Churches in Israel struggling to keep up with mass influx of foreign workers

By Julia Niemann

While the number of Christians with roots in Israel is on the decline, temporary residents are flocking to local services in record numbers.

Shifting demographics are changing the landscape of Israel’s Christian communities as an influx of migrant workers poses a new set of demands for local churches.

While the number of Christians with roots in Israel – including Arabic, Ethiopian, Coptic, Greek and Armenian Christians – is diminishing due to immigration, statistics show the overall population of Christians remains steady due to the arrival of many foreign workers. In fact, the churches themselves appear to be growing.

But in many cases, the additional membership is only temporary. Many of these foreign workers eventually leave Israel, either after they’ve made enough money to return home or when their visas expire.

This shift in demographics is evident in the Masses at two Roman Catholic churches in Jaffa. While St. Anthony and St. Peter offer only two Masses in Arabic for the town’s native Arab Christian population, they now offer four Saturday Masses in English.

Those services are attended primarily by Filipina caregivers.

Additional services are also offered in Spanish and French for African migrants, and several are offered in South Asian languages. St. Peter holds a service in Hebrew for more fully assimilated Christian children and Russian immigrants.

Father Ramzi Sidawi – an Arab Catholic from Jerusalem and the parish priest in Jaffa – says the presence of foreign workers poses a unique challenge for the community. Some, he said, try to prove paternity or seek baptism for children without papers. Recently, he said, a woman visited his office who had a visa for only two days.

“They gave it to her on the 13th of December and it [expired] on the 15th,” he said, shaking his head. “But somehow these people manage. Nobody knows how many there are, but they also provide cheap labor in jobs no Israeli wants to do.”

Sidawi said his community has about 1,000 Arab Christians and about 20 times as many church members who hail from other backgrounds; in most cases they come from the Philippines. A separate church near Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station also caters specifically to Filipino church-goers.

“The language does make a difference,” said Sidawi. In some cases Indians and Filipinos are able to follow along in shared services, he said; sometimes they understand Spanish.

“That is why,” Sidawi explains, “there is little contact among them beyond shared Masses on Christmas and other festivals: 80 to 90 percent remain in their own communities.”

Non-Arab church-goers in Jaffa tend to live elsewhere, he said, mainly in districts in south Tel Aviv with many foreign workers. These workers typically bus to church.

“I have been living here for 30 years now,” said Shirley, a Filipino immigrant whose son is a altar server at St. Anthony.

“We are very warm and friendly with each other in this church,” she said, noting that Arab church-goers often keep to themselves.

Shirley said her community has changed drastically due to deportation over the past 10 years. Sidawi also has noticed a change. He recalls the many Romanian foreign workers who once lived and worked in Israel in the early 1990s. “They all vanished,” he said.

Provost Uwe Grabe of Jerusalem’s Church of the Redeemer now speaks of “a completely new Christianity in the Holy Land.” It remains unclear whether, in the long run, it will be possible to create a dialogue between the old and new communities, he said. If not, he said they risk becoming disconnected, fragmented islands – a trend he foresees happening in the future to West Bank Christians.

According to Grabe, Christian emigration from the West Bank is causing a continuous decrease in the number of Arab church-goers. Eventually there will only be a few communities left around the holy sites, he warns.