On Saturday, Pope Francis sets foot on holy soil, the birthplace of Christianity and a land cherished by a large portion of the world's 7.3 billion people.
The cities he will visit during a three-day trip are etched onto the minds of people everywhere: Capernaum, Jericho, Bethlehem, Nazareth and, of course, Jerusalem. Millions call this region "holy" because it carries immense significance in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Today, Jews feel at home in one part of it. Muslims feel at home in most of it. Increasingly, Christians don't feel at home there at all.
The last 10 years have been tumultuous for all people of the Middle East but, in particular, to its minority Christian population. Many fear their fate in the region will resemble the plight of Christians in Iraq. where, since 2003, more than 70 per cent of the Christian population has fled their homes because of violence directed against them.
Inevitably, minorities are more vulnerable during times of volatility.
On most days, a church or person in the region is attacked because of religious affiliation or belief. Faced with economic stress and fanaticism, many Christians continue to leave the region. Scholars predict that within 15 years, Christians in the Middle East will number just six million, a decline of 45 per cent from the 11 million Christians in the region today.
Although too small in numbers to have a direct impact on politics, Christians have a great responsibility that goes beyond transmitting their faith in the birthplace of Jesus or caring for the sites that played a role in his life. In many cities and towns, contemporary Christians fund and manage institutions that provide desperately needed services to all in the areas of education, health or other essential services. In the West Bank, for example, though representing only one per cent of the local population, Christians provide close to 45 per cent of the social services available to all residents. They also remain one of the most effective platforms for dialogue, co-operation and reconciliation between Jewish, Muslim and other Christian communities -- Semitic or foreign.
That is why Pope Francis has commissioned us to continue our work, in his personal name, in supporting Christians of the Middle East and neighbouring regions all year long through our offices in Jerusalem, Amman, Beirut, New York City and right here in Canada, in the hope we can foster a convivial peace allowing all faiths to survive and thrive in the Holy Land.
I am reassured in knowing Pope Francis will meet with leaders of other faith communities in the region, in particular the ecumenical patriarch of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew of Constantinople, the chief rabbis of Israel, Yitzhak Yosef (Sephardi) and David Lau (Ashkenazi), as well as the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein. This renewed collaboration among spiritual leaders is crucial in our quest to build a road toward peace in the Middle East and everywhere.
But more important than an action-packed itinerary with dignitaries and leaders or visits to shrines, Pope Francis's example of service amid the weak and downtrodden will be the hallmark of his seminal mission to the Holy Land. In sharing meals and visits with victims of war, refugees and the outcast, His Holiness will show us what any peace process must look like by penetrating deep into troubled territory with one purpose -- to serve.
Pope Francis's example also will teach a valuable lesson -- that religions must not be pigeonholed as part of the problem, but rather arise to form a critical part of the permanent solution toward peace and basic stability in the region.
Carl Hétu is the Canadian national director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.