Catholics in the Holy Land Mull Israeli Power Shift
The Latin Patriarchate, the Catholic Church’s on-the-ground presence in the Holy Land, is waiting to see whether the new Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will address matters that went unresolved during the 12-year term of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
JERUSALEM — The Latin Patriarchate, the Catholic Church’s on-the-ground presence in the Holy Land, is waiting to see whether the new Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will address matters that went unresolved during the 12-year term of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The government, which is comprised of eight parties with vastly different agendas and political and religious outlooks, has promised to promote change after four elections in two years.
As a tiny minority, Christians — which represent less than 2% of Israel’s population — have little clout in a country where 74% of the population is Jewish and 18% is Muslim. (The remainder are religious minorities or do not have a stated religion.)
Though reluctant to discuss the results of the Israeli election, two Patriarchate officials agreed to list the many bureaucratic challenges they hope the new Israeli government will begin to address.
Father Ibrahim Shomali, the chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate and the vice director of the Pastoral Office for Israel and Palestine, told the Register many Christians in Israel have felt disenfranchised by the government.
“The Christian community, the Catholic Church, wants to feel part of the people of Israel,” he said. “While we represent not even 2% of the Israeli population, we contribute a disproportionate amount to the educational sector and the tourism industry. Where would the holy sites be without us?”
“We deserve respect,” Father Shomali said firmly.
One of the most pressing problems facing Holy Land churches is Israel’s reluctance to provide visas to enter the country. Traditionally, Holy Land churches have relied heavily on overseas volunteers, Church workers, priests and nuns, who travel to Israel to serve the local community, which has been decimated by a century of emigration.
The chancellor said the Patriarchate also tries to provide work to the Palestinian Christians who used to earn a living from pilgrimages, a sector nearly destroyed by the pandemic. A record 4.55 million tourists arrived in Israel in 2019, the majority of them Christian pilgrims. Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority closed its borders to tourists in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Christian workers, who live just a few miles — but a checkpoint — away in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, need an Israeli permit to enter Israel, which maintains a posture of military alertness due to the ever-present possibility of a terrorist attack.
Father Shomali said Israel has quotas for the number of visas the Church can apply for.
If we want to bring in more than the quota, we have to tell others not to come,” Father Shomali said. “Why? The reasons we’re given have nothing to do with reality.”
Another long-standing disagreement is the one over taxation. Under the Ottoman Empire (1517-1917) and Kingdom of Jordan (1948-1967), Holy Land churches were exempt from municipal taxes. While Israel extended the same courtesy for some decades, it is now demanding that the churches pay the taxes — retroactively — from 1967 onward.
The churches have hundreds of schools, churches and pilgrim hostels in Israel and the Palestinian-ruled parts of the West Bank.
Successive Israeli governments and the Holy See have been negotiating the taxation issue for more than 20 years. Israel, what many call the Holy Land, is home to thousands of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other houses of worship and religious institutions, so the exemption from municipal taxes is a loss of revenue.
Father Shomali said being forced to pay municipal taxes could plunge the Catholic Church in the Holy Land to near bankruptcy. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a huge strain on the Patriarchate and Christian aid organizations, which have provided financial assistance to tens of thousands of local people whose livelihoods have been harmed by long-standing lockdowns.
“As it is, most of our facilities are losing money,” Father Shomali noted. “We are nonprofit. If we have to pay city taxes, we won’t be able to continue our mission. The Turkish, the Jordanians, they understood our mission.”
The Palestinian Authority continues to exempt churches from paying municipal taxes.
“Of course, we will respect an agreement between the Vatican and Israel,” Father Shomali emphasized, “but we hope [the Israeli government will] consider all the good work the Church does, not only the profit.”
A third problem facing Israeli Christians is the near impossibility of obtaining residency permits for their Palestinian spouses, according to Sami El-Yousef, the Patriarchate’s CEO.
Palestinians say that Israel denies the vast majority of Palestinian family reunification requests in order to prevent Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from taking up residence in Israel.
“When spouses can’t have family reunification in East Jerusalem or Israel proper, many spouses must go live in the West Bank,” El Yousef told the Register. “This immediately leads to broken families. Anyone who falls in love with a person from the ‘wrong’ place finds their life shattered.”
While the family-reunification problem affects all Palestinian-Israeli couples, the fact that Holy Land Christian communities are so small necessitates cross-border marriages.
“Christians are a minority, so when young people get to be of marriageable age, they start looking across the wall to have a life,” El Yousef said, referring to the security wall Israel built in the early 2000s between Israel and the West Bank to prevent terrorist infiltrations. There is also a barrier between Israel and Gaza.
While Christians welcome such “mixed” marriages, they come at a great price.
The non-Israeli spouses are rarely able to obtain a residency permit that would allow them to reside in Israel, work and cross checkpoints. Without an ID, the spouse and his or her children cannot be covered by Israel’s universal health insurance.
El-Yousef, who had just returned from a four-day visit to Gaza, said the blockades by both Egypt and Israel have made it impossible for even Catholic clergy to leave the embattled territory.
“The sisters and priests who serve in Gaza have Egyptian and Jordanian passports and have been unable to leave Gaza for three years,” long before COVID closed international borders. “They are super-traumatized. One of the sisters could not attend the funeral of her mother.”
Despite being Egyptian, she was unable to leave via Egypt because she entered Gaza via Israel, El-Yousef explained.
“These are the day-to-day issues we are dealing with. They are becoming sick from the trauma and have been pleading with his Beatitude to get them out,” he said.
Asked for its reaction to these interviews, Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs referred the matter to the Interior Ministry, which did not comment by press time.
As for family reunification, the new government’s coalition agreement states that it will renew the law barring family reunification. However, The Times of Israel reported that the government plans to ease some of the restrictions.
“It would be appropriate if we can make changes to it and come to an agreement on it,” Merav Michaeli, the head of the Labor Party, told her colleagues. “Change is in the air.”
Michele Chabin, the Register's Middle East correspondent, writes from Jerusalem.