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Hopes for the Holy Land

11 Dec 2008 Secretary General Msgr. Robert L. Stern spoke with Rome Reports recently about the challenges facing Christians in the Holy Land, the pope’s planned visit there next year, the possible impact of a new U.S. president and the importance of international aid to the region. (Transcript courtesy of

Monsignor Stern, what are the main problems from your perspective?
Christians in the Middle East are in a sense strangers in a strange land, even though they have been born there, because if they live in Israel, they live in a Jewish state and society. In all the other countries, they live in a Muslim state and in Muslim society. So even though they are descendants of the original inhabitants of the land, still they are made to feel that they don’t “fit” anymore. Sometimes, the way they live and talk encourages this because Christians identify with the West. The paradox is that sometimes in the Holy Land they say: you Christians don’t belong here, you belong to Western Europe. And yet, this is where Christianity started.

So they are second class citizens?
In Islam, Christians and Jews are considered people of the Book, and therefore they are respected as forerunners of Islam but not fully conforming to the Will of God. And so they are second class citizens, but they have a unique status. In Israel of course, in a Jewish state, if you are not a Jew, even though it’s a democratic society, you are in fact a second class citizen as well. So it’s the very nature of being a Christian in that part of the world. And in that part of the world your religious identity comes first; in the West it’s more your national identity that comes first.

In which countries is there discrimination against Christians?
If you don’t identify entirely with all their values, then, depending on the countries, it varies. Let’s take Egypt for example: to really succeed in many roles, in politics and business, your chances are better if you are Muslim. It doesn’t mean that to succeed is impossible, but it’s human nature … There’s a kind of discrimination which is the way people act when they deal with someone who is not quite a member of their own group.

What is the future for Christians in the Middle East?
Well, if you look at it very dispassionately, from a sort of sociological point of view (sociologists look at trends and the statistics of 500 years ago, 1000 years ago, 100 years ago), what seems to be happening is the exodus of Christians from all over the Middle East. Right now, Israel-Palestine has the smallest proportion of Christians than in any country of the Middle East … What we are really seeing over the centuries is an accelerating movement of Christians away from that part of the world.

What role can Christians play in those societies?
Christians as minorities are, generally speaking, well-educated professionals and compared to their numbers they have an important influence in each of the countries in which they live. And that’s a contribution. I also feel that the Christians can be a sort of bridge because in most of the countries they are Arabs, but they are not Muslims. They can be a connection between the modern societies of the Western world and emerging societies in the Islamic world because they are Arabs and they are Christians.

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