Christians Moving Back to the Holy Land

There are signs of a reversal of the massive emigration that has been caused by war and economic hardship.

Palestinian Christians and other pilgrims at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem light candles celebrating the Holy Fire ritual the day before Easter.
Palestinian Christians and other pilgrims at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem light candles celebrating the Holy Fire ritual the day before Easter. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / )

JERUSALEM — In 2003, Margo Tarazi from East Jerusalem couldn’t make a living, so she decided to move to Holland, her mother’s birthplace.

“I worked at my family’s incoming travel agency until 2002, but there wasn’t any work because of the second intifada,” Tarazi, now 35, said recently. She was referring to the Palestinian uprising that brought tourism to the Holy Land almost to a standstill. “Then I spent a year and a half working for an NGO [non-governmental organization], but I didn’t like it,” she said.

Eager to start a life away from Israeli military checkpoints and Palestinian suicide bombers, Tarazi utilized her Dutch passport. Then, her maternal grandmother, the person she had hoped to rely on in Holland, died the week before her arrival. 

“I was on my own, single in Amsterdam. I enjoyed my freedom — not having to show my ID every five minutes. But I led a bit of a lonely life in Holland. I didn’t enjoy it, the lack of spontaneity, and I missed the sun,” she said.

Four years later, Tarazi packed up again and moved back to Jerusalem. 

“My parents were getting older and needed my help to run the business. I have no regrets,” Tarazi said of her decision to return. “I just wish I’d left Holland sooner.”

Tarazi is one of many Palestinian expatriates who have returned home in recent years. Their return — usually for financial or family reasons — has brought a modicum of stability to Holy Land Christian communities whose numbers have been eroding for decades.

Earlier this year, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told a group of bishops that, for the first time in many years, more Christians returned to the Palestinian territories and Jerusalem than departed.

Citing statistics from 2009 — the most recent available — Fayyad said the ratio of returnees to emigrants “is positive for the first time.” He credited improvements in Palestinian civic society, governance and infrastructure for much of the reversal. 

Economic Recovery

Sami El-Yousef, who directs the Pontifical Mission-Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s Jerusalem office, traces much of the stability to the end of the intifada and the Holy Land’s economic recovery beginning in 2006-2005. 

From then on, El-Yousef said, many Palestinians who had emigrated to the West began contemplating their eventual return. 

The economic gains in Palestine-Israel, coupled with the world financial crisis “meant that it became better to be here than anywhere else,” the administrator said.

Many of the Palestinians who emigrated still had family and often property to return to, El-Yousef noted. Most were single or people with young children looking for a better, more secure life outside of the turbulent Middle East.

Such was the case for George Sandrouni, an Armenian Christian whose family has created beautiful ceramics for decades.

Sandrouni emigrated to Canada with his wife and two children in 2000, just after Pope John Paul II’s historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land and just before the outbreak of the intifada.

Two months after relocating in Toronto, Sandrouni rented a spacious studio to house his ceramic workshop and sought out other Armenian Christians.

While the family felt at home in the expatriate Armenian community, “we had no family there and felt somewhat alone,” he said.

Finances were another problem. 

“My overhead was high. I could not make a living doing what I do. Renting a house, leasing a car, paying for my daughters’ private tuition were all quite expensive.”

While Sandrouni could have sent his children to public school, “it was important to us that they started their school day in prayer,” he said.
Like many other immigrants, Sandrouni wanted to leave behind his old life and start anew. But when he encountered Canada’s culture, he felt it necessary to anchor his children in Armenian culture. 

Affinity to the Land

Though the ceramicist said Jerusalem isn’t the safest of all cities, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America made him realize that “no place is completely safe.” 

The family moved back to East Jerusalem in 2004.

“I think Canada is one of the best countries in the world, because it provides its citizens the freedom to be whatever they want to be,” Sandrouni said.

At the same time, he’s glad to be back in Jerusalem.

“I’m making a living, giving my daughters a good education. It’s very important to me that, here in Jerusalem, people don’t have to make an effort to be Christian.”

El-Yousef is convinced that most young Palestinian Christians would not contemplate emigrating — or would come back — if good jobs and affordable housing were more readily available.

A survey by the Catholic Ordination Committee, a consortium of Christian aid organizations in the region supports his judgment.  The study, conducted in 2010, concluded that that Palestinians between the ages of 14 and 35 still “have a great affinity to the land,” El-Yousef said.

“These young people said, ‘This is where I want to be, where I want to study and raise a family and be part of society.’”

The results were “a bit surprising,” El-Yousef added, because there is a popular belief that young Palestinians “can’t wait to graduate, study abroad and never come back.”

In reality, El-Yousef said, the new generation of young Palestinians are proud of their Christian and Palestinian identities, but want the aid organizations and churches to help them find jobs and apartments they can afford. 

El-Yousef believes that if church-affiliated institutions — such as hospitals, clinics, social-service organizations and tourism-related enterprises—find a way to provide more jobs, Christian emigration could become a rarity. 

“What these young people are saying is: ‘If we have decent employment and housing, why would we want to go anywhere else?’”

Register Middle East correspondent Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.