The Sea of Galilee shimmers in the background on Feb. 7 in this view from the Mount of Beatitudes on the northern shore of the sea, also known as Lake Tiberius.
NATALIE HOEFER, THE CRITERION/SPECIAL TO THE CATHOLIC VOICE
A land of calm, chaos and other Holy Land observations
|First in a series|
For more information about the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land: www.ffhl.org.
GALILEE and JERUSALEM REGIONS OF ISRAEL — The Azraq family roots dig deep into the soil of Old City Jerusalem.
"Our house is about 300 years old," says Anton "Tony" Azraq, 39, a Melkite Catholic who has lived in Old City Jerusalem his whole life. "It's built on top of a previous structure that goes back to the 12th century, to the Crusader time."
His family name, which means "blue" in Arabic, goes back much further, to the seventh century when Muslims invaded the Holy Land and made Christians wear blue belts for easy identification.
But such deep Christian roots are at the risk of being severed in the Holy Land. Wars, laws, a poor economy and the high cost of living are driving Christians from the land where Christ began the Church.
This is life in the Holy Land through Azraq's eyes. He served as tour guide for the Indianapolis archdiocesan pilgrimage. In the next installment, we'll hear from Alfred Ra'ad, a shop owner in Old City Jerusalem.
Both men know the cross of persecution, and both long for help to keep a Christian presence in the land where "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" (Jn 1:14).
As an archaeologist specializing in the era of Jewish kings David and Solomon, who lived 1,000 years before Christ, Azraq loves "bringing artifacts to the light for people to see."
He is also deeply devoted to his Melkite Catholic faith, proudly donning a necklace with a large cross … most of the time.
"In the 1990s, we were more free to show our crosses in the market, wear your cross outside," he explains. "Nowadays, most Christians are hiding their identity when they are outside of the Christian area because they don't want to be persecuted."
Hiding one's Christian identity was not always the practice in the Holy Land, says Azraq, a married father of four.
"Before, we [Jews, Muslims and Christians] co-existed in a better way," he recalls. "Up to the 1990s, we didn't feel much of this racism or persecution.
"The last 15 years, since the [United States] invasion of Iraq, it has been different. When President [George W.] Bush called it a Crusader war by mistake [at Camp David, Md., on Sept. 16, 2001], most of the Muslims started looking at us as Crusaders and that we shouldn't be here. Since then it has started more of the fanaticism.
"And on the other side, on the Jewish side, they look at us like we are Gentiles."
Azraq says Christians are "caught holding the stick in the middle," not wanting to side with the Jewish-run state government for fear of being seen by Muslims as "collaborators," yet not wanting to side with Muslims because "the Islamic movement is becoming more terrorist."
According to Azraq, Christians in Israel simply "ask to be left alone, to keep our freedom of worship without having to be converted."
But being Christian is costly—literally.
"In my time, elementary school for Catholic kids used to be free," Azraq says. "Nowadays, public schools are either Islamic or Jewish. You will never find a public school that teaches Christianity."
But Christian schools are now expensive, he admits.
"Most cannot afford to educate more than one or two children, so Christians are having fewer children."
The high cost of education — and high cost of living in Israel in general — is exacerbated by the lack of income caused by people tending to only patronize businesses operated by those of their own faith, says Azraq. In a land boasting a mere 2 percent population of Christians, the financial strain is often too much.
"Most of the Christians are deciding to leave to find a better life somewhere else," says Azraq, resulting in towns like Bethlehem dropping from an 80 percent population of Christians 20 years ago down to 20-25 percent today.
But Azraq has no intentions of leaving.
"As a Catholic, I believe that I am very important in this part of the world because even though we're a minority, that's what keeps the churches open as churches and not museums," he asserts.
Azraq spoke of the Israeli town of Nain, where the Christian population dwindled and the Catholic church was closed due to lack of members.
"We don't want this to happen again in other important sites, specifically in Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and in Bethlehem," says Azraq.
"We call it a mission for us to keep these places open for our brother and sister Christians to come on pilgrimages, and see the place where Jesus was born and the place where Jesus was raised from the dead."
(Editor's note: On Feb. 4-15, 51 pilgrims from in and around the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, including Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, traveled through the Holy Land. This reflection was written by Natalie Hoefer, staff reporter for The Criterion newspaper.)
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