COVID-19 and Christians in Jerusalem
Like much of the world, Jerusalem feels like a very different place compared to years past. While our religious practices and gatherings have changed substantially, Jerusalem has seen drastic changes.
Israel spent Passover in lockdown. Al Aqsa Mosque is closed for Ramadan. For Christians, only a handful of priests were allowed in for the Service of Holy Light, an annual event which usually fills the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
That building gives my organisation its name – the International Community of the Holy Sepulchre. Just as the building is shared by a number of Christian denominations, my organisation has the blessing of the thirteen denominations in Jerusalem and works to support all Christians in the Holy Land.
Christians are a vital, but diminishing, part of the fabric of the Holy Land – a historic and important piece of the multi-religious, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic nature of the region. The region is stronger with a vibrant Christian presence, yet the current pandemic has had a massive impact on local Christians.
A small population, most Holy Land Christians depend on the tourism industry for the livelihoods. They run guest houses for pilgrims, operate restaurants in the Christian Quarter and around Jaffa Gate, give tours to tourists and sell artefacts, such as icons and candles, to the faithful. One Christian family has even tattooed pilgrims for hundreds of years and continues to do so in 2020.
With the total drop off of tourism and pilgrimage around Easter, Christian families have lost one of their biggest sources of income for the year. Unfortunately, the light at the end of the tunnel cannot yet be seen. When international travel resumes, pilgrimage will take even longer to pick back up. For many, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a once in a lifetime experience that requires years of saving and months of planning.
Yet these Christian families are in urgent need now. Many of the churches that own residential properties have forgiven rent payments, and the church-run schools – which educate Christian and Muslim students side by side – have shouldered even more tuition costs to ensure their pupils can continue to receive an education.
Our concern is that if economic opportunities and assistance completely dry up for an extended period of time, more Christians will leave the Holy Land in search of opportunities abroad (there are more Holy Land Christians now living in Chile than there are in the Holy Land, for example). If the emigration of Christians accelerates, the diverse and vibrant mosaic of the Holy Land is threatened.
While the Churches are able to provide some assistance to families, the present crisis is unprecedented. Organisations have launched projects like the Hope for the Holy Land campaign (https://www.icohs.org/hope-campaign) which is creating a hardship fund for local families.
These families have welcomed visitors to the Holy Land for generations; through projects such as these, we can help ensure that they can continue to welcome the world – including you – back to Jerusalem.
Previously a PhD Scholar at the Woolf Institute, Dr Austin Tiffany studied the impact of religious diversification on clergy and clerical training institutions. Now as the Director of Partnerships for the International Community of the Holy Sepulchre, Austin works with faith and charity leaders in Jerusalem, the UK, and the US on issues relating to Christianity in the Holy Land.
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