The Plight of Christians in the Holy Land

By Mary Seamans
Multimedia Journalist
The Catholic Accent

Roni Salsa, a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem, came to the United States more than 20 years ago with one mission in mind.

Working through the nonprofit Land of Peace, Salsa spends his time educating Americans about the struggles Christians in the Holy Land face on a daily basis.  

His home parish is Our Lady of Fatima Parish, located a mile away from the Nativity Church where Jesus was born and the Shepherd’s Field where the angels came to announce the birth of Jesus. Salsa’s parents, siblings and in-laws still live in the Holy Land. They are part of the 1% of the entire Christian population in Isreal. Bethlehem once had a Christian population of 85%. That number has dropped drastically to just 17%.

Salsa says the biggest reason for the exodus of Christians is the pursuit of freedom and a less restrictive life.

Daily life for Palestinian Christians living in Bethlehem is difficult. This Palestinian city, like much of the West Bank, is surrounded by a 26-foot-tall cement wall topped with razor wire and watch towers.

“The wall isolates these communities and makes them like a prison,” Salsa said. “The Israeli government began construction of this wall in 2002 and destroyed many Palestinian homes, farms and businesses along its route. The wall impedes businesses, restricts farmers from their land, and cuts off residents from previously accessible family members, education and medical services.”

There are a series of gates along the wall controlled by the Israeli military. If Palestinians living in Bethlehem want to travel to Jerusalem, which is only six miles away, they have to obtain a special visa. First, they must apply for a magnet card, which shows they have a clean record, and then they can apply for the visa to visit, study or work. There are more than 140 Israeli checkpoints in the Palestinian territories.

Each day, more than 80,000 workers go from Palestinian territories into Israel. The gates are crowded, and there are a lot of procedures and required documents.

“Sometimes soldiers just don’t like you and will send you back, and there are always long delays. It is easy to see why many Christians have left the country,” Salsa said.

Visiting the Holy Land is an ordeal for Salsa. As a Palestinian, he is not allowed to fly directly to Tel Aviv. He must fly to

Amman, Jordan, a 12-hour flight. It takes another seven to eight hours to arrive in Bethlehem, if he is lucky. Then, he must

pass through the Jordanian checkpoints, then the Israeli checkpoints and then the Palestinian checkpoints. Each has its own procedures and documentation. Sometimes the Israeli checkpoints close early, so he has to return to Amman and start over again the next day.

Through Land of Peace, Salsa has been visiting churches since 2004, including parishes in the Diocese of Greensburg. In educating parishioners about the plight 

of Christians in the Holy Land, he asks for what he calls

“The 3 Ps”: 

  • Prayer: He asks the faithful to pray for peace in the Holy Land and for the Christians in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
  • Pilgrimage: He encourages people to visit the Holy Land. Catholics believe the Holy Land is the Fifth Gospel; those who read the four Gospels need to see where it all happened. Salsa promises anyone who visits the Holy Land will have a life-changing experience.
  • Projects: One of the projects is wood carvings from blessed olive trees in Bethlehem; Jesus prayed under the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane.

“They do not cut the trees down, they only trim some of the branches. Some of the carvings they sell are made from branches more than 1,000 years old. They receive work from over 400 carvers and their families, and he tries to sell them here to raise money for them,” Salsa said. 

Salsa said he is extremely grateful to the many faithful in the Diocese of Greensburg who have supported his mission and pray for peace, and for those who continue to live as Christians in the Holy Land.


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