As I come to the end of my time in Bethlehem the various Christian communities have only just finished celebrating Christmas. So it is appropriate to reflect here on the situations of Christians in Palestine.
On Christmas Eve, Bethlehem’s Nativity Church was packed with people, for Midnight Mass. In his message, the Bishop referred to the future of Palestine’s dwindling Christian population, telling the community that the solution to its troubles did not lie in emigration, or closing in on itself.
As the shock waves of the Arab Spring continue, I notice the media references to the persecution of Christian communities in Egypt and elsewhere. Let’s not forget that all the people in these areas are suffering. Meanwhile Western, and Israeli reporting frequently gives a troubling distortion to the truth when it comes to the Christian community in Palestine.
For instance, ‘The Times of Israel’ capitalised on Christmas by claiming that the Christians in Bethlehem, and other parts of what it referred to as ‘the Territories’ – as opposed to the [Israeli] occupied Palestinian territories – are declining in numbers because Muslims are persecuting them. As EAs in Bethlehem, we meet many Christian Palestinians – Bethlehem city is 40% Christian, 60% Muslim. Both communities totally refute this Israeli allegation. At our EAPPI handover ceremony at Jerusalem’s Church of the Redeemer in November, Bishop Munib Younan charged us with telling people at home that Christian Palestinians are not being persecuted by Muslim Palestinians. Muslim and Christian Palestinians regard themselves as two entwined threads of the same community. ‘We are all Palestinians’ they tell us. Both are suffering hugely because of the Israeli Occupation.
The Christian population of the occupied Palestinian Territories (oPts) and Israel has indeed declined, but that decline has happened since 1948. Before this, at the end of the British Mandate, Christians were about 10% of the population of Palestinian Muslims, Christians and Jews. In 1948, nearly one million Palestinians – both Christians and Muslims – fled from the Israeli militias during the Nakba, when the state of Israel was created. Many became refugees in the West Bank and Gaza initially, but the Israeli occupation of 1967 caused a further, continuing flood of Christian Palestinian emigration. As a result, 80% of the world’s one million Christian Palestinians now lives outside Palestine and Israel. It is the oppression of life under Israeli occupation that has driven out the Christians, for whom it is easier to find refuge in the West.
Recently, I visited the home of Naim Sarros, a Christian Palestinian farmer, on his land near Bethlehem. It was the day that an NGO run by a Muslim Palestinian was installing solar panels to provide Naim with electricity. Until then his only electricity supply had been from a car battery. Naim and his brother are forced to live in a tiny one-room house, with no electricity, or basic services, and these conditions mean that their wives and children cannot live with them. Meanwhile, the illegal Israeli settlements that now surround Naim’s land are modern and fully serviced with electricity, water, good roads and communications. Naim’s grandfather registered ownership of his land during the British Mandate (before Israel was created in 1948), so Israel cannot confiscate it as State land. So since 1967, the Israeli Occupation authorities have been encouraging Naim and other Palestinians to abandon their land ‘voluntarily’, by refusing them access to basic services; they will not allow him to build anything on his own land, extend his house or even make essential repairs to it. This is because he is Palestinian. It does not matter whether he is Christian or Muslim; he is not Jewish.
Kairos Palestine, (see http://www.kairospalestine.ps/), a document written by leaders of the Palestinian Christian community, confirms this and appeals to the world to help end the suffering of all Palestinians by ending the Israeli occupation.
‘Our presence in this land, as Christian and Muslim Palestinians, is not accidental but rather deeply rooted in the history and geography of this land… It was an injustice when we were driven out…. We also declare that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights,
bestowed by God.
The greatest dismay of Palestinian Christians is the way that their suffering (together with that of Muslim Palestinians) is so often forgotten and ignored by fellow Christians abroad; even justified by so-called Christian Zionists. Kairos Palestine declares that any theology that legitimises the occupation is far from Christian teaching, because it supports violence in the name of God.
Jean Zaru (Clerk of Ramallah Quaker Meeting) often speaks of her frustration at repeatedly explaining to Christians abroad that there are Christian Palestinians, only to be asked when they converted to Christianity. As Jean points out, the Palestinian Christians are the descendants of the earliest disciples of Jesus.
Our support for the Christian community in Palestine is vital. Although the Christian population of the West Bank is now less than 2%, it plays a significant role in promoting non-violent solutions to the conflict.
This brings me to a recent conversation with an Israeli Pro-Palestinian rights activist, which illustrates the confusion and mythology around race, religion and identity in Israel-Palestine. He told me he had watched the Bethlehem Midnight Mass on TV…
‘But,’ he told me, ‘the Bishop said Jesus was a Palestinian!’
‘What do you mean, Yes?’ he said indignantly, when I nodded, ‘ Jesus was a Jew!’
‘Well, a Jewish Palestinian – a Jewish Arab.’
‘What do you mean?’ he exclaimed ‘the Muslims didn’t come until much later.’!
And one more EAPPI Christmas story to help us ponder our need to wake-up and challenge our own creation myths, rather than allowing other to manipulate us with them:
On the way back from a visit to the beautiful St Saba monastery on Christmas Day, a group of EAs stopped for a cup of shai mar halib (tea with milk, British style!), at the Shepherds’ Field in the Beit Sahour area of Bethlehem. Inside, we watched pilgrims kissing a white, blonde, baby-doll, and our driver told us the story of the Shepherds’ Field…
‘here, the shepherds saw the star and the Angel Gabriel told them Jesus had been born. The Angel told them to go straight away to see the baby at the Nativity Church’.
Wishing you all a Happy 2014 and a Just Peace for Palestine.