BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Palestinian Christians are watching the civil war in Syria and the unrest in Egypt with great concern, not out of fear for their own safety, but for the safety of their brethren.
While the Christian minority has always been vulnerable in the predominantly Muslim Middle East, the volatility that has shaken the region during the past two to three years has unleashed even more attacks against them.
Many Christians are among the millions of Syrians who have been forced out of their homes, an estimated 1 million of whom are now refugees outside the country, most of them in Jordan and Lebanon.
The Syrian crisis, in particular, has drawn both the world’s attention and donor funding away from Palestinians and toward the Syrian refugees, according to Church officials and humanitarian organizations.
Palestinian Christians recognize that, as tough as their lives are sometimes, they are in a far better situation than many others in the Middle East.
Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of Jerusalem said that Palestinians in the Holy Land “feel great empathy” for the people of Syria, “who are sandwiched between” the Syrian army and the rebels who want to overthrow the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Not surprisingly, Bishop Shomali said, the Palestinians are especially worried about the fate of Palestinian refugees who live, or until recently lived, in Syria.
“When Palestinians are displaced from their Syrian refugee camps, the disaster is doubled,” Bishop Shomali said. “First, they lived as refugees in Syria; and now they are displaced again.”
Despite the financial struggles facing Palestinian Christians, the community has dug into its pockets to help others. Last year, the local churches sent $21,000 to aid Syrian refugees, the bishop said.
“This was a significant donation for them,” Bishop Shomali emphasized.
Christian Humanitarian Organizations
Christian humanitarian organizations are working around the clock to provide refugees with food, clothing and shelter.
The Pontifical Mission-Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) and Catholic Relief Services, in coordination with partners Caritas Jordan and Caritas Lebanon, have been struggling to supply things like cooking oil, rice and beans, soap and cleaning supplies to head off the types of epidemics that routinely hit refugee camps, as well as basics like bedding and pots and pans.
Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, said that funds that would normally come to aid a number of Christian institutions to support Palestinian development projects “are getting rechanneled to meet the humanitarian situation handled by our offices in Amman and Beirut,” the capitals of Jordan and Lebanon.
“Naturally, where there are boiling hot spots around us in Syria and Egypt, the Palestinian-Israeli situation goes to the back burner.”
While the Pontifical Mission’s 2013 budget for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has so far been sufficient to keep programs going, “there is concern for 2014,” El-Yousef said. “If things deteriorate, it may be a difficult year for us.”
El-Yousef said that Palestinian Christians recognize that their embattled Christian brethren are more needy at the moment.
Despite the many hardships Palestinians face due to Israeli checkpoints, which severely hinder their ability to work inside Israel, where wages are competitive, and to see family or even reach churches in Jerusalem, the security situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories is better than it has been in decades.
In contrast, the fighting in Syria, which has killed an estimated 100,000 people, “is cause for great concern for all of the communities, but in particular the Christians,” El-Yousef noted.
Attacks against Egyptian Christians have increased since a July 3 military coup ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who was aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamic party.
“Some in the Muslim Brotherhood are blaming the Christians for Morsi’s ouster from power. It has led to another round of attacks on churches, priests and Christian individuals, the Copts in particular,” El-Yousef said.
In downtown Bethlehem, much of the talk these days revolves around the upheavals in Egypt and Syria.
Sipping an ice coffee with friends at a coffee shop, a 25-year-old Palestinian Christian named Zacharia, who moved to the U.S. three years ago, said that the world’s attention has shifted away from the Palestinians.
“I definitely see that the focus is now on Egypt and Syria, but I don’t begrudge it because other people are suffering now. The Palestinian cause has been front and center for many years. Now other refugees need help.”
Zacharia, who declined to give his last name, said he and his fellow Palestinian Christians — both in the West Bank and the Palestinian diaspora — “feel empathy” with the other refugees “because of what we have been through and are still going through.”
Ziad Bandak, a tour guide and co-owner of the Prince of Peace Bazaar, a store that sells locally made Nativity scenes and other items of Christian interest, insisted that “the world doesn’t seem to be worried about Syrians, Egyptians or Palestinians. Everybody is self-absorbed with their own lives.”
Despite the fact that the events taking place in Egypt and Syria are many hundreds of miles away from Bethlehem, many pilgrims have canceled their trips, fearing for their safety, Bandak said.
“People have booked a package: Egypt, Israel and the West Bank, and they’re worried about going to Egypt. As a result, here in Bethlehem, business is down more than 30%.”
That’s a significant figure, given that Holy Land tourism took a major hit starting at the end of 2000, at the start of the second Palestinian uprising, and only began to recover four years later.
From then on, both Israelis and Palestinians, a large percentage of them Christians, benefited from the upswing until Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of power during a popular revolution in February 2011.
“How can you live?” Bandak asked with frustration about the subsequent negative economic impact.
Standing behind the counter of his housewares store not far from Manger Square, Nasser Nasser agreed that life for the Palestinians isn’t easy, “but if you’re a Christian and live in the Middle East, this is the best place to be.”
Added the Palestinian Christian, “We feel safe here, at least for the moment.”
Middle East correspondent Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.