Sandro Magister, the authoritative Vatican watcher at La Repubblica, last week noted one of the most significant and under-reported facts about Christian life in the Middle East: Christian numbers are growing in only one country in the region, namely the State of Israel. Elsewhere, Muslim hostility is smothering Christian life. Hebrew-speaking Catholics, Magister reports, form seven communities in Israel, in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Be'er Sheva, Tiberias, Latrun and Nazareth. I called attention to Hebrew-Speaking Catholics in an essay entitled “Zionism for Christians,” in the June-July 2008 issue of First Things.
According to the pastor of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic congregation, Fr. David Neuhaus (no relation to the founder of First Things), the largest contingent of Israeli Catholics are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In the great wave of immigration to Israel that followed the collapse of Communism, up to 300,000 Christians arrived along with about a million Jews.
In addition, some 200,000 foreign workers now reside in Israel, including Africans, Eastern Europeans, Latin Americans, and Filipinos. They are overwhelming Christian. Many have settled in Israel. Their children attend Israeli public schools and speak Hebrew.
Jewish media have reported on the new and strange phenomenon of Catholic priests in Jerusalem intoning “Shalom MaMashiach” in stead of “Pax Christi” at Mass. The Jewish Forward last year quoted Fr. Neuhaus, “We see ourselves rooted in Israeli society with a real respect for Jews as they see themselves, and we follow the Jewish liturgical calendar and observe many of their holidays, like Sukkot and Hanukkah.”
Magister observes that the Synod of Middle Eastern bishops being held at the Vatican, which began yesterday and end October 24, will focus on the destruction of Christian communities in the Middle East. As Magister reports, Israel is the standout exception: The number has risen from 34,000 in 1949 to 150,000 in 2008, about two percent of the population, most in Galilee though 15,000 live in Jerusalem. The immigration numbers suggest that the pool of prospective Christians is two or three times as large as the official count, probably because many of the immigrants take no part in religious life.
Magister concludes that “The exodus of Christians that has set off alarms therefore does not regard Israel, but rather the Holy Land, a geographically flexible term that extends to the Palestinian Territories and parts of the neighboring Arab countries, all the way to Turkey and Cyprus.”
A thriving Hebrew-speaking Christian congregation presents an opportunity to Jews and Christians. From the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 until 1993, the Vatican did not recognize the Jewish state, among other reasons because it feared reprisal against Arab Christians in the Middle East. Appeasing Muslim sentiment has not helped, and the destruction of Christian communities in most of the Muslim-majority Middle East seem inevitable. Christian life flourishes, though, in Israel, and in immediate proximity to the holy sites.
A vibrant Christian presence in the birthplace of Christianity benefits the State of Israel as a living link between the Jewish state and Christians around the world, as I wrote last year in “The closing of the Christian womb” in Asia Times Online. Unfortunately, short-sighted governments have not given enough attention to Christian concerns, particularly regarding the holy places, though Prime Minister Netanyahu made the wise gesture of meeting the pope in Nazareth during his May visit to the Holy Land in 2009, and the ultra-orthodox community’s antagonism towards Christians has also been a problem.
The diversity of Israel's Christian population is a positive sign for the long-term viability of Christian congregations in the Middle East. Increasingly, they will speak Hebrew more than Arabic. In the long term, the State of Israel will be viable if its inhabitants bear children and stand their ground, unlike the unfortunate Christians of Lebanon.
Israeli short-sightedness is one part of the story; neglect from the Vatican is another. As Magister observes, seven years ago the pope “appointed as head of the vicariate of Jerusalem for Hebrew-speaking Catholics a bishop and Benedictine monk of great ability, Jean Baptiste Gourion, Algerian by birth and himself a convert from Judaism.”
The appointment was bitterly criticized by the pro-Palestinian circles of the Catholic Church. In the magazine of the New York Jesuits, America, Fr. Drew Christiansen, the current editor, called it "a campaign to divide the church in the Holy Land." Unfortunately, Bishop Gurion died shortly afterward, prematurely. And his successors were not made bishops.
There are deep sources of discomfort on both sides with respect to the Hebrew Catholic presence in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) minority in Israel vehemently dislikes any Christian presence at all, especially one led by a converted Jew like David Neuhaus. The prospect of Christian proselytizing of Israeli Jews, however remote, offends many Israelis.
For the Catholic Church, the prospect of permanent minority status within the Hebrew-speaking population is troubling. Catholicism is a majority by construction, for the Church as we know it arose from the Christian recreation of Europe after the collapse and depopulation of Rome. To exist as a minority sect in a part of the world that it ruled for three centuries and which contain its holiest sites is a strange position for the Catholic Church; in some ways it is more comfortable for the Church to identity with the misnamed Latin Patriarchate (which speaks Arabic) in opposition to the Jewish state.
Nonetheless, the Hebrew Catholic presence in Israel may offer a lesson for both sides, all the more so because it is a source of discomfort.
For Jews, to live in a majority-Jewish country is like breathing pure oxygen. Even under the most favorable of circumstances, life as a small minority in Christian-majority countries is stifling for Jews, in a way that Christians cannot imagine. Life in post-Christian Europe, which is far less hospitable to Jews than the United States, is not only stifling, but sometimes dangerous.
It is easy for Israeli Jews in the glow of Jewish-majority existence to forget that the Jews still are a tiny minority in the world's population, and that Israel's existence depends on friendship with the Christian world, above all (but not only) the United States. A thriving, indigenous, Hebrew-speaking Christian community should serve as such a reminder, and the Israeli government would be wise to foster its growth.
For Catholics, minority existence in a Jewish State is an opportunity to learn about Jews and Judaism in a way that Christians often resist. The Church's turn towards its Jewish roots since Vatican II, and the continuing outreach towards Jews on the part of such Church leaders as Walter Cardinal Kasper, are one of the most encouraging things to happen in my lifetime. The Church wishes to refresh its Jewish roots.
But these Jewish roots are not so much a matter of doctrine, as the lived religious life of the Jewish people. Judaism is rooted in the daily life of the Jewish people, in a way that can be perceived only by sharing some part of their lives, and Jewish life best flourishes in the Land of Israel. The more Catholics who daven the Sukkot liturgy in Hebrew in Jerusalem, the more likely we are to make sense of each other.
David P. Goldman is a senior editor at First Things. His “Zionism for Christians” can be found here.
Sandro Magister’s column.
Hebrew Catholics Follow Their Own Church from The Jewish Forward.
David P. Goldman’s The Closing of the Christian Womb.