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“How do we ensure that the charism of these institutions remains strong? What does it mean to be a Christian institution? Does it mean there are merely statutes on campus, a crucifix in every hospital ward, or is it more about the values that govern the institution?”

This challenge, he maintains, is best handled through proper recruitment and formation to ensure that lay leaders and staff fully understand and embrace the charism of the religious congregations that founded these apostolates of service.

Yet emphasizing one’s identity — even, or perhaps especially, in an institutional context — can be a sensational thing in an increasingly polarized setting such as Jerusalem. The city of 880,000 people includes some 370,000 Palestinian Muslims, 500,000 Israeli Jews and a small pocket of about 10,000 Palestinian Christians, 60 percent of whom live inside the Old City. While numerically marginal, this group plays a critical role in times of tension, advocating "for the values of tolerance, coexistence and the respect for human dignity,” Mr. El-Yousef says.

“No matter what happens, you don’t hear Christians calling for revenge. ... This places a huge burden on our shoulders, but it’s something many of us understand and accept. Those who find it too burdensome tend to pack up and go, and this is why we've seen waves of Christian emigration from here — especially after conflicts.”

The pattern of this emigration, however, has grown more pronounced in recent years. For example, in Bethlehem, the population was 80 percent Christian 80 years ago. Today, Christians make up a mere 18 percent of residents of the town where Jesus was born.

In the face of precipitous population decline, Christians have banded together, attaching less and less importance to the divisions between the Church of Jerusalem’s constituent communities.

“Historically speaking, the various churches that constitute the Church of Jerusalem possess institutions and properties; and each church is still protective about its own interests,” Mr. El-Yousef says.

“On the level of the people, however, you see those divisions less and less. Fifty years ago, it was clear which church you belonged to: Greek Orthodox, Latin Catholic, Syriac Catholic, etc. As Christians continue to emigrate, and as the numbers continue to dwindle, those divisions no longer have the same meaning.

“Now, you’re Christian, period.”

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