Occupied Palestinian Territories: still home to Christians

( [email protected] ) Jun 26, 2003 01:23 PM EDT

It is easy to forget that the West Bank, home to so much modern injustice and violence, was once home to other events as well. It was in the West Bank - Bethlehem to be exact - that Jesus was born. And it is in the West Bank that Christians have lived for nearly 2,000 years. To this day, church steeples in many Palestinian towns and villages remind the visitor of the long history of Palestinian Christians in this troubled land.

Their lives, however, have not been easy. The past century has witnessed a startling drop in the number of Christians living in the Occupied Territories (both the West Bank and Gaza). They have emigrated in large numbers. Today, no more than two percent of the population is Christian, compared to as much as 20 percent in 1948. The population of towns like Bethlehem and Ramallah were once over 90 percent Christian, but today, Bethlehem is less than 25 percent Christian while in Ramallah, the percentage is even lower. In fact, there are more Christians from Bethlehem living in Chile and Brazil than in Bethlehem. Similarly, there are more Christians from Ramallah living in the American cities of Detroit and Jacksonville than in Ramallah.

Today, fewer than 50,000 Christians still live in the West Bank (about 2,000 also live in Gaza). Each month, especially during this current intifada, the number has shrunk further. Many fear that this will be the century that the two thousand-year-old Christian community in the West Bank and Gaza disappears.

While not making light of these concerns, it is important to emphasize that the church is still alive today. Christians are heavily involved in running schools and hospitals. Others are organizing centres that foster cultural activities and provide a positive setting in which young people can come together. Each Sunday, people fill the pews of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches alike. And from these sanctuaries, they worship a Lord who passed through the very towns that many Palestinians still call home today.

Heartache, abuse
While Christians in Palestine constitute a small segment of the population, they will express a broad range of opinions and focus when asked about their lives in the Occupied Territories. Many, of course, will share their perspectives on the Israeli occupation. Reportedly, dozens of Christians have been killed by Israeli forces during this intifada, mostly in the Bethlehem area.

Others are well acquainted with interrogation and imprisonment in Israeli facilities. The stories of heartache and abuse at the hands of Israeli soldiers can be heard in every church, and probably in every pew.

For example, two months ago in the northern West Bank village of Zababdeh, one 33-year-old mechanic, a member of the Roman Catholic community, was taken from his shop by a passing military jeep to be used as a human shield while the soldiers fired beside his head in response to a Molotov cocktail that someone had thrown near their jeep. It was his wife's 24th birthday. The practice of taking human shields is illegal according to international law, and Christians - like their Muslim neighbours - share the fear of and anger at being abused by Israeli soldiers who break the law and take advantage of Palestinians.

One of the priests in Zababdeh, Father Aktham, points to another realm in which the Israeli occupation causes difficulty for the Palestinian Christian community. The Shas Party, a right-wing component of Prime Minister Sharon's government, was given responsibility last year for the Ministry of the Interior. Many priests and nuns ministering in Palestinian congregations depend on a work visa to maintain their legal status in the West Bank. For the past year, the minister has refused to renew these visas, leaving some eighty priests and nuns in a very awkward position: they want to be faithful to the congregations they serve, but find themselves no longer with the legal right to be in Israel or the West Bank. The ministry is now in the hands of another party that promises to rectify the problem.

Minority status
While some Christians focus on the occupation as the most crucial issue in their lives today, others are more preoccupied with being a minority in a predominantly Muslim environment. All Christians agree on the injustice and abuse that Israeli occupation has brought into their lives, but there is less agreement on what it means to be a minority in the midst of a Muslim majority. One Christian, for example, may complain about the myriad ways that Muslims discriminate against Christians. The officials who hire teachers at the public school will hire a Muslim over a Christian, he says, because they would rather have a co-religionist than a perhaps better qualified Christian influencing the lives of children. A neighbour, however, disagrees, and points to numerous examples of Christians being treated equally. He even identifies the ways in which Christians have received preferential treatment. For example, Yasser Arafat has a higher percentage of Christians in his government than there is in the population at large.

Some Christians also talk about how their lives are impacted by Western media. Muslims often interpret the movies and sitcoms that are broadcast into Palestinian homes as evidence of the moral failures of Christianity. A naked and unmarried Western couple, frolicking on a Muslim Palestinian's TV set, contributes to the stereotype that Christians are a loose, ungodly people. Palestinian Christians then find themselves having to deal with these associations some Muslims make with Christianity. As one Palestinian priest says, "Western TV hurts us."

Palestinian Muslims who live in areas where there is no Christian population may be ignorant of both the history and presence of Palestinian Christians. For example, some first-year students at the Arab American University, located just outside the predominantly Christian village of Zababdeh, are surprised to discover that some Palestinians are not Muslim. Despite the important role that Christians have played in Palestinian society, some Muslims do not appreciate their contributions to Palestinian history, often because they never learned about them.

Some Muslims accuse Christians of not being involved in the struggle against the Israeli occupation, saying that Muslims suffer for the cause while Christians live an easy life. For Christians, however, this is a painful and false accusation. Christians are sometimes killed, jailed and beaten, just as Muslims are. Christians too are confined to their homes when a town is placed under curfew. Christians also have difficulties at checkpoints and are forbidden to use settler by-pass roads. They too suffer from unemployment and worry about what kind of future their children will have.

Even after recounting some of the above difficulties, Palestinian Christians recognize and speak with pride about the many ways Muslims and Christians co-exist positively in the Occupied Territories. In Zababdeh and other communities, Muslims and Christians attend school together, learning from both Muslim and Christian teachers. Sheikhs and priests sometimes pay visits to one another on important religious holidays, or to discuss community issues. The Palestinian constitution, currently being created, has been sent to church leaders for their review and feedback. Yasser Arafat, when not confined to Ramallah, attends Christmas Eve mass in Bethlehem each year.

Christians and Muslims are united in their opposition to Israeli occupation. There is, however, some apprehension about what an independent Palestinian state might look like once the occupation ends. Islamic movements have taken on an increasingly powerful role in Palestinian political culture, and generally call for the establishment of an Islamic state in Palestine. Christians, on the other hand, along with many other Muslims, are united in their call for a more secular and inclusive political system. For them, it would be a dubious improvement to go from an Israeli occupation to an Islamic state.

The life of Christians in the Occupied Territories is complex. They live amidst the realities of a military occupation. They also live as a small minority in a predominantly Muslim society. And in many ways, they live isolated from the church in other countries, where Christians are often more interested in the aging biblical sites in places like Bethlehem than in the living communities that live there.

(*) 29-year-old Joel from the USA has just completed a stint as an ecumenical accompanier in Zababdeh within the WCC's Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. In the small, predominantly Christian village of Zababdeh, Joel and two other ecumenical accompaniers were working within a loose network of churches and organizations including a Latin Patriarchate convent and secondary school, Greek Orthodox, Greek Melchite and Anglican churches. From their base in Zababdeh, the three ecumenical accompaniers participated in classes at the Arab American University, accompanied school buses, and helped Jenin's YMCA provide food and water for the municipality while it was under curfew. Joel has a BA in Political Science and Sociology, and a Masters in Church History with a thesis on the Palestinian church under Israeli rule. (The Ecumenical Accompaniers are not named in full for security reasons.)