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In today's installment, John Feister reports on the difficulties of a dwindling Christian population in the Holy Land.

Special Features
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 restaurant.

Photo by John Feister
Earlier today we had been at Ramallah, for a background report, and at Taybeh, where we saw an entrepreneurial brewer at work.

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 is home.

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?" he asked.

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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Angela Merici: Angela has the double distinction of founding the first teaching congregation of women in the Church and what is now called a “secular institute” of religious women. 
<p>As a young woman she became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis (now known as the Secular Franciscan Order), and lived a life of great austerity, wishing, like St. Francis, to own nothing, not even a bed. Early in life she was appalled at the ignorance among poorer children, whose parents could not or would not teach them the elements of religion. Angela’s charming manner and good looks complemented her natural qualities of leadership. Others joined her in giving regular instruction to the little girls of their neighborhood. </p><p>She was invited to live with a family in Brescia (where, she had been told in a vision, she would one day found a religious community). Her work continued and became well known. She became the center of a group of people with similar ideals. </p><p>She eagerly took the opportunity for a trip to the Holy Land. When they had gotten as far as Crete, she was struck with blindness. Her friends wanted to return home, but she insisted on going through with the pilgrimage, and visited the sacred shrines with as much devotion and enthusiasm as if she had her sight. On the way back, while praying before a crucifix, her sight was restored at the same place where it had been lost. </p><p>At 57, she organized a group of 12 girls to help her in catechetical work. Four years later the group had increased to 28. She formed them into the Company of St. Ursula (patroness of medieval universities and venerated as a leader of women) for the purpose of re-Christianizing family life through solid Christian education of future wives and mothers. The members continued to live at home, had no special habit and took no formal vows, though the early Rule prescribed the practice of virginity, poverty and obedience. The idea of a teaching congregation of women was new and took time to develop. The community thus existed as a “secular institute” until some years after Angela’s death.</p> American Catholic Blog I hear far more people discuss the presence of evil in their lives than they do the supreme power of grace. God is bigger than evil!


 
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