In today's installment, John Feister reports on the difficulties of a dwindling Christian population in the Holy Land.
Day 7: Jerusalem's Armenian Quarter, Ramallah, Taybeh
There is no doubt about it: The Christian population in the Holy Land is dwindling, even to the point of extinction.
On this final night of our journalists’ immersion trip we had dinner in the
Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, in the courtyard of a popular
Earlier today we had been at Ramallah, for a background report,
and at Taybeh, where we saw an entrepreneurial brewer at work.
Photo by John Feister
At our final dinner we were joined by Archbishop Aris
Shiverman, who directs ecumenical programs for the Armenian Orthodox
Patriarchate. I sat next to our other guest, a representative of the Coptic Orthodox
Church, rooted in Egypt.
Franciscan Father Ibrahim Faltas, whom I had
serendipitously met on the street early that morning, had an unexpected
conflict and was unable to come. The Franciscans, of course, have a critical
presence in the Holy Land.
These many branches of the Christian family tree think of
themselves first as Christian when it comes to their presence in this home of
Christianity. (The occasional fighting by some over care of the Holy Places is
an embarrassment to many others.) For all of the Christian
Churches, for Judaism and, to a
degree, Islam, Jerusalem
Archbishop Shiverman offered us a
short talk before dinner (I videorecorded it for an excerpt on this site
later). His main point was one that we’ve been hearing all week: Christians
belong in this land, and they are anything but newcomers. He walked us through
some of the major historical moments in the past millennium—these folks take a
long look at things!
His presence is no small thing. The Armenian Orthodox
community may well be the oldest existing Church in Christianity. Armenia
officially adopted Christianity in 301 A.D., but traces its roots to Bartholomew
and Thaddeus in the first century.
Interestingly, Archbishop Shiverman
used Franciscans as shorthand for
Catholics when speaking of the clergy, though he did emphasize that his own
Church was here when the Franciscans were assigned care of the holy places for
the Roman Catholics.
The archbishop expressed a fear of local Christians that
their fellow Christians worldwide would settle for the Holy
Land as merely a tourist destination. "Might the Christian world
stand on the sidelines and allow the shrines to become government-run museums?"
Yet the Church is a living presence,
he insisted, and is struggling now for its breath. "We do not want just
stones," he said, echoing so many we've met. "We want living stones." He and
his people want the Church in the land of Jesus to be living and vibrant. To
have less would be an injustice to the entire Church.
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