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PIZZABALLA-HOLYLAND Dec-17-2007 (480 words) With photos. xxxi

Church official says Christians will keep their hold on the Holy Land

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Despite severe economic challenges and political tensions, Christians in Israel and the Palestinian territories will continue to hold on to the Holy Land "with our fingernails," if need be, said the head of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

While the number of Catholics in Israel remains stable, the number of Christians in the Palestinian territories and the surrounding lands continues to plummet, said Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, superior of more than 300 Franciscans who provide pastoral care at the Christian holy sites.

The Franciscan spoke with journalists at the Vatican Dec. 17 in conjunction with the release of "Terra Sancta: Guardians of Salvation's Sources," a three-hour DVD about the Franciscan Custody dubbed in eight languages, including English, Spanish and Arabic.

Father Pizzaballa said there were about 120,000 Christians left in Israel and the Palestinian territories; about half of them are Catholic and the vast majority are Palestinians.

The Catholic schools, especially in the Palestinian territories, are a key resource not only for educating children, but also for keeping families rooted in their faith and for promoting peaceful coexistence between Catholics and Muslims, he said.

Since the late 1940s, he said, Catholic schools in the region have welcomed Muslim students.

Where Christians and Muslims live side by side and where their children study together, the Franciscan said, it is easier to promote interreligious dialogue and respect for the belief of others.

"The situation is completely different with the Jewish community," he said. "Israelis do not need our schools or hospitals, but dialogue is equally important."

"This is an area where we need to invest more effort," he said. "We have an obligation to dialogue."

On an ecumenical level, he said, "there is a 'dialogue of the condominium,' because we literally live under the same roof," sharing space in several of Christianity's holiest sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where tradition says Jesus was buried.

But political uncertainty and the serious economic challenges coming from an unemployment rate hovering around 40 percent are forcing Christians to leave the territories, he said.

"In 1967, Christians formed the majority of Bethlehem's population," he said. "Today it is less than 10 percent."

The fact that 2007 marked a boom in pilgrims to the Holy Land, including Bethlehem, has helped ease the suffering somewhat, he said, because most Christians work in jobs connected to the tourist trade.

For church personnel working in Israel, there is still a problem with obtaining visas, especially if the priest or religious comes from an Arab country, although Father Pizzaballa said some new visas were issued just before Christmas.

Archbishop Antonio Veglio, secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Eastern Churches, said the Vatican nuncio to Israel would meet Dec. 18 with Israeli officials to try to further ease the visa situation.


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