Building a Firm Foundation in the Holy Land

A senior bishop in the Holy Land has outlined a key initiative aimed at healing the wounds of religious division and stemming the Christian exodus from the region.

The four-storey Good Shepherd Maronite Diocesan Pastoral Center under construction at Mount Carmel in northern Israel is intended for use as a place for residential retreats, conferences, counseling services and gatherings for young people of different religions.

Due to open by the end of 2011 and in receipt of major funding from organizations including Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the initiative will provide the first diocesan-wide center for the Holy Land’s Maronite-rite Catholics, who number 12,000 in total.

In an interview with ACN, Maronite Archbishop Paul Sayah of Haifa and the Holy Land said the main aim of the project was to help renew the confidence of Maronites and other Christians and dissuade them from emigrating.

Describing the pastoral centre as “the backbone of our pastoral infrastructure,” Archbishop Sayah said, “We have experienced over the years many Christians wanting to emigrate. They feel they are not valued. We have to make sure that they feel they have a role to play as well as opportunities for educational and spiritual formation. The Good Shepherd Centre aims to do just that.”

The archbishop went on to say that the complex had received the strong backing of the Druze, a religious group derived from Islam, who are the majority population in Isfya, the village where the center is being built. Archbishop Sayah said, “The Mayor of Isfya – a Druze – is very keen on having the center. A number of Druze leaders in the area have signed a document in support of the project. We have told them that the center will be available for them to use.”

The initiative aims to promote Christian-Druze relations, which hit a new low in February, 2005, in Mughar, also in northern Israel. A dispute in the town in the Galilee region led the Druze to go on the rampage, causing half the Christian population to run for their lives. Many have since returned, but some problems remain.

Archbishop Sayah stressed the importance of encouraging the Christians’ sense of self-worth. He said, “It is no use our just preaching at our Christian community. We have to educate and develop them so that they can have good relationships with people of other religions. Otherwise our community will not survive.

The plan, which has already received $22,400 from Aid to the Church in Need with the expectation of more to come, includes two dormitories, supervisors’ rooms, a refectory, a chapel, a conference room, a room for the bishop and rooms for counseling.

The archbishop said much of the funding is now in place for the initiative, which will cost nearly $2 million, but he added that more support is urgently needed. He said, “We are keeping costs down as much as possible. In getting the work done, we are involving our own communities, which has the advantage of being cheaper than getting outside help as well as providing local employment and generating support from the very people the center is there to help.

Maronites are one of the smaller Catholic communities in a region whose Christian population has been decimated by emigration, especially in the West Bank. According to figures released in May by Archbishop Fouad Twal, the Latin-rite Patriarch of Jerusalem, Christians in Palestine today number barely 50,000, whereas in 1948 they were 20 percent of the total population.

Pope Benedict XVI has called on Aid to the Church in Need to prioritize support for Christians in the Middle East, noting that in some regions the “local Churches are… threatened in their very existence.”

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