Middle East Scholar: ‘Christians Living in Gaza Find Themselves Caught in the Middle of a War That Is Not of Their Choice’
The Register interviews Samuel Tadros, a Coptic Christian, of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
When an Israeli airstrike hit the Greek Orthodox church compound in Gaza City on Oct. 19, a collapsed building killed 18 mostly Palestinian Christians sheltering there. Their deaths made headlines across the globe. Yet the plight of this tiny Christian community has received scant attention, as the conflict enters a new phase, with Israel ramping up its ground offensive in Gaza that targets Hamas gunmen embedded in urban neighborhoods.
On Nov. 2, Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond asked Samuel Tadros, an Orthodox Copt and a scholar on the Middle East, to shed light on the mostly hidden world of Palestinian Christians in Gaza. Tadros previously served as a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity (Hoover, 2013) and Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt (Hoover, 2014).
In 1948, during the Arab-Israel War, an estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to leave their homes for what they believed would be a temporary exile. But after the war, that land was part of the state of Israel. What was the impact of this traumatic event on Palestinian Christians, demographically and politically?
The Nakba (“Catastrophe”), as Palestinians have come to name the 1948 war, was a traumatic event that became the cornerstone of the formation of Palestinian identity, including for Palestinian Christians. Of course, the 1948 war and the establishment of the state of Israel are a complex story that involved population movement on both sides before the war ended, including the eventual deportation of 850,000 Jews from Arabic-speaking countries in the following decades. For Palestinian Christians, 1948 created a wall of separation between them and other Christians in the region, as well as within the community itself, which was divided until 1967, between the Christian citizens of Israel and Palestinian Christians living in the Jordanian-occupied West Bank and the Egyptian-occupied Gaza. Politically, Palestinian Christians were key players in the emerging nationalist movement in the following decades, with people like George Habash and Nayef Hawatweh becoming key Arab nationalist leaders.
About 1,100 Palestinian Christians are living in Gaza at this moment. Would you describe their situation vis-à-vis Hamas, which has governed the enclave since 2007?
It is important to understand that there are several layers to Hamas. In the West, Hamas is viewed through the prism of its terrorist attacks, or resistance for those who support it, but Hamas is not just an armed movement. Since 2007, it is also the ruling authority in Gaza and, more importantly, an Islamist movement. Those two layers are perhaps the most relevant to the Christians in Gaza. Palestinian Christians are part of the Palestinian fabric and, like others, support the national cause in general. But Hamas does not appeal to them at all.
As Christians living under Hamas’ rule, they face both institutional discrimination as well as harassment. There have been many instances of Hamas and its followers attacking Christian institutions and businesses. Before 2007, when the Palestinian Authority was in control of Gaza, things were much better for Christians, but since 2007, the worsening conditions have led to a decline in the number of Christians in Gaza.
Today, Christians living in Gaza find themselves caught in the middle of a war that is not of their choice. As Palestinians, they are antagonistic towards Israel, but as Christians, they fear Hamas and its Islamist project.
Throughout the Middle East, we’ve seen how these Islamist movements treat Christians. They may not want to exterminate Christians completely, as the Islamic State sought to do, but even the most “moderate” Islamist governments view non- Muslims living in Muslim-majority lands as second-class subjects and not as equal citizens.
How do Palestinian Christians in Gaza view Israel?
As Palestinians, the majority of Christians in Gaza hold hostile views towards Israel, just like other Palestinians, and
various Israeli policies — including both the economic blockade imposed on Gaza and the restrictions on travel — have impacted the Christian community. They are not able to travel from Gaza to the West Bank, for example.
And now, they must deal with an Israeli airstrike that hit the Greek Orthodox church compound in Gaza and killed 18 Christians. More broadly, people in Gaza are not free to express themselves. But according to opinion polls conducted in Gaza before the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, the majority of respondents were not in favor of Hamas, but that didn’t mean they liked Israel.
Why are things better for Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, which is governed by the Palestinian Authority? Is it because the Palestinian Authority is secular?
The word “secular” carries a certain meaning in the West. It’s not always the same in the Middle East. But what matters regarding the status of Christians is that the Palestinian Authority is a nationalist movement that views the Christians as citizens. Christians may still face certain restrictions and face discrimination, but they are citizens.
The goal of the Palestinian Authority and of the Fatah movement from which it emerged is to establish a Palestinian state. The goal of Hamas is not simply to establish a Palestinian state but to establish an Islamic state of Palestine.
Can a Christian woman in the West Bank walk in the street without the hijab? The answer is Yes. Can she do the same in Gaza? By doing so, she automatically identifies her as a non-Muslim. She’s going to face harassment, and she might face much worse.
And regarding Israel?
The Palestinian Authority supports a two-state solution, though, of course, they have their own views on what that means. Hamas does not accept a two-state solution. They want Israel to disappear.
On Israel, are the views and experiences of Palestinian Christians in Gaza distinct from the values and experiences of Christians in other parts of the Middle East?
Middle East Christians’ views of Israel are complex, and they vary by country. But they also vary according to whether the Christians view themselves as Arabs.
That’s an important dividing line because Christians that have accepted — whether freely or out of expediency — an Arab identity as the framework for their community tend to be more pro-Palestinian and against Israel.
By contrast, Christian communities that have maintained a distinct identity, like the Copts and the Maronites, appear not to be in favor of the Palestinian cause. There is also the matter of antisemitism and its legacy in many of these traditional Churches.
As more Palestinian Christians leave Gaza, what has been the impact on local Christian hospitals, social-welfare programs and schools?
On the Protestant side, most institutions originally established by missionaries now have no Christian community at all. In a sense, these institutions have been handed over to local management. The Catholic Church has a more institutional presence in the Palestinian territories in general. The question is whether, in the long term, there will be any Christian community left, as more young people emigrate to the West in search of a better future.
The West Bank is a different story because the Christian churches there are so determined to maintain a presence in Jerusalem, though Palestinian Christian emigration has also been significant there.
Where are Palestinian Christians immigrating to?
They’re mostly moving to the West. At present, the U.S. and Canada are more open to them, while, at other times, various European countries welcomed these people. Latin America is another destination.