Father Ibrahim Faltas speaks of the project “Jerusalem, Stones of Memory”
Restore, renovate and preserve the housing of the Old City of Jerusalem, thereby guaranteeing to the Christians who live there healthy and safe living environments: “Jerusalem, Stones of Memory” is a wide-ranging project launched by the Custody of the Holy Land and supported by ATS pro Terra Sancta to preserve the presence of those who are the living stones of the Holy Land.
Father Ibrahim Faltas, economist of the Custody of the Holy Land, explains in an interview what motivates the Franciscan friars of the Holy Land to support the Christian presence in these places and how this comprehensive project became a reality within the Old City of Jerusalem.
Father Ibrahim, how many housing units does the Custody of the Holy Land own in the Old City?
The Custody of the Holy Land owns more than 400 homes in Jerusalem, most of which are in need of repair and renovation.
What made you decide to make these available for the local Christians?
We decided to place them at the disposition of the local Christians in order to allow them to remain within the Old City of Jerusalem. This is very important because we as Franciscans are here first and foremost as custodians of the Holy Places, by order of the Pope, and the Holy Places without the living stones, that is to say without local Christians, would not have any value. I think that the local Christians are more important than the stones.
What are the reasons that lead a Christian to leave Jerusalem and his own family in order to move abroad?
The problem of the local Christians is that 90 percent of them are employed in the tourist sector, and when this sector has difficulties, or when there are fewer pilgrims, for example in the summer period or late spring (most pilgrimages take place at either Christmas or Easter), or at times of political crisis or conflict, Christians without jobs tend to leave. This was the case in particular during the second Intifada, from 2000 to 2005, which led to a collapse in tourism, and many Christians left from here, leaving the Holy Cities of Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
What can be done to stop this emigration? What contribution can the Franciscans make?
Our contribution is to make homes available to these people, places to live, because rents here are extremely high, a minimum of about 1,000 dollars per month. Often people cannot afford this, and this is why we are refurbishing and repairing homes, and in some cases constructing entirely new ones, both within and outside the Old City. This also provides job opportunities for people, so that through housing and employment people are able to continue living near the Holy Sites.
A broad restructuring plan for housing units is currently being carried out. How much has been accomplished in recent years and what remains to be done?
There still remains very much to be done, for the moment about a hundred homes are being refurbished, but there are another 300 or so that still need to be done.
Do the younger generations also have the possibility of obtaining housing through the Custody, or will it be necessary to come up with other solutions?
I’m not sure how to answer this, but I do hope that we will be successful in finishing the works currently underway, and renovating as many houses as quickly as possible, even if there are frequently problems with the scheduling: it is a long and complex process. In any event, our objective remains that of giving everyone the possibility to have a home and a job, even if it means buying land and building new houses for these people.
How are the repair and refurbishing works being financed?
Our financing comes from the charitable contributions of ordinary people, and from private donors who want to help us to maintain the living stones in the Holy Land.