|Meeting Palestinian School Children|
"Over the past century, the Christian population in Israel, Jordan and Palestine has reduced from more than 17% to less than 1.5%. What events have caused Christians of the Middle East to flee their sacred land? And what can be done to support these marginalised communities?
The 20th century was a time of much social and political turmoil for Israel and the Palestinian territories, as world leaders struggled to reach a compromise whereby Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities could peacefully and respectfully live side by side in the Holy Land. The failure to reach a workable compromise has come at an enormous cost to the local people: the reality of daily life in the Holy Land ranges from the inconvenient to the catastrophic, as the land divisions complicate every aspect of community life including access to healthcare, education, employment, security, freedom of movement, and of course there is sadly the ever-present threat of military attacks.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that we have seen an exodus of Christians from the Holy Land. However, as both the Archbishop of Westminster and the Archbishop of Canterbury have underlined, it is crucial that we take every opportunity to support the remaining Christian population: we must not allow them to be forgotten or marginalised and must encourage and support their growth and development.
How can we as UK Christians support the Christian communities of the Middle East? Making a journey to the Holy Land to both experience the holy places and meet the local people is perhaps the single most important thing that Christians can do to express their solidarity. It is one thing to read about the plight of the local communities in newspapers, and to watch TV reports, but to really understand the complexity of life in the Holy Land it is essential to travel there, take the time to speak with the local people, and with an open mind gain an understanding of the multi-layered problems faced by the local communities.
In response to these problems, the Catholic Diocese of East Anglia has been working to strengthen links between UK Christians and the Christian population of the Middle East for over a decade. This work has included twinning the diocese with the Catholic Diocese of Jerusalem, and in 2010 supporting the establishment of Palestine Pilgrimage, a Registered Charity based in Cambridgeshire and led by Fr Paul Maddison, which organises bespoke tours to the Holy Land throughout the year, and donates all surplus income to humanitarian projects in the Holy Land.
Pilgrims inevitable return asking what they can do by way of support and Palestine Pilgrimage helps wherever it can to foster such solidarity. One pilgrimage resulted in a commitment to support the local Catholic school in the parish they visited in the Holy Land. Pilgrims spoke at Sunday Masses and the parish decided to raise £2,000 for the next 10 years to provide scholarships for students whose families could not afford the fees of £300 a year to send their children to the school.
In another initiative where a pilgrim group visited a small village where there was a high level of unemployment the decision was taken, in consultation with the community in the Holy Land, to set up a small soap factory where the locally produced olive oil could be turned into soap and exported. Twelve families now have income through this work and the soap is exported to the UK, France, Italy and the USA.
Pilgrimage is not just about returning from our experience with a deeper understanding of the scriptures and a boost to our own spiritual life; it is making sure that the footprints we leave have a lasting and real benefit for the people we meet.
If your parish, school or deanery would like more information; please visit our website at: http://www.palestinepilgrimage.org.uk/"
There are also other pilgrimage and other organisations that help the Christian community in the Holy Land such as Fifth Gospel Retreats, Pro Terra Sancta and Friends of the Holy Land.