The first synod ever held by the Catholic churches in the Holy Land opened Tuesday amid uncertainty about the future of the Christian minority in a predominantly Muslim region.
   Over 300 bishops, priests, nuns and laymen gathered in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, to discuss spiritual issues and how to prevent the decline in the numbers of Christians due to emigration and concern about their future in a changing Middle East.
   The participants were from Israel, the Palestinian areas, Jordan and Cyprus and represented the Greek, Maronite, Syrian, Armenian and Chaldean Catholic churches, as well as the Roman Catholic church.
   Ibrahim Deabis, a Palestinian and principle of St. Dimitri's School in Jerusalem, said the Christian population of the city has dropped from over 40,000 in 1948 to a mere 5-7,000, due to emigration and a low birthrate. This he attributed to a feeling of insecurity. "To the Jews, the Israelis, we are Arabs, but for the Muslims we are Christians," he said.
   Relations with the Muslim majority under the Palestinian Authority have so far been good, Deabis said, but only laws guaranteeing the rights of the Christians could remove apprehensions about the future.
   "We need laws, not just speeches, so that we will not be at the mercy of changing moods," he said.
   The Vatican representative, Monsignor Claudio Guggerotti, praised the ethnic diversity of the Catholic churches in the Middle East as "a great richness," but he warned them that their only hope of stemming the decline in the numbers of their flock lay in combining their resources.
AP 10/2/00

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