There's a danger that someday the Christian community in the Holy Land will disappear, leaving only lifeless Christian museums and historical sites.
That was the message from David Scott, of Edwardsville, guest speaker at the Nov. 22 breakfast meeting of the St. Charles Catholic Business & Professional Association in St. Charles.
Scott, a restaurateur who owns Salt, in the Central West End of St. Louis, told about 100 people about his first visit to the Holy Land in January 2009. He was struck by the precarious plight of Arab Christians living there.
"You're in a place in the world where you'd think Christians should be thriving and it is not like that," he said. "You have this small and ever-diminishing Christian population."
Scott is a member of the Sovereign Order of the Temple of Jerusalem, a worldwide organization that models itself on the Knights Templar, a chivalrous military group of Crusader knights who for two centuries fought in the Holy Land and protected Christians. The modern-day group is charitable, not militaristic.
While overseas Scott met with the president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, a group formed in 1994 to safeguard the continued presence of the Christian minority in the Holy Land and to uphold their basic human rights.
The Franciscans provide scholarships, subsidized housing and employment opportunities. They also maintain the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is where Christians believe Christ was entombed prior to his resurrection.
"I do not normally think of Christians when I think of Palestinians or of Arabs," Scott said. But that is the case in the Holy Land, he said.
"These people are probably the descendants of the shepherds who were out in the field," he said. "They are still faithful.
"They are a tremendously persecuted people," he said.
Although many Christians might be unaware their situation, it's something Pope Benedict XVI addressed in 2006:
"The profound insecurity, lack of work, innumerable restrictions and consequent poverty of the Christians in the Holy Land are a cause of pain to us all. It is a situation that makes the family future of young generations extremely uncertain, tempting them to leave forever the beloved land of their birth."
Scott visited Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem and, according to Christians, the birth place of Jesus.
The city of about 30,000 was once 90 percent Christian. That number is now below 30 percent, according to Scott.
Some attribute the decline to the fact that Christians lost land to Israeli settlements. Others attribute it to what they see as the overall persecution of Christians in the Holy Land by Muslims.
There are few work opportunities in the city for Christians, he said.
Scott also visited Temple Mount, known by Muslims as Haram ash-Sharif. The site is holy to Jews and Muslims. The structure was built as a mosque in the first century. It is one of the most contested religious sites in the world and is managed by Muslims in a section of Jerusalem that has been controlled by Israel since 1967.
Jews believe it is on sacred land where two ancient temples were built and destroyed. Muslims view the site as their third holiest shrine and believe it is where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
"We, as Christians, are not allowed in," Scott said.
But for a small payment, he added, an enterprising Muslim businessman will let you peek inside.
Scott told his audience he also visited the Pool of Bethesda and walked the Via Dolorosa, or stations of the cross.
"These are real places," he said. "These are places we hear about every day, every week."
What Christians in the Holy Land want more than anything, he said, are the thoughtful prayers from Christians around the world.
"They believe that active prayer can really make a difference," he said.
Scott offered these websites for those who want more information or who want to donate:
• Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, ffhl.org
• Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, elcjhl.org
• Sovereign Order of the Temple of Jerusalemsmotj.org/charitable_works/index.html