Under Pressure, Israel's Arab Christians Reach Out to Pope
On a lonely hill in northern Israel, a stone's throw from the Lebanese border, stands Iqrit church, one of the last vestiges of a village razed by Israeli troops in 1951.
This small, white church is a symbol of the enduring memory and resistance shown by the Christians of historic Palestine who are reaching out for help to Pope Francis, who begins a three-day visit to the Holy Land on Saturday.
In a letter to the pontiff, the people of Iqrit and those of the neighbouring village of Kufr Bir'im, all of them Catholics, beg him to "intensify" efforts to pressure Israel to end the injustice inflicted upon their community.
"We hope that your upcoming visit to Palestine and Israel will serve towards that purpose," it said, describing themselves as internally displaced Palestinians within the State of Israel.
In 1948, six months after Israel was established, the army asked Iqrit's 450 inhabitants to leave their homes for two weeks as a temporary measure due to military operations in the area.
But they were never allowed to go back.
In July 1951, the Supreme Court ruled the villagers should be allowed to return, but the government ignored the ruling. Five months later, on Christmas Eve, the army demolished the entire village, except for the church and its cemetery.
- 'Second-class citizens' -
The Arab Christians of Galilee, who hold Israeli nationality, admit some disappointment that unlike his predecessors, Pope Francis will not be visiting Christian landmarks in the north during his visit.
"There is big disappointment in Galilee, where Jesus and his disciples preached," admitted a Catholic official.
Iqrit's former residents, who number 1,200 and are scattered across northern Israel, are nonetheless hoping they will be able to personally deliver their letter to Francis when he arrives in Bethlehem on Sunday.
"The State of Israel treats us as second-class citizens because we are not Jews. That is the main reason why our right to return has been denied," the letter says.
"But with the strength that we take from our faith, we refuse to become a forgotten community."
Barred by the Israeli authorities from returning to their village for more than six decades, the villagers made their case to Pope John Paul II in 2000, and to Benedict XVI in 2009.
But nothing has changed.
In August 2012, dozens of young people whose families originated from the village set up a makeshift camp outside the church, as they had done every summer.
But this time, instead of camping out for just a week, they stayed and are still living there in prefabricated huts.
"They prevent us from rebuilding and planting trees. But we will stay here. In the years since 1948, we have not forgotten our land, our homes nor our church," said 54-year-old George Sbeit whose parents were expelled from the village.
"The young people are not going to leave. The third generation is stronger, better educated. Before, people were afraid. Today, the young people are not afraid," said Sbeit, a former karate instructor.
His nephew, Walaa, said: "I won't let anybody drive me out".
"I am here and I have the right to be here. We are the third generation, we are the ones who bring back life to this land," said the musician.
- Message of hope -
The letter also raises concerns about the dwindling number of Christians in the Holy Land, blaming Israel's policies for driving "thousands of our sisters and brothers into exile".
According to a survey carried out in April by Dr Bernard Sabella, an expert on Palestinian Christians, 62 percent of those living in Jerusalem want to emigrate due to economic difficulties and the political stalemate.
But whether they are living in Israel, in annexed east Jerusalem or in the occupied West Bank, the Christian community is looking to Pope Francis for encouragement.
"Christian Palestinians are expecting a message of hope (from the pope)," said Father Jamal Khader, who heads the Latin Patriarchate seminary in Beit Jala.
"There is no perspective of peace. So we need the pope to encourage us and to strengthen us," he said.
"He is a man of God, a good defender of all who are suffering, including the Christian Palestinians. We are hopeful he will see first hand what's going on here."