Christian Organizations Build Jerusalem Residential Projects to Combat Exodus

PNN – Palestine News Network – 12.01.11 – 14:16

Jerusalem – PNN – In an unprecedented step to combat the exodus of Palestinian Christians, the Latin Patriarchate and the Franciscan Institute to Protect the Holy Land have teamed up to build new residential units in East Jerusalem and rebuild derelict ones in the Old City.

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Bishop William Shomali (PNN Archive).

Bishop William Shomali told Agence France Press (AFP), “We are looking to build 72 units in Beit Safafa and we already have licenses for eight. The cost of each house is $260,000 for an area of 110,000 square meters. This project will succeed.”

“We will need about 15 years to get all the permits from the Jerusalem municipality,” added Shomali. “Getting permits for groups of houses is easier than getting permits for individual units.”

While many Christians returned to Palestine for the recent Christmas celebrations, Shomali explained that his project intended to get them to return more permanently. With just 10,000 Christians of all denominations living in Jerusalem—as opposed to 240,000 Muslims and 450,000 Jews—he believes the time is urgent. Between Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, there are hardly 50,000 Christians, or about 4% of the population.

“Despite these low numbers, we are stronger in organizations, such as our hospitals and schoolssaid Shomali.

Dr. Hana ‘Issa, an assistant for Christian Affairs in the Palestinian Waqf (Religious Endowments) Ministry, said that the Christian exodus from Palestinian land had become “a worrying phenomenon in recent years.”

“Recent statistics show that more than 600 Christians from Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza have left in this past year,” said ‘Issa. “Between 1967 and 1993, about 13,000 Christians fled the West Bank and Gaza—eight thousand from the West Bank and five thousand from Gaza.”

“If Israel told the Christians to leave, that would create a problem with the West,” added ‘Issa. “But if they migrated voluntarily, it would make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict look like it was Jewish-Muslim.”

Father Firas Hijazeen of a Jerusalem-based Latin Monastery is optimistic about the housing project’s success, having moved in 68 Christian families since the end of November.

He explained, “The Franciscan Institute to Protect the Holy Land is working under the auspices of the Latin Monastery to support [the new community of] Beit Faji, which will provide houses for newly married couples and the disabled.”

According to Hijazeen, the Beit Faji development will include at least ten homes around the Latin Monastery and a park, all in an effort to “find ways and means to keep the people of the nation here and stop the Christian exodus, which continues to this day.”

Hijazeen added that planners were hoping to restore houses in the Old City in order to keep at least 1,000 Christian Jerusalemites of various denominations.

Samir Houdali is one man who will benefit from the housing project. He told AFP, “I have felt relieved and relaxed ever since I began living here last September. I pay 1300 shekels (about $350) a month for a house of 130 square meters, versus $800 a month for a house I didn’t like.”

Anton al-Rabdhi, another new inhabitant, also spoke positively of his new home.

“My life used to be very hard in the Old City but we loved it very much,” he said. “Now, the new 130-square-meter home is double the size of the old one.”

“Our work alone is not enough to stop the migration,” admitted Father Hijazeen. “We alone cannot do it. Other organizations need to support this work and do as we do. Helping people find housing is a simple way to help them as they face the obstacles of living in Jerusalem. There are many difficulties, many elements in one’s decision to leave: lack of work, lack of schools, exorbitant taxes, and rising social inequalities.”

Shomali also admitted that housing security “is not enough for people in need of work” and that “Palestinians who cannot find jobs will leave the country to find other livelihoods.” But he was quick to point out that the housing project planners had found work for 66 people already from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the village of al-Walajeh.

“We hope that the Palestinian Authority can build factories and other places for the people to work,” said Shomali.

PNN – Palestine News Network – Christian Organizations Build Jerusalem Residential Projects to Combat Exodus.

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