HOLY LAND CHRISTIANS WORRY ABOUT SURVIVAL
By Donald E. Wagner
It seems that wherever one looks in the Middle East, Christians are leaving. Whether escaping from the 15 years of civil war in Lebanon, the economic and political instability in Syria and Jordan, the grinding poverty of Egypt, the chaos of northern Iraq or conditions in Baghdad, Christians are in exodus. “Fear, human suffering, and hopelessness” have caused so many Christians to emigrate that there is profound concern about the very “continuity of Christian presence and witness in this region,” according to Gabriel Habib, general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches.
One of the most graphic examples is in the Holy Land and Jerusalem. In 1922, Jerusalem had 28,607 inhabitants, of which 14,699 or 51 percent were Christians, according to the statistics of the (British) Mandatory Government of Palestine. In 1978, the Israeli Bureau of Statistics counted only 10,191 Christians out of 93,509 residents in East Jerusalem, or less than 10 percent. Christian leaders such as Bernard Sabella claim that the number has dropped to between 5,000 and 7,000.
Harder hit than Jerusalem are Ramallah and Bethlehem on the West Bank. When Israel was established in 1948 these cities were overwhelmingly Christian. Today, due to political and economic turmoil, over half the Christians have left for Europe or North or South America. More Palestinian Christians from Ramallah live in Detroit and in Jacksonville, Florida, than in Ramallah. More Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem live in Chile and Brazil than in their hometown. Local leaders acknowledge that Palestinian Christians have often had more economic means to leave than their Muslim sisters and brothers, and it is easier for them to assimilate into Western countries.
Christian leaders such as Anglican Bishop Elia Khouri, expelled by Israel to Jordan in 1967, sadly stated: “I give Christianity 10-15 years in Jordan and the West Bank, no more.” The prominent Israeli author Amos Elon recently said that Jerusalem may soon become a mere museum for tourists, “bereft of Christianity as a living religion.”
One of the primary reasons for the Palestinian Christian emigration is the economic crisis on the West Bank. On a recent fact-finding mission there I was told that unemployment is running between 40 and 50 percent in the cities and 8090 percent in the refugee camps. During the strict “house confinement” curfew imposed by the Israeli military from January 16 to March 4, economic, agricultural, medical and educational activities came to a halt. In the rich agricultural district of Tulkarm, on the border with central Israel, greenhouses were ruined and citrus fruit rotted on the trees. Farmers were forbidden from tending their crops and feeding their poultry and livestock. This district alone suffered over $5 million in agricultural losses during the first six weeks of 1991. For the first time in memory, Palestinians told us, several refugee camps and villages went without food. Life has been reduced to mere survival under the Israeli occupation, prompting thousands to leave.
In recent years Palestinian Christian leaders have sensed increased hostility toward their ministries and institutions on the part of Israeli authorities and Jewish settlers. During Holy Week 1990, militant settlers took over St. John’s Orthodox Hospice, adjacent to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with the support and protection of Israeli police. The Israeli government initially denies its involvement until Israeli journalist reported that the Housing Ministry, directed by David Levy (now the foreign minister) had secretly channeled $1.9 million from government funds to help underwrite the venture. This fact has now been confirmed, as has the fact that an additional $2.2 million was raised, and was laundered through a Panamanian bank. Such government-sanctioned illegalities directed against the Christian community leave a bitter taste for Palestinian Christians. Meanwhile, the settlers remain in the building, whey they are reconstructing, while the case enters a second year of legal delays.
Three years ago the Jerusalem Baptist Church called Alex Awad, a Jerusalem native, to serve as its pastor. Citing alleged visa irregularities, the Israeli government has still not granted him the documents he needs to pastor the congregation, which is struggling without a clergy leader. Israel gives no reason as to why his visa has been rejected. Recently the Middle East Council of Churches was denied a work permit for the new director of its Ecumenical Travel Office in Jerusalem, which serves hundreds of Christian pilgrims and tourists each year.
For the first time some Palestinian Christians are reporting incidents of tension with Muslim fundamentalists (sic). “This is a new phenomenon for us,” a priest told me. “Christians and Muslims have always enjoyed harmonious relationships here, because we have the same fate of suffering in the Holy Land. We fought and died together at the hands of the European Crusaders, suffered under the Turks and British, and now under Israel. Never before have we had tension between our communities. I believe it will be a short lived phenomenon, but it bears watching. ”
He went on to enumerate four reasons for the new tension: 1) Muslims’ angry reaction to the U.S. led coalition gulf war and the prominent role of Christian leaders such as Billy Graham and the archbishop of Canterbury in efforts to justify the war; 2) Israel’s encouragement of Muslim fundamentalists as a strategy for dividing the Palestinian community; 3) the fact that some Muslim fundamentalists are unaware that Palestinian Christians have shared a common history and fate with the Muslims throughout history; 4) the increased visibility of pro-Israel Christian fundamentalists, known as Christian Zionists, who blindly support Israel’s policies against Palestinians, including illegal settlement and land confiscation. (Recently the National Religious Broadcasters sponsored a tour of televangelists from the U.S., many of whom support the Christian Zionists. The Israeli government underwrites similar tours for evangelical leaders.)
Most Palestinian Christians believe that Christian-Muslim tensions are orchestrated by the Israeli military authorities and the settlers. Throughout the Israeli occupation there have been attacks on clergy, arson attacks on Christian institutions, and desecrations of church property. These incidents were rumored to be the work of Muslim fundamentalists, but investigations usually led back to Israeli sources. Since January 1991 there have been 13 such incidents in the Bethlehem-Beit Sahour region alone, including robberies in churches and orphanages, arson and desecration of graves. The military has blamed Islamic fundamentalist groups, but local Christians believe the perpetrators are Arabs collaborating with and paid by the military authorities. On Palm Sunday a Melkite (Greek Catholic) Church and convent in Bethlehem was robbed by two collaborators. A priest apprehended one, but the other escaped with 3,500 Israeli sheckels (approximately $1,750 U.S). Christians are having nothing to do with Israeli allegations and are striving to build closer relations with the Muslims.
Despite pressures to leave, Palestinian Christians are constantly reminded of their calling to remain rooted to these historic lands. Christian leaders are urging congregations 0 remember that they have a unique calling to maintain the Christian witness and presence where Jesus lived and the Christian church began. Riah Abu al-Assal, rector of Christ Evangelical Anglican Church in Nazareth, recently challenged us to rethink our understanding of mission and evangelism in the region. “We do not need your missionaries coming here. We need your help to declare a desperate need for a Christian aliyeh (an ingathering and return of Palestinian Christians to Palestine). Only this will save Christianity from extinction in the Holy Land.”
Riah cited several steps Western Christian Churches could take ... Most of all, Western Christians must encourage the U.S. to support the creation of an independent Palestinian state. “This is the most practical and lasting answer to our problem,” Riah told us, “and it is the only answer to bring long-term security to Palestinians and Jews alike. Only when we are free from military domination will we be able to live with dignity as Christians and create our state. Go back and tell your elected officials to implement the UN resolutions on the Palestinian crisis, just as they did with Kuwait. Then we will believe that Americans are seeking justice.”
(Copyright 1991, Christian Century Foundation. Reprinted by permission from the April 24, 1991 issue of THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY magazine.)
Originally published in the September/October 1991 print edition ofThe American Muslim