Franciscans Hope Housing Halts Christian Exodus from Holy Land

Trying to Build "St. Francis Village"

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JERUSALEM, NOV. 28, 2002 (Zenit.org).- To encourage the faithful to stay put in the Holy Land, the Franciscan Custody has launched a program to build 70 homes for Christian families.



Since the outbreak of the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, two years ago, about 1,000 Christians, the majority young people, have left the nearby Bethlehem area in search of a better future.

The Franciscans' project to build housing, aimed at keeping Christians here, is as difficult as it is ambitious.

It took 15 years to obtain a building permission. Even now, the project is stalled because of a lack of funds and because the Israeli government refused the necessary permits for Arab workers to report to their jobs.

The St. Francis Village project, estimated to cost $10 million, is in its first stages of construction.

The area chosen for construction is Bethphage, next to the Franciscan shrine that commemorates the place where Jesus began his triumphal entry to Jerusalem. Every year, the Palm Sunday procession starts here.

Friar Emerito Merino, Holy Land delegate in Madrid, Spain, told ZENIT that "in many countries of the world, international organizations collect humanitarian aid for the region but, unfortunately, to a great extent it goes to the Muslims; Christians only get the crumbs."

"So, Muslims have financial support from other Muslims in the world, and the U.S. help to Israel is evident, but no one helps the Christians," he lamented.

At the end of the 19th century, Christians constituted 25% of the Holy Land's population. Today they are barely 2.5%.

The risk, Friar Merino explained, is that the Holy Land will become a lifeless, stone museum for Christians.

Another problem is arising. "Many Christian girls of the area must find their future husbands among young Muslims, knowing that their children will never be Christians," he added.

"The exodus is due above all to the unbearable situation that the Arab-Israeli conflict is causing, which does not allow for the normal development of a dignified life," the friar explained. "Elemental conditions are missing, such as work, the ability to have a home, to repair it if it has been damaged or demolished, but, above all, no future is seen that is worth the trouble."

He continued: "In recent months, another very grave phenomenon is happening: The small Christian communities are being isolated by the Israeli army. We are not just talking about urban centers like Ramallah, but of those biblical places that were the object of pilgrimages of so many Christians, both local and foreign."

"Something must be done to stop this hemorrhage, this exodus of Christians," the Franciscan religious said. "Talking is not enough. Something concrete must be done."

"For the benefit of Christians," he explained, "Franciscans currently have 392 dwellings in the Old City of Jerusalem, 357 of which are their property, and 35 of which are rented, with a total of 392 families."

In Beit Hanina, north of Jerusalem, the Franciscans have constructed 42 apartments for other Christian families. In Bethany, the city of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, 12 families live in as many recently built flats. In Er-Ram, between Beit Hanina and Ramallah, 18 families live in as many homes built by the religious.

To assist in the St. Francis Village project or to obtain information, send an e-mail to the delegation in your country of the Franciscan Custody (http://198.62.75.1/www1/ofm/cust/TSmain.html).