David Miller
The Media Line
January 12, 2011 - 1:00am

Attempting to curb the flight of Palestinian Christians from Jerusalem, the city’s Latin Patriarchate is taking an unusual role in developing real estate projects that will provide affordable housing to its flock and others.

The church recently obtained building permits for 72 housing units to be built in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of southern Jerusalem on land purchased by individuals from the Al-Alami and Al-Husseini families. Last November, 68 Christian families entered their new homes in the Al-Shayah neighborhood on the Mount of Olives, in another project supported by the church.

Although the city is filled with churches, monasteries and other Christian institutions, its Christian population has been in a freefall. They numbered 31,000 in 1948, but today only 15,400, or just 2% of the city's population, identify themselves as Christians, according to statistics published by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS) on Christmas Eve.

"The Beit Safafa project is intended for church employees," Msgr. William Shomali, auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, told The Media Line. "We aren’t building a Christian ghetto there; even Muslims have encouraged this project because they realize that we are a small minority that needs to preserve itself."

While the Christian population in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East has been in decline for decades, Jerusalem presents a special problem. The city has limited room to expand, putting land at a premium and raising the cost of housing. The Israeli planning bureaucracy makes getting approvals for construction a slow and cumbersome process.

Shomali said he didn't believe that Christians received preferential treatment from Jerusalem's municipality, adding that zoning for the project began 15 years ago. He downplayed the distinctly Christian character of the project, saying the Latin Patriarchate was willing to facilitate purchasing groups from all segments of Palestinian society.

"Obtaining a permit is much easier for groups than for individuals," he said. "I encourage all Palestinians to form such groups, and we will help them."

Shomali insisted the church's involvement was limited to coordination between the buyers, providing lawyers and engineers for the project. Funding, he said, was provided entirely by the buyers who take out loans from the Arab Bank, a Jordan lender that operates in the West Bank, never from church funds.

Rula Shehedeh, a 22-year-old Christian resident of the A-Tur neighborhood of Jerusalem, said housing was unaffordable for both Christians and Muslim youth in Jerusalem. Muslims often refuse to rent their homes to Christians, she said.

"To buy a house you often need your parents' assistance," Shehedeh told The Media Line. "Christian monasteries, such as Al-Faji on the Mount of Olives, sometimes fund building projects for Christians within the monastery confines."

Hanna 'Issa, who oversees Christian affairs in the Palestinian Ministry of Endowments, bemoaned the flight of Christians from the Palestinian territories.

"The emigration of Christians from Palestinian land has become a disconcerting phenomenon in recent times," 'Issa told the London-based Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi. "Recent statistics indicate that 600 Christians emigrate annually from Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza."

Bishop Shomali said it was initially his idea to help Christians purchase homes in Jerusalem and that the church gradually came to support it. He added that the main problem facing Jerusalem Christians wasn’t unemployment, but rather the high price of land in the city.

Hana Bendcowsky, director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJCR), said that previous building projects were undertaken on church land in Jerusalem, with new buildings rented out to young couples for cheaper than market prices.

"The Latin Patriarchate owns buildings in the Old City, which it rents out, and the Lutheran Church developed its property on the Mount of Olives," Bendcowsky told The Media Line. "It's hard to tell what will keep Christian families from leaving the city, but it's certainly helpful when you have somewhere to live."

As 2010 came to a close, Pope Benedict XVI took the opportunity to acknowledge the plight of Middle East Christians, pointing the finger at Israeli occupation as the main reason for the flight of Christians from the Holy Land.

"[Attacks against Christians] spread fear within the Christian community and [create] a desire on the part of many to emigrate in search of a better life," the pope said. "The Israeli occupation is making their life difficult and the Israeli occupation is responsible for the declining of number within the Christian community."

Bendcowsky said Israel’s security barrier, which cut off some Palestinian neighborhoods from Jerusalem, contributed to the price increase in neighborhoods, which were left within the city's municipal boundaries.

"Neighborhoods such as Beit Hanina and the Old City, with high Christian populations, have seen a huge price increase over the last 10 years," Bendcowsky said.


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