Holy Land Christians: Threatened With Extinction, but Still Bearing Witness
Religious and political authorities as well as inhabitants’ testimonies offer instructive insights on difficult situation in the Land of Christ.
JERUSALEM — The extreme complexity and sensitivity of Christians’ situation in the Holy Land was recently brought to light by a Sept. 8-14 institutional and cultural trip promoted by the Philos Project, of which the Register took part.
The program — which included visits and meetings in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Magdala, Jifna, Haifa and Jish — enabled an encounter with the very different local realities composing the pluralistic landscape of Israel, beyond the Manichean perceptions of Jewish-Muslim divisions that dominate in most media and political debates courtesy of the decades-old conflict there between Israelis and Palestinians.
In this predominantly Judeo-Muslim context, the Christians of the Holy Land — who are often forgotten in this crisis, as they are ignored by worldwide media, and whose number has been reduced to an alarming level — struggle every day for their own religious identity.
“Many people just don’t know that there are Christians in the Holy Land; Christians who fight and suffer to survive and to stay here,” Father Johny Bahbah, a parish priest in the Diocese of Jifna — a village mentioned in the Bible that used to be predominantly Christian — told the Register. “For most people nowadays, Palestine refers to Arabs, who can only be Muslims.”
In a context where it is almost impossible for local Christians to unite politically, the Philos Project organization is seeking to foster a "positive Christian engagement” in the Holy Land (and in the rest of the Middle East), notably through the creation of effective bonds between Western Christians and local activists striving to promote peace on the ground.
Christians in the Holy Land, located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, make up approximately 2% of the population, or roughly 400,000 people. A 2012 statistical survey published by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem showed that there were about 130,000 in Israel and 50,000 in the Palestinian territories and in Gaza, with another 200,000 living in Jordan.
A century ago, Christians represented approximately 10% of the Holy Land’s total population. In particular, they then comprised 86% of the population of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, whereas today they make up between 12% and 30% of the city’s inhabitants.
Although the Christian population has remained relatively stable in Israel in recent years, the numbers have declined drastically in the West Bank and Gaza since 2012.
Local religious leaders estimate that there are currently 30,000 Christians living in the West Bank and just over 500 in Gaza, which lost half of its Christian community after the Hamas takeover in 2007.
The majority of Palestinian Christians live in the Bethlehem, Ramallah and Nablus areas.
Within the complex mosaic of Christian communities are 13 official churches: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic (whose community makes up about 0.6% of the Holy Land population), Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Greek (or Melkite) Catholic, Maronite Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Ethiopian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Chaldean, Anglican and Lutheran. The evangelical Protestant churches, which have been expanding over the past few years, are not officially recognized by public authorities.
Like all the Palestinian people, Christians are affected by the Israeli occupation in many different ways in their everyday life. The barrier that separates Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah, three important cities for Christians, can make movement to daily activities — such as access to school or visiting family members — very complicated.
“My wife, who is from Bethlehem, needs a special permit to go from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to attend a family reunion,” Hanna Amira, a member of the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and of the PLO’s Higher Committee of Churches Affairs, told the Register. The Palestinian Liberation Organization is recognized by Israel as the sole representative of the Palestinian people in the region.
“Such permit requires an annual renewal,” Amira said, “which is very hard to get; it takes one full day, during which you will be asked a lot of questions [and requires] many documents, like utility bills and so on, to prove you live in Jerusalem.”
Thus, he said, it is not unusual for some young Christians from the West Bank to reach adulthood without ever having seen Jerusalem.
The West Bank’s high unemployment rate — resulting largely from its political instability — also contributes to the hemorrhage of Christians who are searching for a more prosperous life. Unemployment in Bethlehem is about 23%, while 50% of Christians in Jifna are unemployed, according to Father Bahbah.
Along with the lack of political stability and poor job opportunities, the massive departures of Palestinian Christians are fueled by ongoing discrimination and at times concrete persecution, mainly in the Gaza Strip and in the north of the West Bank.
According to Auxiliary Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, there are no Christians among public administration, and they are often faced with discrimination compared to Muslims.
And it is very difficult for local Christians to generate new conversions or vocations, as laws on proselytism are ambiguous, both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, and their leeway regarding evangelization is limited to charity. According to sources at the Latin Patriarchate, even though no explicit law banishes religious freedom in Palestine, the social pressure is so strong that every form of conversion is highly deterred.
Discrimination against Christians in Palestine is also expressed through the marriage law, which provides that interfaith marriages are permitted only between Muslim men and Christian women, who are considered Muslims after the wedding. Furthermore, civil marriages are not recognized in the territories ruled by the Palestinian Authority nor in Israel, which further complicates interfaith unions.
If relationships between Christians and Muslims are reportedly better than in the rest of the Middle East due to solidarity in the face of the suffering caused by the Israeli occupation, tensions are palpable in many different cities in which the two religions coexist.
“Every day we have problems with our schools in Palestine,” Bishop Marcuzzo told the participants in the Philos Project’s trip during a private meeting. “Last year, some Muslims wanted to impose the separation between boys and girls in our schools, which we didn’t accept. Then they wanted to impose the wearing of the hijab, which we refused, too.”
The main points of contention between Christian and Israeli authorities revolve around financial issues, especially regarding the many properties and large swaths of land owned by the Christian churches in the Holy Land. In 2018, tensions grew between Christian leaders and the Jerusalem municipality after Mayor Nir Barkat spearheaded a new bill to tax church properties.
And in September 2015, the Office of Christian Schools in Israel organized a strike to protest against the reduction of Israeli government subsidies to their schools in the country, arguing that by doing so, the authorities were further undermining Christians’ presence in the territory.
The Christian Dilemma
Local Christians tend to be divided with regards to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict itself.
“Christians are isolated, especially in Gaza. They must be very pacific; they mustn’t play any political role,” Hanna Amira told the Register. As a leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, he believes that there shouldn’t be a “Christian role” in the political crisis of the region but that Christians should stick to the Palestinian cause only. “Some groups and associations tried to promote common activities between both sides, but they have failed,” he said.
However, that doesn’t prevent some local Christian activists, such as Khalil Sayegh, a young Gazan and associate fellow with the Philos Project, from striving to promote peace in the Holy Land.
Asked about the challenges of his mission, Sayegh called the Christians’ position a paradox, as each community faces different issues according to its place. “Christians in Gaza, who are less than 1,000 people in a hostile Islamist environment, have different views and options than Christians in Bethlehem, whose main problem is freedom of movement and the occupation policies,” he told the Register.
Collectively, however, these Christians conclude their only way to survive is to fully support the political power and the society in which they live.
“Christians are less than 1% in the whole Palestinian territories; and after the rise of Islamist parties such Hamas and Islamic jihad in the region, Christians felt even more that they had to prove their loyalty to their nation, that they are as much Palestinian as Hamas, and this means attacking Israel,” Sayegh said, adding he sometimes finds himself dealing with hostility from his Palestinian co-citizens — including some Christians — for his advocacy mission in the region, which generates relationships with some Jewish Israelis.
On the other side of the separation barrier, in Israel, some Christians have adopted the opposite strategy and entirely support the state of Israel. That’s the case, for example, with Shadi Khalloul, a Maronite Catholic founder of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association (ICAA), based in Jish, a mostly Christian village located in Galilee, a few miles south of the Lebanon border, which has recently been the scene of an exchange of fire between Israel and Hezbollah.
The recent escalation of tensions triggered painful memories in the Maronite community of Jish, which remains indelibly affected by the 1982 Lebanon War, during which the Israeli army was supported by the Maronite Phalange Party and by the Christian-dominated South Lebanon army. That alliance durably bound their community to the state of Israel.
“Every day, I hear from Christians in Palestine that live under fear of being shot or attacked at night by their Muslim neighbors just for saying ‘I am with Israel,’ or ‘I want to be an Israeli citizen,’” Khalloul told the Register, adding that, in Jish, he “feels free: free to speak, free to immigrate or to stay.”
This former captain in the Israeli army and Knesset (the legislative branch of the Israeli government) candidate does not mince his words where the Catholic Church is concerned.
“I don’t think the Church has a good strategy in the Holy Land, as its authorities just want to protect their immediate interests in the region: They want to implement churches in the West Bank, in Jordan, Syria … and they want to protect the Christian minority from being attacked for speaking the truth about the situation of Christians in the Palestinian territories,” he said.
A Crucial Presence
At a time when Christians in the Holy Land are more than ever threatened with extinction, with very limited means of evangelization, their unique weapon is their testimony of charity, which is mainly expressed through education and health care.
“Christians are a daily proof of the Bible, and they are far more influential than their number suggests,” Hanna Amira told the participants to the Philos Project’s trip, noting that Christians make up about 30% of the medical field in Palestine, through 130 institutions.
Indeed, Christians’ minority status and political impotency doesn’t prevent them from playing a prominent social role in the Holy Land. In different places of Jesus’ birthplace, Gospel charity is still incarnated in several initiatives designed to rekindle the flame of hope in people’s hearts through the care for the least of this world.
The Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem, for instance, provides women from all origins and religions the only possible place to give birth under safe medical conditions. More than 80,000 children have been born there since the 1990s.
More recently, in 2016, an indispensable project promoted by the St. James Vicariate for Hebrew-Speaking Catholics came into being to address the plight of children of immigrants, left in unsafe and crowded “pirate” day care structures while their mothers work — and where seven children died in 2015 alone. Since its creation, the St. Rachel Center in Jerusalem has been supporting the healthy development of children of all religions from infancy until the age of 12, providing them with activities, help with homework and instruction in religious catechism.
Care for elderly and disabled people is another field in which Christian communities distinguish themselves, earning at the same time local inhabitants’ respect. In a Palestine where no services nor subsidies are provided for elderly people, the “Antonian Charitable Society” elderly home in Bethlehem represents a safe and loving environment, a priceless haven of hope for the poor and isolated elderly of the region.
The fight against the “throwaway culture,” so dear to Pope Francis, is embodied in the Hogar Niño Dios, a home for disabled, abandoned or severely disadvantaged children, located near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Run by the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, the center permanently welcomes around 21 children that have nowhere to go and a few others during the afternoon.
But education remains the greatest strength of Christians in the Holy Land, just like in the whole Middle East. As Bishop Marcuzzo pointed out while addressing the Philos Project group at the seat of the Latin Patriarchate, high-level education is the best way to help Christians remain, as top-flight qualifications are their only way to avoid discrimination in employment. To sustain this crucial service to local faithful, the Catholic Church of the Holy Land allocates 82% of its annual budget to its 66 schools, ranging from kindergarten to university.
“It is not a loss for us, and we happily dedicate such an amount of money for that, especially because our schools are the best,” Bishop Marcuzzo said. “Every year among the top 10 schools of Israel, Palestine and Jordan, there are always five or six Catholic schools.”
The progressive and alarming disappearance of Christians should be a concern for everyone in the Holy Land, if only for their unparalleled social role. Who would provide for such services to society if Christians’ presence were totally eliminated?
Source of Inspiration
For Christians from all over the world, the testimony of these living stones of the birthland of Christ is an endless source of inspiration, especially in the face of a growing adversity in countless countries, from East to West. As Christians are even more widely persecuted than the Church of the early centuries, the maintenance of their presence in their original birthplace is a vital and historical stake for the future of Christianity.
“Can we accept, as members of the universal Church, that one day, in the Land of Christ, there will be no Christians left?” Bishop Marcuzzo asked. “We don’t have financial, material, nor military power to justify that we ask them to remain; we only have the moral power to ask them to remain where they belong.”
While reaffirming the absolute necessity for the worldwide Christian community to support by every possible means the members of the Mother Church of Christianity, the Holy Land bishop stressed that “to be a citizen of the Land of Jesus is not a historical accident: It is a vocation; it is a mission.”
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.
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