When Pope Francis arrives at Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday he will be following in the footsteps of countless Christian pilgrims before him, who, ever since the 4th century, have been making the journey to this land — to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, seek blessings, ask for penance, give thanks or simply breath in a little holy air.
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But, while millions upon millions of Christian visitors over the years will have walked down the Via Dolorosa, lit candles in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or bowed their heads to pray in the Church of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives — the number of Christians who actually make their permanent home in Israel or the West Bank today is relatively small.
According to latest statistics from the Central Bureau of Statistics, about 161,000 Christians are currently official residents in Israel — about 2.1 percent of the general population.
Most of these men, women and children — about 75 percent — live in the western Galilee, concentrated in the cities of Haifa (with some 14,000 Christians) and Nazareth (22,500), as well as in smaller villages such as Shfaram and Kfar Yasif. Other large communities of several thousand each live in Jaffa and west Jerusalem. The only completely Christian villages in the entire Middle East, according to the Foreign Ministry, are in Israel too: Ma’aliya and Fassuta in northern Israel.
Meanwhile, it is estimated there are today anywhere between 25,000-35,000 Christians in the West Bank — notably in Bethlehem and Ramallah — and another approximately 12,000 live in East Jerusalem, a sum total of about 2 percent of the Palestinian population beyond the Green Line. In Gaza, there are but 3,000 Christians, who make up less than one percent of the population there.
The majority of all these Christians (more than 80 percent in Israel and practically all in the West Bank and Gaza) are Arabs. And many, or even most, of them — including those holding Israeli citizenship — identify as Palestinians.
Outside of the Arab-Christian population, the Christians in Israel are a mix, with the largest group being Christian immigrants from the former Soviet Union – possibly as many as 23,000- who arrived in this country in the 1990s together with Jewish relatives. Another large group, whose precise numbers are not known, are the foreign workers, asylum seekers and refugees from Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
Other, smaller Christian groups in Israel include the approximately 7,000 Maronites of Syrian origin living in the Galilee; the communities of Messianic Jews and Hebrew Catholics — estimated to be somewhere around 6,000; and of course the communities of nuns, priests, monks and other religious officials who have made Israel or the West Bank their home specifically to serve in the various churches, seminaries and monasteries here.
About 45 percent of all the Christians in Israel and the West Bank belong to communities that are in communion with Rome, and, as such, accept the rubric of the Catholic Church, says Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, who received a papal knighthood for his contribution to Jewish-Catholic reconciliation. Of these, the vast majority are members of the Greek Catholic (or Melkite) Church, with others belonging to the Roman Catholic (or Latin) Church or the Maronite community.
Most of the rest of the Christians in Israel and the West Bank are members of the Greek Orthodox community who, like the other local Orthodox communities, such as the Russian and Romanians, sided with the Eastern Orthodox Churches in the schism with Rome in 1054 and as such do not recognize the Pope as their leader.
The historic meeting in Jerusalem in 1964 between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras — which Pope Francis’ visit 50 years later comes to commemorate — marked the beginning of reconciliation between these two patriarchates.
Other churches that function at the pleasure of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchy and who have presences — if not real communities — here include the Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian churches. And finally, there are also an estimated 7,000-8,000 Protestants in Israel, among them Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostals and Presbyterians.