The difficulties facing Christians in Israel and Palestine have helped bind them together and break down divisions between the Churches – according to the new ambassador representing the Pope.
Speaking at the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18 – 25 January), Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, the Apostolic Nuncio in Israel and Apostolic Delegate in Jerusalem and Palestine, described marked improvements in ecumenical relations over the past 30 years.
In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, he said: “As far as the ecumenical dialogue is concerned, I must say that there has been a real improvement as compared to what I experienced here during my work in the early eighties.
“There’s not only a dialogue, but also a genuine community of life. The relations between the different Christian communities have really improved. This is very fine, encouraging and comforting.”
The Nuncio said the difficulties which all Christian communities in the Holy Land experience have been a key factor in improving relations.
“This has brought them all closer together. But of course it’s only the external factor. In fact the improvement in ecumenical relations is the fruit of a long process of prayer and common reflection.”
Archbishop Lazzarotto was talking at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, following a service to mark the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on Saturday 19 January.
The nuncio’s comments are set against a backdrop of periodic incidents of ecumenical tension and even violence in the region.
In 2008 a brawl broke out between Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Orthodox clerics at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is shared by six different denominations.
Figures recently published by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics in Jerusalem put the current number of Christians inIsrael, excluding the Palestinian territories, at about 158,000 – making up 2.2 percent of a total population of 7.8 million.
More than 80 percent of the Christians in Israel belong to the country’s Arab minority. Estimates by the Bethlehem based Diyar research institute suggest there are about 52,000 Christians in the Palestinian territories, including 1,300 in the Gaza Strip.