Palestinian Christians Hope for Statehood

Mahmoud Abbas has requested sovereignty at the U.N.

JERUSALEM — Salim Manarious, a retired former school headmaster, believes there will be a sovereign Palestinian state in his lifetime.

“I believe it because I’m a Palestinian,” the 72-year-old Orthodox Christian said Sept. 23, the day Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas applied for full membership in the United Nations.

Palestinians currently have observer status at the U.N.

The United Nations Security Council was scheduled to hold preliminary talks on the Palestinian application. The United States has pledged to veto the proposal if it comes up for a vote in the Security Council. The U.S. has called for a return to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as a way to resolve the issue.

Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s No. 2 State Department official, called Sept. 27 for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in remarks delivered in New York, according to Catholic News Agency. He insisted that “if we want peace, courageous decisions have to be made.” Archbishop Mamberti, whose official title is secretary for relations with states, encouraged “the realization of the right of Palestinians to have their own independent and sovereign state and the right of Israelis to guarantee their security.” He also insisted that both states be “provided with internationally recognized borders.”

But Manarious, whose family fled Ramle, a town in what is now Israel, in 1948, isn’t overly optimistic his clan will be able to reclaim their home.

“The house is still there. I’ve visited it twice, but I don’t think I’ll get it back, even though it’s my right,” Manarious said in the shady garden of his home in the Old City of Jerusalem just prior to Abbas’ speech. 

Now that the “Palestine” issue is front and center at the U.N., Palestinians, including Christians, are grappling with what a future Palestinian state might mean for them.

Hanni is the father of three grown children, and he lives in Beit Sahour, a largely Christian town next to Bethlehem. In his case, an independent Palestinian country could bring his oldest son, a physician who moved to France in 1993, back home.

“If there is peace and a job, I think he’ll come back and work in a Palestinian hospital,” Hanni said hopefully as he shopped in a Beit Sahour hardware store. The 63-year-old Greek Catholic did not want his last name published. “He left because he couldn’t find work in the West Bank, and the Israelis wouldn’t issue him a permit to work in Israel.”

Israel began severely limiting the number of work and visitor permits it issues at the start of the first intifada (Palestinian uprising) in 1988. 

Bassam, a father of three who also requested anonymity (“I don’t want the Israelis to withhold a travel permit”), said Palestinian sovereignty is synonymous with freedom.

Chain-smoking during an interview at the modest housewares store he owns, Bassam said freedom means “we will have enough work and that we won’t have to go through checkpoints everywhere. It means being in control of our own water resources.”

Bassam, whose family has lived in the Bethlehem area for generations, blamed both the Israeli and Palestinian governments for the West Bank’s chronic water shortage.

“First, the Israelis give water to the settlers, and whatever’s left over goes to us,” he asserted. “And I suspect that the Palestinian Authority gives more water to ‘important’ people than to the rest of us.”

The Israeli government says it provides essential services to the best of its ability.

‘Times Have Changed’

Despite this criticism, Bassam is convinced that the Palestinian leadership is ready to run a country.

“The only reason our leaders aren’t leading a Palestinian state is because the Israelis don’t let them,” he said. 

Angry though he is at the Israeli government, Bassam does not advocate armed struggle against the “occupation.”

“Twenty years ago I was a follower of George Habash,” founder of the militant Palestinian group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. “Today I have a family and a future,” Bassam said.

Nizreen Manarious, Salim’s daughter-in-law, also believes violence will only hurt the Palestinian cause.

“Times have changed. I think as Palestinians we shouldn’t fight in a violent way. Violence only serves the Israelis’ needs,” said Nizreen, who is 34 and pregnant with her third child, as she watched her two young sons chasing each other around the olive tree in the family’s garden.

Nizreen said she has experienced violence throughout her life. She was born and raised in the West Bank town of Beit Jala near Bethlehem. During the Palestinian uprisings, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants waged many battles. 

“In 1988, Israeli soldiers shot my father dead during a peaceful demonstration in Beit Jala at the beginning of the first intifada,” Nizreen recalled. “He was a peaceful activist. We saw someone being shot but didn’t know it was him until later.”

“We tried armed resistance against the Israelis, and it didn’t work,” agreed George Manarious, Nizreen’s husband, the resource manager of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. 

Lubnah Shomali, an officer for the Beit Sahur Municipality, was 5 years old when her parents moved the family from the West Bank to the United States.

Shomali, a Catholic with three children, moved back to the West Bank with her Palestinian husband and their children three years ago “to give my children their cultural identity.”

The young couple also wanted their children “to see what is really going on, as opposed to what others say. I wanted them to see that Palestine really does exist.”

Like other Palestinians, Shomali doesn’t expect a Palestinian state to be born overnight.

“We are growing as a government and as a nation, reaching closer to independence every day,” Shomali said. “I think we’re heading down the right path.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.