The difficulties of Christians in the Middle East have enabled the region’s Christian communities to unite and bridge their differences, according to the Catholic Church’s new ambassador in the Holy Land, who spoke at the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

“As far as the ecumenical dialogue is concerned I must say that there has been a real improvement as compared to what I experienced here during my work in the early eighties,” said Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto in an interview with the Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need.

“There’s not only a dialogue, but also a genuine community of life. The relations between the different Christian communities have really improved,” he added.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, 158,000 Christians reside in the Jewish state and constitute 2 percent of the population, up from 154,500 in 2011.

Of this Christian population, 80.6 percent are Arab, belonging to a variety of different Christian denominations, including Oriental Orthodoxy, Anglican, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholic (Eastern and Western rites) and Protestant. Relations between these various denominations have been contentious at times during history, especially at Christian holy sites.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the most famous example, where fights sometimes erupt between priests and result in the calling of police. A ladder has sat in the window of the church for hundreds of years due to disagreements over church arrangements, and a Muslim family has had to open and lock the door each day for nearly a millennium.

Israel is one of the few countries in the Middle East that has seen its Christian community grow. An estimated 100,000 Christians have fled the civil war in Syria, while in Egypt Christians are fearful of the rise of Muslim Brotherhood. In the Palestinian Authority-controlled city of Bethlehem—the birthplace of Jesus—the Christian population has shrunk to a third of the town’s residents, down from 75 percent only a few decades ago.