Number of Christians in Israel is on the Rise Due to Immigrants from Africa and Asia

Eritrean Christians lead a memorial service in Tel Aviv in October in honor of victims of the Lampedusa, an immigrant boat shipwrecked off Italy in October. (David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images)
Eritrean Christians lead a memorial service in Tel Aviv in October in honor of victims of the Lampedusa, an immigrant boat shipwrecked off Italy in October. (David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis visits the Mideast next week, including Israel, where Christians make up just 2 percent of the population.

But since the last papal visit to the Holy Land five years ago, the number of Christians in Israel has increased, and the makeup of the Christian population has continued to shift.

The vast majority of Israeli Christians have always been Arab and they still make up three-quarters of the 160,000 Christians living in Israel. But tens of thousands of Christians have come to Israel from Asia and Africa — both legal workers and undocumented migrants.

Catholics In The Heart Of Jewish Society

Kids in Israel go to Catholic Sunday school on Saturday, since most Israelis observe the Jewish Sabbath, which is on Saturday. Sunday is the start of the work and school week.

On a recent Saturday, children ranging from toddler to teen practiced hymns or studied the Bible in different classrooms around the Our Lady of Valor Pastoral Center in south Tel Aviv. Later, Father David Neuhaus, the Patriarchal Vicar of Hebrew-speaking Catholics, baptized two children in front of an overflow crowd.

Most people attending were Filipinos who came to Israel as temporary workers. But some, like Marisol Kayanan, have been here two decades. She brings her children to this church because services are in Hebrew, which the kids speak in their public school.

Their school also teaches the Jewish Bible, or Torah, which Kayanan says makes church a challenge.

“For the children it’s difficult, because in school they are learning from Torah, and here it’s about Jesus,” she says. “The first time I brought them [to church], they were shocked. They said, ‘We didn’t learn about this.’ They had too many questions.”

Neuhaus is thrilled that his church recently opened a permanent pastoral center in south Tel Aviv.

“The city of Tel Aviv, built in 1909 as the Jewish secular city par excellence, is today the center of the Israeli economy,” Neuhaus says. “It’s the hub of the life of the migrants, because that’s where the work is. And if you go to the neighborhood around the bus station in south Tel Aviv, you have the most Christian neighborhood anywhere in the Holy Land.”

The church bought this building after five years in rental spaces, but dozens of other Christian churches rent basements or office space around the neighborhood, where they serve legal and illegal Asian and African migrants.

Neuhaus says it’s a whole new mode for Christian churches: to be involved in Israeli life, in Israeli cities, working with Israeli social services and running religious education programs.

“This year we’re going to have over 60 children for first Communion,” he says. “This is extraordinary, for the church of the Holy Land to being going out on a mission in the heart of Jewish society, Tel Aviv.”

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NPR

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