.- Representatives of different Christian denominations signed a statement this week exhorting the faithful around the world to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land to help stop the massive exodus of Christians. The statement entitled, “A call to all people of faith: Visit the Holy Land,” was signed by the Apostolic Nuncio to the Holy Land, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, as well as by religious leaders of the Catholic Church, the Armenian Church, the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, and Evangelicals.
According to the guardian of the Holy Land, Father Pierre Battista Pizzaballa, OFM, the signing of this document is a sign that while “there are many things that divide us,” there are “many more that unite” Christians.
Archbishop Pietro Sambi pointed out that for Christians in the Holy Land, pilgrimages are the only times of “joy and spiritual enrichment” in which they can enjoy an environment of peace and thus set aside for a few moments the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
According to a 2003 report by the Franciscans who are the custodians of the Holy Land, the fear is that the Christian presence will continue to decrease in the region. In 2002, the document said, Christians in this part of world formed only 1.6% of the populace.
The data takes on particular significance when one considers that in 1840 Christians in Jerusalem, who were mainly Palestinian, formed 25% of the populace. In 2002 this percentage dropped to 2%.
The drop in the Christian population is countered by the growth of the Jewish and Muslim populations.
In the case of the Jews, they have grown from 4,000 in 1840 to 400,000 in 2002, while the Muslim population has grown from 4,000 to 143,000, due to their high birth rate, which enables the population to double every 25 years.
The decrease in the Christian population is not only felt in Jerusalem, but also in Bethlehem and Nazareth.
“Along with the Christian exodus the Christian vision of man regarding the respect for the human person and human life is also disappearing, in a region in which these values are in open decline,” said the report.
The statement laments that “governments of the Christian West, driven by a false vision of religious freedom and perhaps by an exacerbated secularism” insist on helping the Palestinians instead of the Christians.
Israel’s Minister of Tourism, Gideon Ezra, said that during the Jubilee Year of 2000, “60% of the 2.67 million visitors to the Holy Land were Christians, while of the 1.5 million visitors projected for this year, only 29% will be coming on pilgrimage.”