Christians in the Holy Land today, part 2

The separation wall in Bethlehem. (photo: Mary Pneuman)

By Mary J. Pneuman / Bishop’s Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land

[Ed. note: After returning from a recent trip to the Holy Land, the author has updated her previous writings. We offer The Promised Land or the Land of Promise Revisited here in serial form.]

“The future is guaranteed by reaffirming the best in our Palestinian past and present, celebrating our humanity and overcoming the prejudices that come with narrow identities that lead to violence and the exclusion of others.”
— Bernard Sabella, PhD, professor of sociology at Bethlehem University

Population statistics that are both current and reliable are hard to come by because of the shifting demographics now taking place. In his detailed status report A Place of Roots (2014), Dr. Bernard Sabella[1] states that Palestinian Christians in both Palestine and Israel numbered below 2% of the overall population. Inside the State of Israel, the number of resident Christian citizens stood at about 120,000 or about 1.4% of a total Israeli population of 8.3 million. More recent reports seem to indicate that the number of Christians in Israel is actually growing. According to Dr. Sabella, Israeli Christians comprised about 7.1% of its Arab citizenry, and together, Arab Christians and Muslims numbered about 1.7 million or roughly 20% of Israeli citizens. In Palestine, as of his report, the number of local Arabic speaking Christians stood at about 50,000 or 1.1% of a population of about 4.5 million Palestinians. The Christian population of Jerusalem had fallen from approximately 32,000 in 1945 to about 8,000 today. As of 2015, it was estimated that about 38,000 Christians live in the West Bank, centered primarily in and around Bethlehem (down from about 50,000 less than 10 years ago). The National Catholic Reporter (12.16) reported that in 1950, the Christian population of Bethlehem and surrounding villages was about 86% of the total; presently, the number stands at about 11,000 Christians, or 11.7%. Once a predominantly Christian town, Ramallah is now home to 7,000 Christians out of a population of just under 60,000. Figures from 2013 estimate 1,000–1,300 Christians in Gaza (pop. 1.7 million).

In once largely Christian Nazareth, Israel (pop. 75,700), the inhabitants are predominantly Arab citizens among whom about 30% are Christian and 70% Muslim (2015 figures). Nazareth Illit, or upper Nazareth, is the predominantly Jewish sector of Nazareth with a population of about 40,000 in 2014. Developed about sixty years ago on expropriated Arab lands as a planned Jewish community, Nazareth Illit was declared a separate city in 1974. According to CBS News, about 21% of the residents are Arab (7% Muslim and 14% Christian). In 2016, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel petitioned the city on behalf of the 2,600 Arab students that live in Nazareth Illit to provide a school that taught classes in Arabic. Arab children are permitted to enroll in Hebrew speaking schools in Nazareth Illit, but most Arab children have no choice but to go to another city to get an education in their own language. The State of Israel has a compulsory education law that gives all children the right to public education, but Israeli schools are segregated into Jewish and Arab sectors. Arab citizens contribute to the tax revenues that support the public schools in Israel, but resources are distributed unevenly.

While the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 resulted in 60,000 Christian refugees, Dr. Sabella states that more than 72% of Palestinian Christians are now found outside their homeland. While both Christians and Muslims are leaving the Holy Land to escape increasing hardship and discrimination related to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the Christians are seeing the greatest loss in numbers. The ever-increasing rate of emigration by the younger generation, an older Christian population (median age 32), older age of marriage, and lower birthrate compared with the Muslim population contribute to this proportional decline. The fact that so many young Christian women go on to university studies and have successful careers correlates with their later marriage age. When compared with Jewish and Muslim youth in Israel, Christian youth in Israel are more likely to pursue a higher education.

Emigration to the US, Australia and Europe continues, but Palestinian Christians are also emigrating to Central and South America. Now, major Christian diaspora communities are found in Chile and Honduras, Dr. Sabella states. Many of these communities are in their third generation, and roots have been established in the adoptive lands. In addition to living under the Israeli occupation, an additional incentive for emigration is being posed by increasing Israeli and Islamist extremism.

Christians have a history in the Holy Land that goes back to the 1st Century. Palestinian Christians trace their history to the birth of Christ and the early church in the Holy Land. Some families can trace their Christian lineage to the 5th Century, according to Sabella. The wife of the present archdeacon of the Diocese of Jerusalem has said that her family was one of them.

Greek Orthodox and Melkite (Greek Catholic) denominations stem from the Chalcedonian Council in 451 CE which established a patriarchate in Jerusalem. The Latin (or Roman Catholic) church was first established during the crusades when the Franciscan Order assumed custody over the holy places in 1217. The Anglicans joined with the Lutherans in 1841, and the Church of England took over the bishopric in 1886, when the two denominations went their separate ways. Now there are 13 Heads of Churches in the Holy Land.

For many years, Christians have played a significant role in the civil society of Israel and Palestine, especially in the areas of civic leadership, education and healthcare. Dr. Sabella reports that in 2014 there were 65 schools with 25,000 students and 2,500 teachers. Two universities in Bethlehem are run by Christians; the secular Birzeit University near Ramallah was founded by Christians. Bethlehem University was established by Pope Paul VI in 1964. With one exception, my visits to the many schools run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem have shown that over half of the students were Muslim. We were told that their parents regarded Christian schools as providing higher quality education than the government schools of either the Palestinian Authority or Israeli government.

In the healthcare sector, Christians head up 30% of the medical services and hospitals, including Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem and the Anglican hospitals, Ahli in Gaza, St. Luke’s in Nablus, and Princess Basma Center for Disabled Children in Jerusalem. The Lutheran World Federation runs the Victoria Augusta Hospital on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Sabella notes that there are scores of church-related clinics in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. With regard to civil society, over 50% of the NGO’s and 80% of the human rights organizations in the Palestinian territory are headed by Christians.

Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem, along with the nearby villages of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, remain the major Christian population centers in the West Bank. Currently, Palestinian Christian communities are predominantly urban and middle class, according to Dr. Sabella, although a few smaller towns in agricultural areas, such as Zababdeh and Taybeh, have continued to maintain strong Christian populations. In 2016, we were able to visit both.

Zababdeh, which is in the olive growing hill country in the northeast corner of the West Bank, has large Orthodox, Melkite and Latin communities and a very active Episcopal parish (St. Matthew’s) with a large number of youth and young families. We stayed in a guestroom maintained by the church and spent time visiting in the homes of two Christian families with whom we have maintained contact since Janet and Rowieda were guests of the Diocese of Olympia in 2010. Both women and their husbands are working, and their teen-aged children and young families are still at home or married and living nearby. Both are active in the life of their church. Janet had recently been denied permission to visit Jerusalem at Easter because, she believed, she had run for a city office. Roweida works at the nearby American University and avoids politics. Displaying the outgoing generosity so typical of the Palestinians we have met, both families sent us home loaded with jars of olives picked from their own trees and packed in olive oil. While we were in Zababdeh, electrical power, which has to be purchased from Israel, was cut off from the village for “planned maintenance” on Sunday morning just as people were going to church, so there was no power to ring the electronic bells. Power outages are common, and usually unexpected.

In Taybeh, about eight miles northeast of Jerusalem, Melkite, Orthodox and Latin Catholic churches predominate, but as in Ramallah, different religious traditions worship together on Easter and Christmas. In 2013, when Israeli settlers attempted to take over Taybeh’s monastery, youth from Taybeh and surrounding Muslim villages drove out the settlers. Here is located the famous Taybeh brewery, which boosts the local economy by helping farmers in fair trade bottling of olive oil. Maria Khoury, a member of a Christian family, greeted us warmly when our pilgrimage group visited the brewery — where we enjoyed sampling their many good beer varieties. In a kind of reverse migration, the Khoury family returned to their family home during the optimistic period following the 1995 Oslo Peace Agreement and invested in a microbrewery, having learned to make home brew while living in Boston. Taybeh beer is sold in Israel and now brewed under license in Germany and is popular in Japan, but shipments must go through checkpoints and long delays in the sun to get to market.

Maria Khoury has a doctor’s degree in education from Boston University and is the author of Orthodox Christian children’s books, including the beautifully Illustrated Christina Goes to the Holy Land,[2] which walks a child in the footsteps of Christ, and Witness in the Holy Land, which describes her experiences living under military occupation with her husband, the former Mayor of Taybeh, and their three children. Her articles have been published world-wide in numerous newspapers and magazines and have been translated into various languages, helping to bring awareness of the Christian presence in the Holy Land.

Sharing a common language and culture, indigenous Christians have lived peacefully with Palestinian Muslims for centuries and have played a role in helping to maintain positive relationships with Jews. Until 1948, many considered themselves Blood Brothers.[3] There was general agreement among those with whom we spoke on our 2016 pilgrimage that the Christian exodus was the result of continued loss of human rights and economic opportunities, not the result of conflict between Christians and Muslims. In the Christian Post (7/14) the Rev. Alex Awad, professor at Bethlehem Bible College, challenged the notion that the Muslims were causing Christians to leave. “In Palestine, Muslims and Christians have been hand-in-hand” resisting the Israeli occupation, he said; we “share the same feelings and suffering” related to the difficulties of living in Palestine, not overt discrimination toward Christians. “As Muslims suffer, so do we Christians,” a Catholic shop owner on Bethlehem’s manger square told me. Muslims are leaving too, but their population decline is less dramatic because of the proportional difference in their numbers compared with the Christians, who also are more connected with the Western churches.

Quoting one Palestinian who said, “We are children of the land which nourished this civilization . . . we are Arabs as much as any resident in the Arab land is Arab,” Dr. Sabella states that a “significant minority” of Christians see their Christian identity as a defining characteristic. For the most part, religious identity is secondary to their Arab Palestinian identity. In this sense, an Arab identity is the tie that connects the disparate parts of Palestinian society.

However, there are some signs that these ties are beginning to fray. In Muslim-Christian Relations: Historical and Contemporary Relations,[4] Jane Smith of Harvard Divinity School states that Christian-Muslim relations in the broader Middle East are at the lowest point since the Crusades. She writes that Christian concerns about the recent rise of political Islam and implications for a future Palestinian state based on religious precepts. Christians in Muslim dominated areas generally favor separation of religion and state, while some Muslim factions argue that the two cannot be separated. Christians seek a state founded on individual freedom and equality, but the trend in recent times in the Middle East has been toward theocracy, not democracy. High on the list of concerns for all Palestinians is the rapid expansion of Jewish settlements and the current talk in Israel of becoming a Jewish state.

Additional strains on Muslim-Christian relations are coming in the form of right-wing evangelical support of Israel as the land promised to the Jews and the “well-funded Islamophobia industry in the United States that has been producing and distributing large amounts of anti-Muslim material” at an estimated cost of more than 40 million dollars each year, says Smith.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, assistant editor for foreign policy at the Washington Post (12.23.16) writes that the existence of Palestinian Christians and the difficulties they face under Israeli occupation “is a blind spot” for many American Christians. While hearts and minds turn toward Bethlehem at Christmas, many do not ponder who lives there now, or under what conditions. In recent years, a number of mainstream denominations have been advocating for their Palestinian brothers and sisters, but more fundamental evangelical Christians believe that support for Israel is an inherent Christian duty. Allen-Ebrahimian cites a 2013 Pew Research survey that found that more than 80% of evangelical Christians believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people, although only about 40% of American Jews agree. She also states that the degree that many of these Christians are conservative Republicans correlates with an American foreign policy that places a premium on Israeli security because of the belief that Islamic terrorism is the basic cause of the problems for Israelis and Palestinians.

Palestinian Christians tell us that the unconditional support for Israel from American so-called “Christian Zionists” complicates their relationship with their Muslim neighbors by creating distance, dissonance, even distrust. Dr. Sabella points out that with “the increased politicization of religion in the region and beyond, Christians [have] tended to react by withdrawing inward, thus heightening their religious identity . . . a yearning for one Arab homeland has been replaced by a religious identity which tends to exclude others not of the same religion and hence increase the feeling of marginalization among Arab Christians.”

We saw signs of fatigue and resignation during the time we spent in Ramallah, where disappointment with the failure of the Palestinian Authority to bring about a Palestinian state — or at least an improvement in their daily lives — was often expressed. People seemed to feel isolation and despair, almost to the point of losing hope. We also sensed the erosion of generational cohesion and unravelling of traditional culture and mores. In our short time with 9th– and 11th-graders, we witnessed disrespect for the teacher and heard cynical views of the future. The occupation leads to a dead end.

Samir Qumsieh, the owner of Nativity TV, the only Christian TV station in Palestine and a researcher focusing on Christian issues said, “I hope it won’t come to be that the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher will become museums, but the fact on the ground is dark and gloomy.” His own family is an example. One of six highly-educated bothers, four of whom are engineers, Qumsieh is the only one still living in Palestine. His two sons, studying in the US, laughed when asked if they were coming back to Bethlehem after graduating. The two sons of our own tour leader were also students in the US. It was not clear where they would live after completing their education, but there was hope for their return.

Very occasionally, the Israeli High Court has ruled in favor of the Palestinians. In 2012, Israel resumed construction of the wall in the Cremisan valley, one of the last green areas in the Bethlehem district with large stretches of agricultural land. Designed to separate the neighboring city of Beit Jala from the settlement of Har Gilo, Israel claimed the purpose was to stop terrorists, but it was clear that this route allowed for the effective annexation of more Palestinian land. According to B’tselem, a major Israeli human rights group, 85% of the route fell inside the West Bank instead of following the Green Line, the recognized boundary between Israel and Palestine. The planned route was to run through the valley on land owned by 58 Christian families, separating a monastery and winery, its sister convent, and the school children from their school. After a nine-year court battle between the families and the state of Israel, the Vatican and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops were instrumental in obtaining a ruling in favor of keeping the monastery and convent connected on the Palestinian side of the barrier, thus illustrating the importance of international intervention in the name of justice.

What do Palestinians think about the future? A 2016 survey by Pew Research Center of native-born Arab Christian and Jewish residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem showed that nearly three quarters of the Christians believed that Israel cannot be both a democracy and a Jewish state. Israeli Christians opposed the settlements that the Jewish state is building in the West Bank, and 79% believe that the continued settlement program hurts the security of Israel. Almost 9 in 10 Christians expressed a strong Christian identity, and more than half said their faith was very important to them, but most were pessimistic about the possibility of a viable two-state resolution or reversing the tide of Christian emigration.

“It is difficult to imagine a time in history at which there is greater need for serious interfaith engagement than now,” says Jane Smith. “The future is guaranteed by reaffirming the best in our Palestinian past and present, celebrating our humanity and overcoming the prejudices that come with narrow identities that lead to violence and the exclusion of others,” says Dr. Sabella. He concludes his report with an affirmation by Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah who believes that there is “no option but to stay on the land.”

While they may be shrinking in number, it is clear that Palestinians who plan to remain in their homeland cling to the belief that in God’s time justice and peace will come to the Holy Land, and their ancient traditions of worship and still vibrant churches and mosques offer testimony to deep and continuous roots in the land. There is a moral imperative for us to find ways to help them stay.

Read the full paper here →

[1] Bernard Sabella, PhD is a professor of sociology at Bethlehem University, active in Middle East Council of Churches, and a former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

[2] Christina Goes to the Holy Land is distributed through

[3] Blood Brothers-expanded Edition; by Elias Chacour and David Hazard; Chosen books, 2003

[4] Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion; “Muslim-Christian Relations: Historical and Contemporary Realities” by Jane Smith; April, 2015.

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