Israel must not be allowed to ostracize Palestinian Christians
Palestine’s Christian population is dwindling at an alarming rate. The world’s most ancient Christian community is moving elsewhere — and the reason is Israel.
Christian leaders from Palestine and South Africa sounded the alarm at a conferencein Johannesburg this month. Their gathering was titled: “The Holy Land: A Palestinian Christian Perspective.” One major issue that was highlighted at the meetings was the rapidly declining number of Palestinian Christians in Palestine.
There are varied estimates on how many Palestinian Christians are living in Palestine today, compared with the period before 1948, when the state of Israel was established atop Palestinian towns and villages. There is near-consensus that the number of Christian inhabitants of Palestine has dropped nearly tenfold in the last 70 years.
A population census carried out by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in 2017 concludedthere were 47,000 Palestinian Christians living in Palestine — with reference to the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Some 98 percent of Palestine’s Christians live in the West Bank, concentrated mostly in the cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, while the remainder — a tiny Christian community of merely 1,100 people — live in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Seventy years ago, Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, was 86 percent Christian. The demographics of the city, however, have fundamentally shifted, especially since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in June 1967 and the construction of the illegal Israeli apartheid wall, starting in 2002. Parts of the wall were meant to cut off Bethlehem from Jerusalem and to isolate the former from the rest of the West Bank.
“The wall encircles Bethlehem by continuing south of East Jerusalem in both the east and west,” accordingto the Open Bethlehem organization. “With the land isolated by the wall, annexed for settlements and closed under various pretexts, only 13 percent of the Bethlehem district is available for Palestinian use.”
Increasingly beleaguered, Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem have been driven out from their historic city in large numbers. According to the city’s mayor, Vera Baboun, as of 2016 the Christian population of Bethlehem had dropped to 12 percent, merely 11,000 people.
Even the most optimistic estimates place the overall number of Palestinian Christians in the whole of the Occupied Territories at less than 2 percent. The correlation between the shrinking Christian population and the Israeli occupation and apartheid should be unmistakable, as it is obvious to Palestine’s Christian and Muslim populations alike.
A 2017 study conducted by Dar Al-Kalima University in the West Bank town of Beit Jala interviewednearly 1,000 Palestinians, half of them Christian and the other half Muslim. One of the main goals of the research was to understand the reason behind the depleting Christian population in Palestine. It concluded that “the pressure of Israeli occupation, ongoing constraints, discriminatory policies, arbitrary arrests, and confiscation of lands added to the general sense of hopelessness among Palestinian Christians,” who are finding themselves in “a despairing situation where they can no longer perceive a future for their offspring or for themselves.” Unfounded claims that Palestinian Christians are leaving because of religious tensions with their Muslim brethren are, therefore, irrelevant.
Gaza is another case in point. Only 2 percent of Palestine’s Christians livein the impoverished and besieged territory. When Israel occupied the Gaza Strip along with the rest of historic Palestine in 1967, an estimated 2,300 Christians lived there. However, merely 1,100 Christians still live in Gaza today. Years of occupation, horrific wars and an unforgiving siege can do that to a community, even one whose historic roots go back two millennia.
Like Gaza’s Muslims, these Christians are cut off from the rest of the world, including the holy sites in the West Bank. Every year, Gaza’s Christians apply for permits from the Israeli military to join Easter services in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This year, only 200 were granted permits, and on the condition that those receiving them must be 55 years of age or older and that they must not visit Jerusalem.
The Israeli rights group Gisha describedthe Israeli army’s decision as “a further violation of Palestinians’ fundamental rights to freedom of movement, religious freedom and family life,” and rightly accused Israel of attempting to “deepen the separation” between Gaza and the West Bank.
In fact, Israel aims at doing more than that. Separating Palestinian Christians from one another and from their holy sites (as is the case for Muslims too), the Israeli government hopes to weaken the sociocultural and spiritual connections that give Palestinians their collective identity. Israel’s strategy seems to be predicated on the idea that a combination of factors — immense economic hardship, permanent siege and apartheid, and the severing of communal and spiritual bonds — will eventually drive all Christians out of their Palestinian homeland.
The correlation between the shrinking Christian population and the Israeli occupation and apartheid should be unmistakable.
Israel is keen to present the “conflict” in Palestine as a religious one so that it can, in turn, brand itself as a beleaguered Jewish state in the midst of a massive Muslim population in the Middle East. The continued existence of Palestinian Christians does not fit neatly into this Israeli agenda.
Sadly, however, Israel has succeeded in misrepresenting the struggle in Palestine: From that of a political and human rights struggle against settler colonialism into a religious one. Equally disturbing, Israel’s most ardent supporters in the US and elsewhere are religious Christians.
Palestinian Christians are neither aliens nor bystanders in Palestine. They have been victimized just as much as their Muslim brethren, and have also played a major role in defining the modern Palestinian identity through their resistance, spirituality, deep connection to the land, artistic contributions and burgeoning scholarship.
Israel must not be allowed to ostracize the world’s most ancient Christian community just to score a few points in its deeply disturbing drive for racial supremacy. Just as importantly, our understanding of the legendary Palestinian “soumoud” (steadfastness) and of solidarity cannot be complete without fully appreciating the centrality of Palestinian Christians to the modern Palestinian narrative and identity.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is “The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story” (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine studies from the University of Exeter. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud