Catholics in Israel face a situation in “complete flux,” Vatican expert Sandro Magister says. Descendants of indigenous Christians have been joined by Catholic immigrants who are learning Hebrew and are assimilating into Israeli culture.
While in percentage terms there has been a “slight reduction” of the Christian population in Israel from three to two percent, there are presently 150,000 of them in the country. Most live in Galilee and there are 15,000 in Jerusalem, Magister said.
In his Oct. 8 “Chiesa” column anticipating the upcoming Vatican synod on the Church in the Middle East, Magister discussed the unique situation of Hebrew-speaking Catholics. Though there were only several hundred of them until a few years ago, they now have at least seven communities in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Be’er, Sheva, Haifa, Tiberias, Latrun and Nazareth.
They have a specific vicariate under the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and are entrusted to Jesuit Fr. David Neuhaus, an Israeli Jew who converted to Christianity.
Fr. Neuhaus told Il Regno magazine that these communities have been formed by four contributions.
First, the Jews who came to Israel in a series of migratory waves were joined by Catholics who were either raised in the faith or were converts. They became an “integral part” of Hebrew-speaking Israeli society. The last such migration came from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The second contribution came from foreign workers in Israel, who number about 200,000. They originated in Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia, with 40,000 from the Philippines. Their children are born and baptized in Israel where they learn Hebrew and assimilate into Israeli society.
Additionally, there are two to three thousand Lebanese Maronite Catholics who moved to Israel after the Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon. There are also African refugees from the southern Sudan.
The fourth contribution to country’s Catholics, in Fr. Neuhaus’ reckoning, came from the Palestinian Catholics who have been in Israel since its foundation. They have citizenship but live in socially disadvantaged conditions. They speak Arabic and are mainly based in the villages of Galilee, but they tend to move to the most economically attractive areas.
As an example Fr. Neuhaus cited the hundreds of Palestinian families who have moved to Be’er Sheva to work in the businesses around the Bedouin villages. According to the priest, they do not live with the Bedouins because they are of a socially and economically lower class.
“They send their children to Hebrew-language schools, and so we have a new generation of Palestinian Arabs who speak Arabic only at home, and can no longer read or write it," the priest told Il Regno.
He said the vicariate works with “limited means,” but its efforts are especially directed toward the children, with the first catechisms ever published in Hebrew.
“In the patriarchate, the Palestinian Christian majority gets more attention, so the Hebrew-speaking Christians are in a certain sense forgotten … As Hebrew-speaking Catholics, we are a minority twice over, both in the state of Israel and in the Church. Sometimes we have the impression of living in a tiny ghetto."
According to Magister, the upcoming synod on the Middle East says in its base text that the existence of the vicariate for Hebrew-speaking Catholics is “a great help” in the dialogue with Judaism.
The Vatican expert also reports that the lamented “exodus” of Christians from the region involves the “geographically flexible” term “the Holy Land,” which extends to the Palestinian Territories and parts of neighboring Arab countries.
While members of ancient Christian communities, such as those in Iraq, are fleeing persecution, elsewhere other Catholics arrive in great numbers for employment. In Kuwait alone there are two million immigrant workers, twice the number of Kuwaiti citizens. There are 350,000 Catholics among these workers, mainly from India and the Philippines.
Rome is considering how to redraw the boundaries of the vicariates in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to divide the immense vicariate of Arabia, Magister reports.