LONDON – Christianity could vanish from Israel and the Palestinian territories within two generations unless more is done to support Catholic schools, said the head of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.
Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, whose order maintains most of the Christian biblical sites in the Holy Land, said the religious identity of Christians had grown extremely fragile as more of them migrated abroad for a better life.
He told an April 11 press conference in London that the main challenge for the Christians, who form 1 percent of the population of Israel and the Palestinian territories, was how to remain united.
Father Pizzaballa was in London to address the Terra Sancta Education Trust, a U.K.-based charity for the advancement of education and relief of the poverty of Holy Land Christian families. He urged British Catholics to support Holy Land Christians through pilgrimages and initiatives such as the twinning of schools in the U.K. and in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The main way to maintain the unity of Christians in Israel – where 40 percent of Christians in the Holy Land live – is through the work of the order’s 14 schools, he said.
“The role of schools is very important because it is the only instrument through which we can preserve the Christian identity for the Christian community,” said Father Pizzaballa. “One hour a week in church is not enough to maintain the Christian identity. It is the main challenge that we have.”
He said that the Christian community in Israel was “stable” partly as a result of the state providing funding for church-run schools.
“We cannot impose the peace, but we can prepare for peace with education and formation of the younger generation,” he said. “There is no other way.”
Father Pizzaballa said problems in the Palestinian territories were far more severe because there was no funding for Christian schools, and there were also acute political and economic crises, with unemployment rates hitting almost 50 percent.
The eight-year intifada, or Palestinian uprising, had increased levels of poverty among Palestinians because they were no longer allowed into Israel to work. The Israeli separation barrier also physically has separated Christians in Israel from those in Palestinian areas.
Father Pizzaballa said these problems had led to an exodus of mainly middle-class Christians from the region. He said that in 1967 Arab Christians comprised 70 percent of the population in the Palestinian territories, but they now accounted for 8 percent of the people living there.
“We want to preserve the legacy and the Christian character of this land,” he said. “It is not an accident that they are there. We want them to remain there according to the will of God and to preserve this heritage we have received from our fathers.”