Pope Francis' three-day visit to Jordan, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Israel came at a time of diminishing significance of Christians in the Holy Land especially in Jordan, the West Bank, Jerusalem and within Israel itself.
The visit seemed timed to shore up the remaining Christian communities in Jordan and Israel, especially Jerusalem, in order to assure that in the wake of the diminishing Christian population, especially in the West Bank, that the Catholic and Orthodox churches would be able, at least, to hold unto property and land that currently is owned by the churches.
Some of that property, land and Christian sites have been lost over the past 66 years due to the conquests of Israel in 1948 and the West Bank in 1967.
The growth of metropolitan Jerusalem over the past 30 years has also contributed to loss of land and property. Many Christian sites are also religiously and nationally important for Israeli and Diaspora Jews. This means that nearly all sites are contested.
This concern of the Catholic and Orthodox churches was clear in that the Pope met in Jerusalem with the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Istanbul who is the leader of most Orthodox Christians, especially in Russia, Ukraine, Greece and in many Balkan countries. Both churches in particular are concerned about the diminished presence of Christians in the Holy Land.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew face many challenges.
They seek more unity among the churches which are the most strongly represented among Christians in Jordan, the West Bank, Jerusalem and within Israel itself. When the then-leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox churches met in 1964, it was the first time since the 11th century in Jerusalem.
The two churches have much to sort out theologically and politically. Israel's absorption of Jerusalem and great swathes of the West Bank make the churches think that with the further diminishing of Arab and Palestinian-Arab Christians, the Holy Land will be left with Christian shrines, absent Christians.
Currently there are an estimated 250,000 Christians among Jordan's 6.3 million population. of which 60 percent are Palestinians expelled by Israel in 1948. There are an estimated 38,000 to 40,000 Palestinian Christians in the West Bank; 2,000 in Gaza and another 50,000 in East Jerusalem. In Israel itself, there are an estimated 161,000 Christians, 80 percent of whom are Palestinians. Christians represent only 2.1 percent of Israel's citizens.
The failure of the latest negotiations led by Secretary of State John Kerry and the continuing annexation of the West Bank by Israel undoubtedly make Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew think that, indeed, time is running out for living Christianity in the Holy Land.
The fears of Christian leaders are manifest regarding Christian and Jewish contention over the Cenacle on Mt. Zion where the Last Supper reputedly took place. Little of the compound, with the exception of one room, now remains to Christians; the rest has been taken over by Jewish institutions.
In order to maintain some presence for Christianity in the Holy Lands, Francis presented balanced views on the Shoah (Holocaust), anti-Semitism, and terrorism against Jews. He laid a wreath at the tomb of Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism. He noted the misfortune and pain of the tragedy that has befallen Palestinians epitomized by the Wall of Shame and the statelessness of Palestinians.
In order to reconcile the three faiths, he was accompanied by two clergy from his native Argentina — Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim academic Omar Abboud. He also announced that he had invited Israel President Simon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican on June 6. Notably Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would be absent.
It seems sure that nothing will come of the June 6 meeting. For one thing the United States and nearly every president since 1980 has made it clear that nothing will break the "unshakable, enduring and sacrosanct" relations between the United States and Israel. This includes the dusk of Christianity in the Holy Land.
Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst and author of several books on the region.