by Marion Homer

Record numbers attended a National Gathering organised by Kenilworth-based Christian charity, ‘The Friends of the Holy Land’, last month, which was held at St Francis of Assisi Parish Centre.

The keynote speaker was Sami El-Yousef, descended from one of Jerusalem’s oldest Christian families and CEO of Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarchate.

Sami gave a detailed account of the difficulties faced by the Christian community living in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan.

Calmly and dispassionately, he explained the complexity of pressures facing Christians in the region, reflecting lives lived under occupation, discrimination and as refugees.

Sami revealed the dramatic decline in the Christian population of Bethlehem over the past 70 years. In 1947 Christians in Bethlehem represented 85% of the community, but by 1998 that figure had shrunk to 40%.

Now, in 2018, they account for just 18% of the total population.

Sami went on to explain the importance of the Christian institutions in the Holy Land, and their impact on the wider community regardless of faith or religion.

He explained that of the six hospitals in Jerusalem four are operated by Christian churches.

“In this troubled land Christian values attract people into our institutions. We are not serving Christians exclusively - in our schools Christians and Muslims are growing up together."

Sami outlined how all of the Christian schools and hospitals of the region are running at a deficit: “It’s nothing short of a miracle that keep these Christian institutions going.”

Sami thanked the 100+ supporters of FHL gathered at the Parish Centre in Kenilworth for their steadfast support.

In nine years the charity has raised £3.7 million and supported 2,000 named Christians each year living in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel and Jordan.

The Bishop of Warwick, The Right Reverend John Stroyan, attended the National Gathering. The Bishop started the day with an ecumenical service of thanksgiving for the work of FHL, conducted in partnership with Fr David Bazen from the Catholic parish of Kenilworth.

Over lunch attendees had the opportunity to buy items made from olive wood, imported from the workshops of Christian families in Bethlehem.

During the afternoon a number of FHL supporters made short presentations. This included 11-year-old Robert Foskett, a student of The King’s School in Worcester, who had raised a hugely impressive £830 for the School of Joy - a special needs school in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem.

The National Gathering closed with attendees committing to work with FHL to raise awareness of the challenges faced by Christians in the Middle East through prayer, fundraising and pilgrimage.