Being Christian in the Holy Land

| Deacon Mickey Friesen | March 7, 2017 | 0 Comments

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Lent is an annual pilgrimage to renew our faith in Christ as we retrace his footsteps and walk with his disciples on the way to Jerusalem — the way to the cross.

Along the way, as Jesus passed through Galilee, Samaria and Judea, he stopped to teach, to heal, to forgive, to feed and to raise up those in need. Today, pilgrims who want to retrace this way of Jesus pass through the lands of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria — the region of the Holy Land. Today if you stop along the way that Jesus made holy, you will see many people carrying a heavy cross for their faith.

Today, living in the Holy Land as a Christian is difficult. Except for in Lebanon, Christians in the Middle East make up only a small minority of faiths represented. They get caught in the middle of regional conflicts, religious factions and civil war. They have little or no voice to speak out and have to walk a thin line to practice their faith. Sometimes they are easy targets or scapegoats for violent extremists wanting to vent their rage and extreme ideologies. Life can become unbearable for this small flock of Jesus’ followers who live along the way to Jerusalem.

In Syria, for example, less than 10 percent of the people are Christian. Since the civil war began in 2011, as many as 386,000 Syrians have died, and 4.8 million have fled the country. An additional 6.5 million internally displaced people are in Syria. Half of these are children. Those remaining have few places to live freely. In the capital city of Damascus, Christians struggle together to live their faith and are paying a high price for their discipleship.

Like the early Christians who fled persecution, today’s Christians and those of other faiths are finding a special bond in their suffering. Archbishop Samir Nassar of Damascus recalled a meeting of the bishops of the Middle East. He said their shared pain “evoked an ecumenical suffering that is uniting, in the same Calvary, all the Christians of the East … [on a] difficult, painful and providential path of unity.” He went on to wonder, “Could this suffering lead to reconciliation between the religions and people of the Middle East? Could we see life and peace streaming out of the cross?”

Along this painful way, Middle East Christians feel isolated and separated from the rest of the Church outside of their immediate communities. Many Christians in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories say, “We simply want Western Christians to know that we exist.”

Last fall, the U.S. bishops took up the question of how we in the United States can turn our attention to our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. They highlighted three areas of activity: advocacy, humanitarian aid and ecumenical support. They said, “Although the vast majority of today’s refugees are non-Christian, the vast majority of those who serve them are Christians, who continue to be salt and light in the world. …Today, Christians are more united than ever, through a common suffering, a common martyrdom and a common assistance to those in need.”

Ever since the bishops’ call to solidarity with Christians in the Middle East, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ Center for Mission has been discerning ways that local Catholics can respond. One way is for us to consider twinning our archdiocese with a particular church in the Middle East. We have been in contact with local communities tied to the Middle East and are making connections through Catholic Relief Services. Both efforts have led us to consider twinning with Catholics in the Maronite Archdiocese of Damascus.

Because we claim St. Paul as the patron saint of the archdiocese, it seems providential we are being invited to Damascus. Like St. Paul, who encountered Christ along the way to Damascus, so, too, we might go down this road to Damascus and hear the Lord say, “I am Jesus, the one who is being persecuted.” We have an opportunity to discern the path we might take in following along the way of Jesus — the way of the cross, the way of compassion and solidarity — the way to the Holy Land.

Deacon Friesen is director of the archdiocesan Center for Mission.

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Category: Featured, The Local Church