indeed, tangibly feel the reality of the history that God brought about with men and women, beginning with the places of Abraham's life and including the places of Jesus’ life, from the Incarnation to the empty tomb, the sign of his Resurrection. Yes, God entered this land; he acted with us in this world.’

But the situation throughout the Holy Land is problematic, and not only in Israel. The term “Holy Land” (Terra Sancta) usually refers not only to Israel but also to Palestine, western Jordan, southern Lebanon and southwestern Syria. The Congregation for the Oriental Churches, under the leadership of prefect Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, oversees the activities of the Church in the Holy Land and in countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey.


Palestine and Syria

In an interview for EWTN’s weekly show Vaticano, he explained that the situation of Christians is calm but remains difficult, especially for the Palestinian Christians, who cannot pass freely between Israel and Palestine. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation. Tourists have stayed away, depriving many of their only source of income. Jobs are hard to find.

Even more precarious is the situation for Christians in Syria. Recently, Cardinal Sandri traveled there to meet with the Catholic bishops. Despite the end of the civil war, many people still want to leave. “The situation has apparently calmed down,” said Cardinal Sandri. It is possible to drive or even wander through the streets of Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, but poverty remains pervasive throughout the country.

“There is no electricity,” he said. “There is no diesel. And the lines to get gas are indefinite. The whole country lives in fear of an uncertain future. And so the Christians are fleeing.”

“Pro Terra Sancta” Collection

The Holy Land would not be the “Fifth Gospel” if it did not ultimately point to hope. Although the situation is bleak, there are many things that could be done, Cardinal Sandri said. The Vatican is helping through its Good Friday “Pro Terra Sancta” collection, which is taken up in every parish around the world and used exclusively to help the Church in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Last year, the congregation collected more than $6 million. 

Two-thirds of the Pro Terra Sancta collection goes to the Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, and one-third goes to the Congregation to support its work in several countries, including Syria and Iraq. The money goes toward maintaining the sacred places and supporting clergy, educational activities and the formation of candidates for the priesthood.

“One very important aspect of our help for the Holy Land in particular are the schools there,” said Cardinal Sandri. “The Catholic schools do not enjoy a lot of state support but are essential in preserving, maintaining and forming all of the children and youth in the faith and in Christian life.”

The Christian community in the Holy Land doesn’t have a lot of means of its own. It depends on the generous help coming from foreign countries, primarily coordinated by the Church in collaboration with many Christian aid agencies. The Good Friday collection is essential. 


Responsibility for Syria

There is much more that needs to be done, especially in countries like Syria. Cardinal Sandri pointed to the responsibility of “being the voice of those who cannot speak for themselves.” He asked why there was no religious liberty and why human rights were not protected, and called for an end to the sanctions against Syria. The prefect said that, while these sanctions might have the intention of ensuring human rights and freedom, they specifically harm the Christian minority in the country, and many are fleeing.  

At the gates of Damascus, Saint Paul experienced his conversion. Soon, the city might be left without those who are walking in his footsteps. The Pro Terra Sancta collection helps sustain the Church in the Holy Land. On Good Friday we are called to remember the suffering of Jesus — and contribute to end the suffering of his followers today.