Opinion

Palestinian clergy: ‘Annexation could be the final straw for a viable Christian presence in Palestine’

Palestinian clergy address crisis of Christian emigration in letter to diplomatic missions
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“Annexation could be the final straw when it comes to a viable Christian presence in Palestine,” declare pastors representing four of the Holy Land’s historic denominations. “For Palestine, Bethlehem and particularly its Christian population… annexation will be particularly catastrophic.” 

The July letter sent to diplomatic missions in Palestine/Israel—later released as an Open Letter—denounces Israel’s threatened annexation and calls upon the leaders of the world to “stop this severe injustice.” Written by clergy serving seven Christian congregations in Bethlehem and the neighboring towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, the letter continues, “This is land theft! We are talking about land that is largely privately owned and that our families have owned, inherited and farmed for hundreds of years.”

Munther Isaac, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, Academic Dean of Bethlehem Bible College, and one of the missive’s cosigners, says, “The letter came from pastoral needs; we had to speak for our congregants. This is about the future of our community.”

In spite of the recent agreement between Israel and the UAE, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu maintains that plans for annexation are merely on hold. Of the almost thirty missions receiving the letter, only two have responded to acknowledge its receipt, Australia and Slovenia.

Despite Christians’ uninterrupted presence through two millennia, the church leaders in Palestine are deeply concerned about the dwindling numbers of Christian families in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. In Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, the population in 1947 was 85% Christian. Now it is less than 12 percent. Today, of the around 4.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, there are about 46,000 Palestinian Christians, and around 1,100 in Gaza. 

What accounts for the loss?

According to Zionists—both Jewish and Christian—the church’s faithful are escaping violence from their Muslim neighbors and the threat of a growing Islamic empire. The Jewish Virtual Library, hosted by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, maintains, “For the Christian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, life under the thumb of the Islamists threatens their existence as a community and has forced many to flee their homes.” It is a common refrain among supporters of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies. 

Nothing could be further from the truth.  

“As any Palestinian—Christian or Muslim—will tell you, it is the Israeli occupation that is making life unbearable for Muslims and Christians alike,” wrote the Rev. Alex Awad, former pastor of the East Jerusalem Baptist Church and a member of the Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace in an article appearing in the Washington Report in October 2019. 

In 2017, the West Bank’s Dar al-Kalima University surveyed around 1,000 Palestinians, half Christian and half Muslim. Among the study’s conclusions: “the pressure of Israeli occupation, ongoing constraints, discriminatory policies, arbitrary arrests, 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.”

In Isaac’s most recent book, The Other Side of the Wall: A Palestinian Christian Narrative of Lament and Hope, Isaac writes,

In actuality, the Israeli occupation controls every aspect of our lives: water, movement, borders and family reunification, to name just a few. Terms like checkpoints, permits, settlements, and the separation wall define our reality… Injustice and inequality define life in Palestine today.

All of this means that the number of Christians in the land has declined consistently. People, especially young families, both Muslim and Christian Palestinians, are leaving the land and looking for a better life elsewhere. They are seeking opportunity, equality, and freedom which is simply not available to them in Palestine.

In his Washington Report article, Awad acknowledged that “Christians in the Palestinian state feel the pressure of being a tiny minority in a predominantly Muslim society and are even more sensitive to the threats of radical Islam, which endangers them as well as their Muslim neighbors. From time to time, frictions and injustices are experienced by the minority Christians as would be the case for any minority group anywhere in the world.” But Awad, Isaac and other Palestinian Christian leaders refute claims that Palestinian Christians are leaving because of tensions between them and their Muslim neighbors. As Awad wrote, “The biggest challenge to Christians in Palestine is the continuing Israeli occupation.” 

Christians are inextricably woven into the fabric of Palestinian life

Leaders of the thirteen traditional Arab Christian denominations in Palestine are quick to remind the world that Palestine is the cradle of Christianity and that, for two millennia, Arab Christians have maintained the faith’s holy sites and shaped, nurtured and protected Palestinian culture. 

In his address at a 2007 conference, “The Forgotten Faithful” hosted by Jerusalem’s Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Center, Latin Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah said, “We are human beings; we are part of our society, of those who die, of those who go to prison, and of those who houses are demolished. All these people are part of us, and we are part of every human being, of Muslims and Jews alike…. We are part of this conflict because it is not a conflict between Muslims and Jews; it is a conflict about the dignity of the human person, and about human rights and freedom.” [1]

Today, Palestinian churches maintain an extensive system of schools, social work and health care facilities. Their members play a significant role in the Palestinian economy—from agriculture, service and medicine to the key industry of tourism. Less than 2 percent of the total population in Palestine, Christians hold just under ten percent of the top positions in the Palestinian Authority. Christians serve Palestine as ambassadors to foreign countries. In Gaza, there are five Christian schools providing education to 3,000 children, all but under 200 of whom are Muslim. Gazans receive medical services from Christian clinics and an Anglican hospital; a vibrant YMCA provides sporting, cultural and social activities. 

Indigenous Christians, described as “Living Stones,” help visiting pilgrims go beyond their veneration of the holy sites. Christian tourist guides, pastors and leaders of civil society organizations encourage pilgrims to consider how Jesus ministered during the brutality of a first-century Roman occupation, pointing his followers not to life in “the next world” but to the work of redeeming life in this world. At “The Forgotten Faithful” conference, Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan said, “Justice is not political; it is Biblical. It is a spiritual struggle but it arises from a real world struggle to liberate human beings from the sin of oppression and occupation. It is the very essence of the ministry of reconciliation Jesus came to bring us.” [2]

Consequently, the presence of Christians in Palestine presents a unique challenge to the state of Israel—not just because they are part of the so-called “demographic threat.” Christians see themselves as an integral part of the national struggle for liberation—a direct challenge to the state of Israel as it seeks to cast the occupation’s narrative as a religious conflict between Muslims and Jews, and as the state works to promote emigration through its apartheid policies. 

“An open prison” and loss of land for community growth, agriculture and housing 

In spite of the personal, cultural, economic and environmental consequences of the Israeli occupation, most Palestinian Christians would choose to remain in the country of their birth where their families have lived and worked the land for hundreds of years. But permits for housing construction are difficult to impossible to obtain, even when there is available land. As the July letter to diplomats states,

Soon after the occupation of 1967 Israel annexed over 20,000 dunums of land [just under 5,000 acres] in the northern parts of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, for the construction of illegal colonial settlements. This severely hindered our capacity to grow as communities. They have already annexed one of the most important Christian religious sites of Bethlehem, the Mar Elias Monastery, and [by way of the wall] separated Bethlehem from Jerusalem for the first time in the two-thousand years of Christian history in Holy Land.

One of the only areas left for our expansion, as well as for agriculture and simply for families to enjoy nature, are the valleys of Cremisan and Makhrour, both located to the west of our urban areas and under the current threat of annexation by Israeli authorities. This will affect the private property of hundreds of our parishioners… There is a school run by Salesian Nuns in addition to a historic monastery. The western Bethlehem countryside is also in danger, where some of our parishioners have been farming for generations, and this includes the Tent of Nations in Nahhalin. At the same time…, there are threats against the eastern part of Bethlehem, including the Ush Ughrab area of Beit Sahour, where there have been plans for years to build a children’s hospital to serve the local community.

The clergy continue, “Our biggest concern is that the annexation of those areas will push more people to emigrate. Bethlehem, surrounded by walls and settlements, already feels like an open prison. Annexation means the prison becomes even smaller, with no hopes for a better future… in the words of a parishioner this month as he watched his land devoured by Israeli bulldozers preparing the way for more wall expansion: ‘It is devastating. You see bulldozers destroying your land and you can do nothing. No one is stopping them.’”

Other factors encouraging Palestinian emigration

Some “Christian” organizations actually offer to pay Palestinians to leave the land and live somewhere else. As reported by The Intercept in 2018, Executive Director of the Alliance for Israel Advocacy (a lobbying group of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America) Paul Liberman said, 

Our organization advocates, and it’s in our proposed legislation [to the US Congress], we say, let’s offer sponsorship if there are any Palestinian residents who wish to leave and go to other countries, we will provide funds for you to leave… The only rights the Palestinians have are squatter’s rights… If there are any Palestinian residents who wish to leave, we will provide funds for you to leave, with the hopes that over 10 years to change the demography of the West Bank towards an eventual annexation.

In addition,

  • Palestinians Muslims and Christians are frequently denied permits to enter Jerusalem to worship at their holy sites;
  • Israel makes it difficult for Palestinians who leave for work or study to return to Palestine;
  • For several years now, the state of Israel has threatened Israeli NGOs that monitor abuses by Israeli forces and settlers in Palestine and call for an end to the occupation;
  • The US president’s recent unilateral decisions to cut US funding for UNRWA programs and Palestinian hospitals have severely limited availability to social and health services;
  • The US president’s move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his Peace to Prosperity  plan have furthered political upheaval and uncertainty;
  • The governments of the world offer lip service but fail to take decisive actions to end the occupation;
  • The Western church’s indifference to the plight of their Palestinian family isolates the church in Palestine;
  • The Western press furthers the false Israeli narrative that the occupation is the result of a religious conflict between the faiths of Jews and Muslims by seldom covering the lives and contributions—even the presence—of the vibrant Christian community in Palestine. 

Hope when there is little hope

The pastors’ plain-spoken plea to diplomats concludes, “We remain committed to peace with justice, and find strength in the support of many around the world, especially the support of many churches. We hope the world takes decisive and concrete actions to stop this injustice and provide the conditions to restore hope for a future of justice and peace that this land deserves.” 

Patriarch Emeritus Sabbah has said, “As for us, we say: a Christian vision of the future is essentially a vision of hope, a hope based on trust in the goodness of God, as well as in the basic goodness of all human being who are God’s children…. Some of us will leave. But those who remain will live and grow in love for each other and for all of our society.”

For more information, you can read a recent, direct appeal to churches around the world written by Palestinian Christians and their international friends, Cry for Hope: A Call to Decisive Action.

Notes

1. The Forgotten Faithful: A window into the life and witness of Christians in the Holy Land (Editors Ateek, Duaybis & Tobin, 2007, Publisher Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Center
2. Ibid

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“Despite Christians’ uninterrupted presence through two millennia,”

Doesn’t this entitle the Christians to a Christian state in Palestine, into which any Christian can enter and become a citizen immediately?

(Especially since Palestine was a Christian province under the Romans, and a Christian state – the Kingdom of Jerusalem – somewhat later.)