Declining number of Christians in the Holy Land face many challenges Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Mary C. Uhler, Catholic Herald Staff   
Thursday, Apr. 18, 2019 -- 12:00 AM
Jeffery Abood, left, chats with Susanna and Stuart Herro prior to his recent talk in Madison. The Herros are members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and serve as education chairs in the Diocese of Madison. (Catholic Herald photo/Mary C. Uhler)

MADISON -- Many people think of the Vatican as the “Mother Church” of the Catholic Church, but Jeffery Abood points out that the true Mother Church is in the Holy Land.

“This is where the Church started,” he emphasized in a recent talk on “Who Are the Christians of the Holy Land” given at Holy Name Heights.

His presentation was sponsored by the Madison Diocesan Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the holy sites in the Holy Land and aiding all the peoples of the Holy Land, regardless of faith tradition, through direct services such as schools, hospitals, housing, and employment assistance.

Abood himself is a member of the Equestrian Order and currently serves as his section’s education master as well as c0-chair of the Education Committee for the North Central Lieutenancy, which includes the Diocese of Madison.

He has authored the book, A Great Cloud of Witnesses: The Catholic Church’s Experience in the Holy Land. This is a compilation of the Church’s experience in the Holy Land in its own words. It includes a series of official Church statements, documents, articles, and interviews collected from over a 70-year time span.

The ‘living stones’

In his presentation in Madison, Abood noted that Christian communities in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine go back over 2,000 years. The people, he said, “have kept the faith alive in the lands where Jesus lived. Together, they constitute the ‘living stones.’ Ethnically, the permanent Christian communities are mostly Palestinian.”

Life hasn’t been easy for the Christians in the Holy Land, Abood said. They face many challenges, and their numbers have dropped drastically, from 18 percent of the population to about two percent in the last 70 years.

Abood did not want to discuss politics, instead focusing on what the Church is saying about the situation in the Holy Land. “It’s been consistent,” he said.

Challenges for Christians

He said the Israeli occupation of the Holy Land “remains the root cause of suffering” there. “The Israelis maintain control by military force.”

He pointed out that the Vatican has urged Israel to follow common principles of international law.

Abood referred to a Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops held in October of 2010. The synod’s closing statement decried the freedom of movement of people in the Holy Land with the building of a wall over 400 miles long. “It cuts off communities from each other,” said Abood. “It makes it difficult for Christians to live.”

The wall has caused a loss of land and water resources for Christians in the Holy Land, he noted.

There are many checkpoints set up, mostly in the West Bank, which make it difficult for people to move freely. “Checkpoints are everywhere, even for kids going to school and people going to work,” said Abood. Many of the check points are very slow. “It can take an hour for kids to get to school,” he said.

“Freedom of movement is hindered when people are broken up into isolated communities, no longer able to interact or connect with each other.” These are just some of the challenges facing Christians in the Holy Land.

How we can help

What can we do to help them?

Abood called for “prayer, awareness, and action.”

One way is to support the work of the Equestrian Order through the Good Friday Collection being held in Catholic parishes.

The Equestrian Order supports over 33,000 students in Latin Patriarchate (the Catholic Church) schools in the Holy Land, from elementary level through Bethlehem University.

“It’s not just the curriculum, but it’s the morals and strong character taught in these schools,” said Abood, noting that students of all faiths are educated in Catholic schools in the Holy Land.

The order funds about 80 percent of the annual budget of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, ensuring that Catholic parishes, seminaries, schools, and hospitals in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan continue to function.

Knights and dames in the Equestrian order include over 30,000 members in 40 countries and pledge their prayers, financial support, and personal visits to the Holy Land.

There is hope

Abood said there is hope for Christians in the Holy Land. “The clergy, Religious, and laity are passing on the faith to the next generation. The Equestrian Order supports the backbone of the Catholic Church there.”

He suggested another way to help the “living stones” in the Holy Land is to go on pilgrimage there. “Go, meet with the people,” he urged.

Each member of the Equestrian Order pledges to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land at least once in his or her lifetime. The pilgrimage is built around prayer and visits to the holy sites, but also includes visits to schools, clinics, parishes, and other projects funded by the order.

Another action suggested by Abood is to “witness for justice.” Abood said that those concerned about the Holy Land could urge the United Nations (U.N.) to restore funding for the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.

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