Going West

The crises in the Middle East have triggered a massive movement, of people from the region.

by Dorothy Humanitzki

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Viewing nightly newscasts from the Holy Land, one is not surprised that many people are leaving their homeland and settling elsewhere. Bombed-out houses no longer give shelter; shelled villages no longer provide a livelihood. Many of us can personally attest to the presence of these immigrants in our country. They are the young cab drivers working to pay their way through night school; the checkout clerks in the corner supermarkets; the medical technicians at the local hospital.

Until recently the Middle East has been an area of great diversity, the home of a variety of Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. That is changing as Arab Christians, in particular, turn their backs on their ancient homelands, leaving not only Israel and Palestine, but Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well.

Regional Directors of the Pontifical Mission, CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, reported on emigration from and immigration to the region at a January meeting in Rome convened by the Congregation for the Eastern Churches.

The presentations were prepared by Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., Regional Director for Palestine, Israel and Cyprus; Ra’ed Bahou, Regional Director for Jordan and Iraq; and Issam Bishara, Regional Director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

Emigration from the Middle East is not a new phenomenon. There have always been incentives for Arab Christians to leave. As early as the 19th century, Christian families seeking better economic opportunities and a more congenial religious atmosphere have left for the West. As these early immigrant families established themselves in Europe, Australia and the Americas, their improved standard of living was an attractive draw for those who remained behind.

In the mid-20th century, emigration from the Middle East accelerated. The urbanization of the region lured many, particularly the young, from their native villages to the cities. They attended colleges and other professional schools, but grew frustrated with the lack of employment there. With extended families already established in the New World, offering assistance with jobs and housing, many educated Arab Christians left to join them. This “brain drain” left behind a disproportionate number of poor and uneducated people.

Israel and Palestine. Official figures are hard to come by; Palestinian Christian leaders, reports Father Gockel, are reluctant to release statistics, fearing that publicizing the numbers will cause more people to leave. Community leaders in areas populated by Palestinian Christians, such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah, confirm that entire Christian families have left.

“The emigration of Arab Christians from the Arab world to the West is a significant setback for the future of Arab society,” comments Prince Talal Ibn Abdul Aziz Al Sa’ud, a member of the Saudi royal family.

“The Christian presence, as an authentic strength, preserves diversity and helps to maintain a balanced view.

“As a result of the steady and longstanding trend of Arab Christian emigration, the Arab world suffers a very serious human, social, cultural, political and economic loss…

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