A thousand years have passed since the first Crusade launched to defend Christians under siege in the land of Christ’s birth. A group of modern-day knights and ladies — including dozens of Alaskans — continue the work as members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
“It all got started in the Holy Land — this is where Jesus was born, grew up, worked, lived, died and rose for us,” Sir Thomas McKiernan told members of Catholic international order of knighthood. “We have been entrusted to maintain the Christian presence there.”
McKieran was giving a Sept. 19 talk at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage during the annual meeting of Northwest chapter of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
McKieran is president of the order’s Holy Land Commission, which identifies humanitarian needs among Catholics in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Cyprus, and directs funds to help them.
“There would be no Catholic Church in the Holy Land without you,” McKiernan said to attendees of his talk.
The order has ancient roots. After the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in 33 A.D., Christians began making pilgrimages to the Holy Land, most particularly to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which sits over the tomb where Christ was buried and from which he rose three days later. The custodians of the church bestowed knighthood on pilgrims who braved the dangerous journey there.
The pilgrims’ 21st-century successors – there are 32,000 around the world – continue those journeys to express solidarity with suffering fellow Christians who are the religious minority in the Holy Land. Currently, there are 300,000 Christians out of 12 million in the Holy Land – constituting just 2.5 percent of the population.
“Our brothers and sisters are [in] occupied [lands], they’re a minority,” McKieran said. “They live on the charity of others.”
Through the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem — the Roman Catholic archdiocese of the Holy Land — the order supports numerous hospitals, schools, churches, and other humanitarian services for Catholics and non-Catholics. For instance, the order-backed Catholic baby hospital, school for the blind and maternity clinic serve Christians and Muslims alike.
“Probably Pope Francis would be very happy to hear this: We do reach out to the peripheries,” McKiernan stated.
BUILDING SAFE HAVENS
McKiernan’s talk updated 200 knights and ladies of the order’s Northwest Lieutenancy – which includes Alaskans like Archbishop Roger Schwietz and a number of local lay Catholics – on new construction projects in some of the most important places for the world’s Christians. Noting Bethlehem, Salt, Beit Sahour and Jaffa, McKiernan said, “Look at the locations. It’s really like walking in the footsteps of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”
In Tel-Aviv, Israel, the order is working on establishing nurseries to care for the infants of migrant service workers. McKiernan said the aim is to provide an option to working mothers who now leave their babies in “baby warehouses,” small businesses where 40 to 50 infants are kept in a darkened room, watched by one or two unqualified persons, for $150 a month.
“In these rooms, darkened, crying infants, there’s no interaction, there’s no light. Two or three babies die a month,” McKiernan said. “These infants need our help.”
The project is being shepherded on-site by a Jewish-born Catholic priest who speaks Hebrew, Arabic and English.
In Mafraq, Jordan — five kilometers from Syria and increasingly a destination for refugees — the order recently funded the expansion of a school that serves Christians and Muslims.
“They wanted a third floor on their school…because they wanted their children to be able to stay in a Catholic school…instead of having to go to the local public school,” McKiernan reported. Many Muslim parents prefer Catholic schools for their disciplined and religious atmosphere, he said.
At Jaffa of Nazareth Parish in Israel, near the village where Jesus spent his childhood, the order plans to renovate the parish’s kindergarten.
“This is where children first learn to socialize, first learn to communicate,” McKiernan said. “And in countries where we’re the minority, the earlier they can learn to socialize with their neighbors, the better it is.”
In Amman, Jordan, the order will fund the completion of Our Lady of Peace Center for people suffering various disabilities. In Marj-Al-Hamam, Jordan, the order plans to help finish a church that local Catholics began with their own funds. The church is home to 1,500 parishioners or 300 families. McKiernan said it will benefit another 4,000 Christians – “Latins and Orthodox” – who live in the area. At the same time, the parish is now home to 180 Iraqi refugees who’ve fled the ISIS onslaught in their homeland.
“We’re doing the best we can” to help such refugees from Iraq and Syria, McKiernan said. In addition to shelter, the refugees receive food and clothing there.
MORE ‘PEOPLE PROJECTS’
McKiernan said that in the next few years, the order hopes to fund more “people projects” over construction projects — focused on pastoral concerns, education and humanitarian aid.
For Christians to thrive in the Holy Land, education is critical, McKiernan said.
“If we expect our children — the minority — to be involved in leadership in any way, they’re going to have to be educated,” he observed. “If we want our children to be able to work with the majority, this is one place to start.”
But the future of Catholic education for “the average and the poor” in the Holy Land is in doubt, he suggested. There are 45 schools run by the Latin Patriarchate of the Holy Land, with 19,544 students and 1,560 teachers. The teachers in Jordan earn on average $593 a month and $959 in Palestine. Because of the low salaries, “we’re losing our best teachers,” McKiernan said.
McKiernan noted that Catholic schools in Israel receive government funding, but that appears to be changing. Since Sept. 1 Christian schools in Israel have refused to open, protesting a drop in their state funding from about 65 percent to 29 percent.
A NEW THREAT
Due to increasingly difficult living conditions, there has been a steady exodus of Christians from the Holy Land. Still, McKiernan said the number of Christians today isn’t “that far off” from 25 years ago — thanks to an influx of migrants, particularly Filipino workers, immigrants and other Christians.
But there’s a new threat to Christians in the land of Christ, McKiernan observed.
“With ISIS next door, we have to be a little worried about the future of Christianity in the Middle East,” he said, adding, “Something has to be done about ISIS.”
Anchorage resident Chad Resari is a parishioner of Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral. He was inducted into the order on Sept. 20.
The day before, after McKiernan’s talk, he told the Catholic Anchor he had “a great concern” about the lack of U.S. action to stem the ISIS tide in the Middle East. He recalled the 1990s conflict in the former Yugoslavia when “we went out of our way to help the Muslims. Why [is] our government not making much effort to stop this group [ISIS] that is out to annihilate the Christians, people who will not convert to their way of thinking?”
The ISIS activity so close to the Holy Land “puts me on alert,” added Lady Mary Ann Swalling, a parishioner of Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral and 10-year member of the order. But she said “we have to look beyond” it because “there’s so much” that “needs attention” in the lives of suffering Christians in the Holy Land.