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Christian Contributions in the Contemporary Middle East — Villanova University

13 Dec 2016 Editors’ note: The following speech was delivered at Villanova University by Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, on 5 December for the 2016 Conference on Christians in the Contemporary Middle East. The subject: “Religious Minorities and the Struggle for Secular Nationalism and Citizenship.”

The Christian presence in the Holy Land and across the Middle East has always been a diverse one as it covers a wide variety of Churches and is older than many neighboring nation states. Jerusalem, for example is the seat of 13 heads of churches including the Orthodox, Catholic and the Evangelical Churches. There are also over 125 Catholic religious congregations with presence in the Holy Land (Israel and Palestine).1 (Directory of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land 2014) Some are monastic in nature, while others are apostolates of service especially in the fields of education, healthcare, and social services. For the past few centuries, these communities have operated under many governing authorities, from the Ottoman Empire to the British Mandatory Administration and the modern states of Jordan, and lastly Israel and the Palestinian Authority which has some influence on the population. As a matter of fact, people of my generation have a unique history with each successive generation born under a different governing authority. In my own family, my grandfather was born in 1890 during the tail end of the Ottoman Empire, my father in 1921 during mandatory Palestine, I was born in 1960 during the Jordanian rule, and my four children were all born after 1967 and hold birth certificates issued by the State of Israel! Four generations, born in the same city and yet each generation has a birth certificate issued by a different authority. Despite this unstable situation, what has been a constant safety net in many people’s lives has been the Church and the institutions of the various Churches that provide services in education, health care and social services. Thus, this presentation highlights this unique relationship between the living stones and the Christian institutions with focus on their contributions and challenges.

History of Religious Congregations in the Holy Land
The region has a very rich history of the presence of religious congregations. The Orthodox presence certainly predates the Catholic one, but given that the Catholic institutional presence is more diverse and in much greater numbers, the concentration will be on the developments within the Catholic Church. In 1099, the Latin Patriarchal Diocese of Jerusalem was established with the Crusaders, though there was no residing Patriarch to govern the Church. Due to this void, Pope Clemens VI asked the Franciscan Friars in 1342 to act as the guardians of the holy places and assure the presence of the Latin church in the Holy Land and ensure the growth of the local church. This lasted for approximately 500 years. In 1847 Pope Pius IX reestablished the Latin Patriarchate which marked the return of many religious orders and congregations to the Holy Land that we see today.2

There are 30 other religious orders and congregations of men maintaining convents, monasteries, schools, hospitals, academic institutions and social programs. Among the most numerous are the Salesians of Don Bosco, the Monks of Bethlehem, the De La Salle Brothers, the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Cistercian monks, the Incarnate Word Missionaries and the Missionaries of Africa. Three of the congregations are oriental rite (one Greek Catholic and two Maronite). There are 73 women religious orders and congregations in the Holy Land. The largest is the Congregation of the Rosary Sisters, founded in 1880 by a Christian Palestinian from Jerusalem, Blessed Marie-Alphonsine Ghattas. This congregation runs many schools and other institutions and the Sisters serve in many of the Latin parishes. The first congregation of women to arrive in the Holy Land, in 1848, was the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Apparition, serving in schools, hospitals, parishes and a retreat house in the diocese.

Further, among the other congregations there are: Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Teaching Sisters of Saint Dorothy, Nuns of Bethlehem and of the Assumption of the Virgin and of Saint Bruno, Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, Benedictines, Religious of Nazareth, Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, Carmelites, Little Sisters of Jesus, Salesian Sisters, Sisters of Saint Elizabeth, Comboni Sisters, Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa, Sisters of Saint Bridget, Daughters of Saint Anne, Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara, Franciscans of the Sacred Heart, and Adorers of Most Holy Sacrament. Eight of the congregations are Eastern rite. In addition to these orders and congregations, there are 20 institutes of consecrated life in the Holy Land.3

The beginnings of the educational aspect of these religious orders can be traced back to the 16th century when the Franciscans opened a school in Bethlehem around the year 1518 followed by schools in Jerusalem and Nazareth. However, due to the prevalent political climate the work of such congregations was limited in nature until the 19th century. Towards the end of the Ottoman rule, most services provided to the Arab communities in education, health, and social services were indeed offered by these religious congregations given the neglect of the governing authorities. As a matter of fact, the official records of the Department of Education for the years 1913-1914 demonstrate that 90% of all elementary school students in historic Palestine were educated at congregational schools, while a mere 10% were educated at public schools.4

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