Bethlehem, Palestine—Day Two of the Al-Liqa’ 29th Annual International Conference started with a session on the family and on women in the Church.
The two-day conference of the Al-Liqa’ Center for Religious, Heritage and Cultural Studies in the Holy Land, which was co-sponsored by UPF, was titled “The Reality of the Church and Christians in the Middle East.” It was held in the Convention Palace in Bethlehem.
Approximately 60 people attended the conference in person, and there were about 25 online connections.
On the second day of the conference—November 26, 2022—Session One was introduced by Dr. Yousef Zaknoun, the director of the Al-Liqa’ Center of Religious, Heritage and Cultural Studies, who moderated the session.
His Beatitude Pierre Battista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, offered a prayer and then gave a brief message. He thanked all those responsible for the conference, in particular the Al-Liqa’ Center, for all the arrangements but also for continuing to invest in dialogue, thus keeping hope alive.
He recalled the importance and optimistic tone of the Synod for the Middle East in 2010 and the dramatic changes that followed soon after, with the Arab Spring and political failures leading to the departure from the region of large numbers of Christians.
Yet, key issues remain. Quoting Pope Francis, he mentioned that renewal of the Church happens if we look outside. He emphasized the formation of faith in Christ in communities, the importance of belonging, and of family. Such meetings "help us find insights and intuitions" and ways to work and start improving things.
Msgr. Renzo Pegoraro, the scientific director of the Lanza Foundation and chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for Life, in Rome, gave a presentation on “Ethical Challenges and Scientific Development vis-à-vis the Christian Family.”
In a comprehensive paper, Msgr. Pegoraro addressed four specific areas in which the Christian family is tested by what he called the “encroachment” of scientific and technological development: management of infertility, genetic testing, digital technologies, and end-of-life issues.
His paper went into considerable detail, especially in the first two areas, highlighting the need for and the many benefits of such technologies, while placing them in the context of the fundamental nature and purpose of the family.
For example, on assisted reproductive technologies, he quoted Dignitas Personae (2008): “Techniques which assist procreation ‘are not to be rejected on the grounds that they are artificial. As such, they bear witness to the possibilities of the art of medicine. But they must be given a moral evaluation in reference to the dignity of the human person, who is called to realize his vocation from God to the gift of love and the gift of life.’”
Dealing with digital technology, Msgr. Pegoraro pointed to such phenomena as the modern-day recluse (Hikikomori in Japanese). He quoted Pope John Paul II: “The child … becomes, without realizing it, a slave of this modern passion. Satiating himself with sensations, he often remains passive intellectually; the intellect does not open to the search for truth; the will remains bound by habit which it is unable to oppose.”
This paper combined a clear understanding of both the benefits and the challenges of the new technology, including valuable guidance for families and health care workers.
Dr. Maha Karkabi Sabbah, a senior lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Family Studies, Shfar’am, gave a presentation on "The Impact of Demographic Transformations on the Palestinian Family.”
Illustrating her points with a series of charts, Dr. Sabbah showed that, among Palestinians in Israel, the Christian population had decreased from 20 percent in 1961 to 8 percent in 2020. Seventy percent of these Christians live in the north, she said, and the divorce rate among Christians has become almost twice the divorce rate among Muslims or Druze. Other charts covered fertility rates since 1960; gender gaps in education; and women’s participation in the labor market—which has saved many Palestinian families from poverty.
Dr. Sabbah also addressed the issue of violence in families, pointing out that in Christian families such violence was more often psychological and economic than physical.
A question-and-answer session was followed by a short break
The final speaker in this session was Dr. Vera Baboun, a former mayor of Bethlehem, who is a member of the Palestinian National Council and General Union of Palestinian Women in Bethlehem. Her topic was “Women in the Church: Challenges and Future Prospects.”
These issues involve empowering the presence of Christians and the role of the Church, Dr. Baboun told us, and "tackling the challenges we face, whether we are men or women. Having been granted by God the role of mayor of Bethlehem, I look at these things from both perspectives: as a citizen and as someone responsible."
Combining philosophical observations and realistic experiences, she noted the very small percentage of Christians in Bethlehem, questioning how this had come to pass.
Asked by a journalist whether her Christian faith affected her leadership as mayor of Bethlehem, she said yes: "I am proud to be a Christian and an educated woman." She referred to the leadership of Jesus as redeemer and teacher, combining faith, tolerance, love and mercy and introducing the importance of family and the role of woman.
Going beyond faith and choirs, it is important to build the Christian community that is reflected in all aspects of life, translated into the general good, she said.
She spoke of the suffering of Palestinian women, whose voices are being raised to end domestic violence—described by the Pope as "an insult to God." The Church still has much to do in the area of women's rights, which are still ignored in many communities and some churches, partly due to a patriarchal reading of the Bible.
"I try to link women's dignity and empowerment with the survival of Christians in this land," Dr. Baboun said. She spoke of Christian citizenship, involving the individual's participation in building his/her nation and his/her sense of belonging. As St. Augustine said, the Christian is a citizen in two kingdoms—on earth and of God, and we should participate in both.
Questions and answers followed.