In Troubled Bethlehem, Empty Inns Mean Hard Times

BETHLEHEM, Israel — It is a blister-ingly hot summer day, but Elias Banda, 43, and his 10-year-old son Issan seem oblivious to the heat as they deftly scoop up the eggs in their new chicken coop.

Although Banda ordinarily makes his living as a construction worker, Israel's tight closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a response to the 10-month-long Palestinian uprising, often makes it difficult for him to reach his Jerusalem work-place. When his job in Jerusalem ends at the end of August, the coop could well be his only source of income.

“It's wonderful to know that I have a stable income to live on,” says Banda, a father of two from Bethlehem. “Here in the West Bank there's no work and I can't get a permit to travel legally to Jerusalem. There are days when I can't get to Jerusalem at all.”

Were it not for a new fund initiated by the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, Banda would not own 1,000 egg-laying hens. The brainchild of Father Raed Abusahlia, the Patriarchates's enthusiastic young chancellor, the Olive Branch Fund sponsors modest local projects aimed at helping the area's approximately 200,000 Christians (among them some 80,000 Catholics) weather the current political crisis.

“The local Christian community, like other Palestinians, has suffered terribly during the past 10 months,” Father Abusahlia explains. “The territories are hermitically sealed, and because such a large percentage of tourist-related professionals are Christians, our community has been devastated by the absence of pilgrims. The Palestinian Authority doesn't provide social or health insurance. People don't have money to pay their children's tuition fees so the Church makes up the difference. Many families have no wage earner, and lack any income whatsoever.”

According to Father Guido, regional director of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, the situation in the West Bank and Gaza “is desperate. In some areas, at least 70% of the population has no income.” For this reason, several local Christian families have already emigrated, and others will follow if the security situation continues to deteriorate, he says.

Metropolitan Timothy of the Greek Orthodox Church, the largest local denomination, earlier this month told reporters that Christians from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Beit Sahur, Beit Jala, Ramallah, Nabulus and the Gaza strip “are steadily moving out.” Muslims and Jews are leaving as well, Father Abusahlia notes, but adds that “because our community is so small, we feel the impact more.”

Due to the acute problems facing the community, many of the existing Christian relief agencies have moved away from long-term development projects toward emergency existence. Their resources, not surprisingly, are at the breaking point.

“These organizations are doing remarkable work under extremely difficult circumstances,” Father Abusahlia says. “We see our fund as complementing their work, a small drop in the sea of social services.”

Although representatives from relief agencies said they welcomed any and all funding to alleviate the suffering, some questioned — on condition that their names not be published — the wisdom of starting a new fund when so many existing ones are being stretched to the limit.

Father Abusahlia believes that the fund is breaking new ground, because it serves more as a lending society than a charity.

“During the past 150 years, Holy Land institutions and schools have always relied on foreigners,” says the chancellor, who is from a Palestinian village in the West Bank. “Unfortunately, when giving social assistance to people, we didn't always teach them to become self-sufficient or to share.” The result, he says, is “a dependent community, both Muslim and Christian Palestinians, who think that the Church is very rich and should provide instant relief. Our goal is to show that help must come from within, not from outside. Our fund works on this premise.”

Hatching Plans

Rather than handing out cash to needy families, the initiative is funding projects with earning potential. In the case of Elias Banda, the fund purchased 1,000 chickens, virtually all of which lay eggs. Since the coop began to turn a profit, the Bandas have refunded a small amount of money to the fund, which in turn helps other poor families.

Other fund projects include cows for the poor, whereby a family can feed its children and sell the leftover milk; and the Olive Branch Tent, a small restaurant in nearby Beit Sahur built by three young men next to a children's amusement park. Literally covered by a large Beduin-style tent, the place will hopefully become an oasis of calm in a town where gun battles between Palestinians and Israelis occur on an almost nightly basis.

“When people come I ask them what can we do to help you earn an income?” says Father Abusahlia. “It's not charity.”

To date, the Olive Branch Fund has channeled approximately $15,000 to 20 families. Ultimately, Father Abusahlia hopes to raise enough money to provide scholarships for every poor Christian child (cost: $300-$500 per year) and a small income every month for the sick, the old and the disabled.

“Usually there's no pension and our parishes are poor. To have to rely on your children is humiliating. Receiving even $100 per month would be wonderful.”

Another of Father Abusahlia's dreams is an apartment for every young couple.

“True, people are desperate due to the situation,” says the priest. “They don't see any kind of stability or future of employment. But even more importantly, they can't afford housing. I'd like to see a parish in Italy or the U.S. sponsor a young couple to keep Christians in the Holy Land. That's what we're aiming for.”

Michelle Chabin writes from Jerusalem.