On November 25th, after his Solemn Entry into Bethlehem for the feast of Saint Catherine, the Custos of the Holy Land, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, inaugurated the two seven-story buildings of Saint Catherine’s Residence, each containing 24 apartments for the city’s Roman Catholics.
As part of the Custody’s renovation and construction program, the project meets several objectives:
1. Provides homes for the city’s Christian families.
2. Provides work opportunities.
3. Limits emigration of Christian families.
4. Brings the Custody closer to the people.
5. Increases investment in property ownership in the Holy Land.
6. Preserves and maintains property in the Holy Land for the good of society.
Seventy apartments are currently under construction in Bethlehem as part of this program. Since more than twice that number of families has applied for tenancy, a commission was formed to choose tenants in accordance with objective criteria. Each family has assembled a file indicating their resources, the number of dependents, etc., and the commission’s five
members—the Treasurer of the Custody, Father Abdel Masih Fahim OFM; the parish priest, Father Amjad Sabbara OFM; the director of the Custody’s school, Father Marwan Di’Des OFM, and two members of the community—will make the decisions together, on a case-by-case basis.
Construction of Saint Catherine’s Residence began in July, 2004. At the beginning of November this year the happy families were informed that an apartment had been allotted to them and they could take immediate possession. Each 115 sq. m. apartment includes three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a large living room, a kitchen and a balcony. Although free of ostentation, the Residence is clearly of high quality construction. The Custody of the Holy Land undertakes to give the disadvantaged both quality and beauty. Moreover, project’s cost effectiveness earned kudos for the Palestinian architect, Najib Nasser.
The Custody’s customary rents are $200 per month (160 euros, 860 New Israeli Shekels); the city’s usual rents are from $400 to $600. For purposes of comparison: a Palestinian policeman earns $400 per month (€ 320, NIS 1700) and a professor, around $7-800 (€ 550-630, NIS 3025-3460).
“Although you can survive on $250 to $300 a month in Bethlehem, it’s only starting at $1000 (€ 780) that you can live decently,” says a Bethlehem family man. Few families earn that much. “Before the second Intifada (going back to the year 2000), when the economic situation allowed both parents to work, life was bearable.” The city of Bethlehem in the year 2006 has an employment rate of 60% of the work force. Furthermore, the absence of a Palestinian State and of adequate social and administrative structures in the Palestinian Authority means that there is no system of medical insurance or old age pensions. Families,
therefore, have to try to amass their own savings for life beyond the age of 65, the legal age of retirement.
This helps us to better understand the needs of local residents and the Custody’s efforts to help them.
It is of note that the construction was carried out by local contractors who were selected by bid. The architect, Najib Nasser, is a Palestinian Christian who lives in Bethlehem and has worked on numerous projects for the Custody here and in Jerusalem. His architectural firm employs 26 people: architects, engineers, draftsmen, and secretaries. One hundred other people are foremen, project directors and skilled craftsmen. Two engineers remained permanently on site to supervise the progress of the work.
Project cost for Saint Catherine’s Residence comes to some five million dollars. It is financed by the Custody of the Holy Land, with assistance from Europe and America. Several other projects are in progress at Jerusalem (Bethpage), Jericho, Nazareth, Jaffa, three more buildings in Bethlehem, one of which was financed thanks to a gift from Pope John Paul II, and another at Tripoli, Lebanon.
We recall that the Custody of the Holy lives and works in large part thanks to the gifts of the world’s Christians at the annual Good Friday collection.
In summary, then, this year the world’s Christians are giving the Christians of Bethlehem a new home; a wonderful Christmas present in the city where the Savior and Prince of Peace was born.