Editors’ note: Faced with innumerable obstacles and challenges, many Christians have left the Holy Land. However, a number have made the commitment to stay. For “Emerging Generation,” a feature article for the September 2022 issue of ONE, Judith Sudilovsky spoke with some young adults who made this commitment and were formed to take on leadership positions in the community. In the audio report below, she shares some of her notes from the field — more on the challenges these young leaders face — that didn’t make it into her article. A full transcript follows.
The afternoon light plays with the golden stones of the Old City building of the Arab Catholic Scout Troop as I approach. I can see young teen troop members sitting on the building stoop, chatting. A few younger Scouts run past me. We are in the Old City’s Christian Quarter and across from the building is the Franciscan Saint Savior Monastery. For many young Palestinian Christians, this old building with its thick walls has been the place to congregate and socialize.
I meet with the new troop leaders and speak with Jovita Mitri, who at 16 is one of the active young leaders of the troop. For her, the Arab Catholic Scout Troop has a greater meaning. It is a place where she can strengthen her Christian identity and learn important Christian tenets, like loving one another and loving people who are different than her as well.
She is one of a number of bright young Christians I have met during the writing of an article on a multifaceted initiative by the CNEWA-Pontifical Mission to empower the next generation of young Christian Palestinian leaders. One after another, these young people have impressed me with a resolve and determination, an understanding of the importance of their very presence in the Holy Land as Christians.
This is what the CNEWA-Pontifical Mission is aiming to support, making Christians aware and proud of their deep roots here. The stories they tell me reflect the difficulties they face as Palestinian Christians in this land, politically, of course, but also in terms of maintaining a strong and present Christian identity within themselves, their families and Palestinian society as a whole, other than simply the schools and medical health care facilities supported by Christian institutions. And yet the young Christians I spoke to persist, like George Antone in Gaza.
George is the director of the Caritas Medical Center in Gaza and a lecturer at the Latin Patriarchate Thomas Aquinas Center. He is the father of 11-year-old Leila, 9-year-old Juliet, and 7-year-old Natalie who have been born into a place of war and blockades. And yet he stays in Gaza where Christians don’t even make up half a percent of the population. If he leaves like his parents and siblings did, “Who will be here to strengthen the identity of the younger generation of Christians and give them the tools to succeed?” he asks.
Like Nadine Bitar-Abu Sahlia, secretary general of the Christian Youth in Palestine, Youth of Jesus’ Homeland youth group. During her interview, she sits in her living room, near Nazareth in Israel’s north.
It is a far way from where she was born and where her family lives in Jerusalem’s Old City Christian Quarter. But her husband whom she met in the youth group is from the nearby northern West Bank village of Zababdeh, which is on the Palestinian side of the border.
As a Palestinian resident of the West Bank, Israel has not given him a permit to live in Jerusalem. So, their only opportunity to be together is when she can cross the border to see him or when he receives a temporary permit to cross the border, and they don’t want to waste precious time on his travel down to Jerusalem. Sadly, frustratingly, they are married but are forced to live separately.
“Even love has a wall around it here,” said Nadine.
But she also quoted St. John: “We love because we are first loved.”
“Occupation can’t limit God’s love or our love for one another,” she said.
And so, they stay.
For Nadine and George and the other young Christians who choose to stay, not only budgetary support is important but, moreover, the emotional support they are receiving from the Pontifical Mission programs to strengthen young Christian leadership makes them feel seen and heard. It gives them a sense of belonging to this land and their Christian community and empowers them to empower other young Palestinian Christians in their homeland.
Judith Sudilovsky is an award-winning veteran journalist covering Israel and Palestine for Catholic News Service and other publications.