Dehumanization of Palestinians Is Being Normalized Among Western Christians, Palestinian Analyst Claims

Khalil Sayegh, a Christian from Gaza whose family has been hard hit by the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, talks about the tragedy facing his people and the reasons that have led Christians to flee the region in recent decades.

Palestnian children sit on their family’s belongings upon their arrival in Khan Yunis from Rafah as people moved to safer areas further north in the southern Gaza Strip, following renewed Israeli strikes on May 28 amid continuing battles between Israel and Hamas.
Palestnian children sit on their family’s belongings upon their arrival in Khan Yunis from Rafah as people moved to safer areas further north in the southern Gaza Strip, following renewed Israeli strikes on May 28 amid continuing battles between Israel and Hamas. (photo: BASHAR TALEB / AFP via Getty Images)

In recent months, Khalil Sayegh has become one of the main faces and voices of the 1,000 or so remaining Christians in Gaza, dozens of whom have lost their lives since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023. 

Khalil Sayegh
Khalil Sayegh(Photo: Courtesy of Khalil Sayegh)

His family has been particularly affected by the brutality of the events that have swept through Gaza since that date. Last December, his father, Jeries, died of a heart attack in Gaza’s Latin Catholic Holy Family Church, where he had taken refuge after the destruction of the family home, deprived of access to basic health care. 

Last month, it was his younger sister Lara, 18, who died of exhaustion and dehydration as she tried to flee to Egypt with her mother. 

From Washington, D.C., where he has been living and studying since 2021, Sayegh has helplessly received the tragic news of his family’s descent into a hellish situation. 

In September 2023, shortly before the outbreak of war, he founded Agora Initiative with Israeli scholar Elazar Weiss, with the aim of promoting constitutional democracy in the Middle East and fostering the emergence of new peace and coexistence-oriented initiatives in the Holy Land. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from American University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in human rights at The Catholic University of America. 

Having lived most of his life in Gaza and the West Bank, he has long worked in the humanitarian field. For several years, he has produced analyses of Palestinian political life and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a wide range of international organizations and media, including the nonprofit Christian advocacy Philos Project, Israel Policy Forum, J Street, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, ABC Australia, and Al Jazeera. 

He also holds a bachelor's degree in biblical studies from Bethlehem Bible College.

In this interview with the Register, he looks back on the dramatic events that have struck his people in recent months and gives his personal view of what is at stake for the region’s Christians in the ongoing conflict.


You and your family are from Gaza, and you’ve experienced in your own flesh — to say the least — the ordeal of war. How is the situation for your relatives who are still there and for Christians in general? 

Like the rest of the population, they are starving. They have problems with medical supplies, food, water — they lack everything. 

Four percent of the Christian population there were killed since the beginning of the war, most of whom were killed in the Israeli airstrike of the compound of Greek Orthodox St. Porphyrius Church. My father passed away inside the Catholic church when the tanks were surrounding the building and weren’t allowing ambulances or any sort of medical help to reach it. 

My sister died as she was walking from north to south, in what is called a “safe road,” where no medical teams nor ambulances are allowed in. It is a seven-kilometer road on which refugees must walk for hours under very hot weather, with snipers behind you, ready to shoot you if you move in any way. My mother, who was with my sister when she passed, is now in Cairo, Egypt; she could cross the border right before it was closed by the Israeli army. 

Like the rest of Gazans, Christians are being killed either directly through airstrikes, or, indirectly, through the deliberate destruction of health-care facilities. Even Christian hospitals like that of the Anglican Church were partially destroyed by rockets, and Caritas is no longer operating in Gaza. 


You often lament the lack of solidarity from Western Christians on social media. What makes you think that? 

I’m seeing that dehumanization of the Palestinians is being normalized among a number of my Christians brothers in the West because of their support to Israel, and that causes me great sadness. 

I would say that it is more of a tendency that comes from the evangelical world, while the Catholics are generally more compassionate. But I know from experience that pro-Israel organizations are investing a lot in creating new Christian Zionism streams within the Catholic world, which makes me fear that there will soon be no voice left to advocate the cause of the Palestinians in the Western Christian world.


But this distancing of some Christians in the West is also due to the fear of a resurgence of antisemitism in the Arab world and the fact that Israel is fighting for its very survival amidst hostile countries. Some also argue that, in Gaza, the terrorist organization Hamas that killed some 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7 was elected and is still supported by a majority of the population, which also includes nationalist Christians.

Such a statement [about supporting Hamas] that we regularly hear is literally genocidal. Even if it was true, it wouldn’t allow an army to kill innocent civilians, mostly women and children. No Christian — whether Catholics, Orthodox or Protestant — with basic notions of the just-war tradition can tolerate that, just as they should never tolerate what happened on Oct. 7. 

Now, more than 60% of Gazans weren’t even born when Hamas was elected in 2007. Then, the electoral system in Gaza is indirect; it is similar to that of the U.S. Fatah actually had more votes than Hamas, but they lost at the level of electoral districts. 

Secondly, the mix between political party and terrorism is no stranger to Israel either. Two ministers in the current government, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, respectively Minister of National Security and Minister of Finance, belonged to the Kach party, dissolved in 1994 and classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S.A. and other countries. 

You can’t put a fighter, a soldier or a terrorist on the same level as a simple supporter of a movement — for example, an old woman who never left her home and believes Hamas could improve her conditions of life.

When you come to punish an entire nation for the sin of some who belong to that nation, you return to a pre-biblical justice system, where the individual has no meaning anymore; the collective is what matters. What kind of civilization is that? It is literally paganism. 

Then, it's not true that Israel is surrounded only by enemies who want to destroy it; it has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and Jordan helped it fend off Iran's drone attack in April. Also, today in Gaza, we're seeing an increase in the support for a two-state solution; the majority of Palestinians there are in favor of this political solution.


Some Christians in the region, such as Shadi Khalloul and his NGO (nongovernmental organization) Israeli Christian Aramaic, openly support the Israeli government, mainly on the grounds that Christians are widely discriminated against in Palestine and that their presence in the region is threatened by an irreducibly conquering Islam.

There’s definitely discrimination against Christians in Palestine. It’s not legalized or institutionalized, but it’s a society fact. It must be said that if you compare Palestine with other places such as Jordan, Egypt or Syria, the situation for them is much better, mostly because Palestinian nationalism was founded by Palestinian Christians, such as George Antonius, Khalil al-Sakakini and other devout Christian thinkers. This is an inclusion factor.

It’s also a well-known fact that the strategy of Israeli leadership in past years has been to weaken secular nationalist parties, many of which had Christian roots, even if this meant  radical Islamist groups to develop. Now, with the rise of Hamas in 2002, radical Islam became more and more popular, which of course had a terrible impact on religious minorities. 

However, that’s not the main reason why Christians have been leaving. A 2020 poll, conducted by the Palestinian Center of Surveys and commissioned by the Philos Project, showed that the No. 1 reason why Christians want to leave Palestine is economics, No. 2 is the conditions of Israeli occupation such as checkpoints, settlers’ attacks and land confiscation, and then came the fear of the rise of radical Islamic groups.


How do you explain that Israel is the only place in the Middle East where the Christian population has been growing over the past decades?

Correlation does not imply causation. This fact doesn’t mean Christians are treated much better in Israel than in Palestine. Palestine is under occupation.

If you’re a Christian or Muslim living in Palestine, it’s very likely that at some point you’ll be stopped and stripped by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints in the West Bank for no reason at all. As a Christian from Palestine, this has happened to me some 17 times simply because I'm Palestinian. Being a Christian doesn’t help you, unfortunately.

In economic terms, the catastrophic impact of checkpoints throughout the West Bank has been documented by the World Bank in recent years. If you want to send a piece of paper to Palestine, it will take three or four weeks for it to arrive, while the Israelis check it, because we have no border with the outside world.

On the other hand, you’ve got Israel, a country that has the same standard of living as Europe, sometimes even better. Therefore, more people are willing to move there. Some of them are also non-indigenous Christians, Jews who converted to Christianity, Messianic Jews coming from Russia or America. 


You stated on social media that you’re currently seeking asylum in the U.S. as you were denied the right to go back to Ramallah, in the West Bank, where you lived before doing your master’s degree in D.C. Why is that?

I wanted to go back to Ramallah after my studies at AU [American University], but the Israeli military only allowed me to go to Gaza — where I was born and raised — which wasn’t, obviously, a good place for me, so I was forced to stay here.

It’s very difficult for people who are originally from Gaza to move to the West Bank, and Christians are those who suffer the most from this policy, as they tend to be the most willing to move from Gaza to the West Bank. So that’s why a lot of Christians are leaving the country eventually. 

Over the past years, many Christian families split between the West Bank and Gaza have been trying to unite, unsuccessfully most of the time. 

Christians from Gaza who are allowed to drive to Jerusalem or the West Bank often use the opportunity to flee and stay in the West Bank, which is technically considered illegal by the Israeli authorities but not by international law since it is supposed to be the same territory.


You recently launched Agora Initiative, an NGO dedicated to promoting a democratic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What is its concrete purpose? 

I co-founded it last September with Israeli Ph.D. candidate Elazar Weiss. Our aim is to promote the advance of a constitutional democracy in the whole Middle East, not only in Israel and Palestine.

But we reckon that, without addressing the Holy Land, which is the epicenter of the region, there will not be freedom or democracy in the rest of the region, because what is happening there provides an excuse for various authorities to push all sorts of authoritarian, illiberal policies. And that’s something that we are interested in addressing.

If we believe that everyone is created in the image of God, it must also have political implications. That’s what we want to see applied in Israel and Palestine. 

Today, there are two ways of fulfilling equality of rights for both Christians and Muslims in Palestine.

Either you give all these people the right to vote and they become equal citizens before the law, in a way becoming Israelis, but then the nature of the state would change, it would no longer be a Jewish state. The second option is to give them their own state on the border recognized in 1967, which is in fact the position of the Holy See.