By Jewish Virtual Library
The Christian communities in the Holy Land can be divided into two main groups, those living in the State of Israel, and those living under the control of the Palestinian Authority. United by a common history and religion, the conditions under which these two groups currently live is vastly different.
Christians in Israel have a well-established history of participation in the development of a pluralistic society. They enjoy the same rights common to all of the population, such as freedom of worship, movement, legal protection from persecution, equal opportunities to jobs, and religious autonomy.
Israel’s Christian population is generally middle class and highly educated. Most own their homes, comparable to all sectors of the Israeli population, and are employed in a wide variety of professions ranging from academic and entrepreneurial to technical and judicial. Approximately half are high-school graduates. And the recently-accredited Mar Elias University is the first Christian university to open in the Middle East for decades. Located in the Galilee, one of the University’s missions is to provide “an innovative model of academic excellence and research combined with pluralistic living, in which acknowledgement and respect for difference builds upon the resources and richness of diversity”.
Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs is responsible for meeting the ritual needs of the Christian communities. The Ministry’s Department for Christian Communities offers a liaison to turn to for problems and requests. The Ministry also serves as a neutral arbitrator in ensuring the preservation of the established status quo in those holy places where more than one Christian community has rights and privileges. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 137,000 people, or just over two percent, are Christian. The majority is affiliated with the Greek Catholic (42 percent), Greek Orthodox (32 percent) and Roman Catholic (16 percent) churches. Nazareth is Israel’s largest Christian city, with Christians comprising one-third of the city’s population. Christian communities are also concentrated in Haifa, Jerusalem, Shfaram, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and a number of Christian-majority villages in the Galilee.
Pope John Paul II’s 5-day visit to Israel in March 2000 marked a joyous and historic milestone for Israel’s Christian communities. The Pope celebrated an open air mass attended by over 100,000 and was warmly received by Israel’s Prime Minster, President, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders. The first visit by a Papal Pontiff for over three decades, it was seen as a major lift for the Christian family as a whole in the country.
Tragically, Christians living in Israel have also fallen victim to horrific terrorist attacks. In the October 5, 2003 suicide bombing of the Christian-Jewish co-owned Maxim’s restaurant in Haifa, at least seven of the 21 people murdered in the attack were Christians. Four were members of the Matar family, co-owners of the establishment. And this was a not an isolated case. In March 2003, a suicide bomber blew himself up on a No. 37 bus in Haifa, murdering 17, mostly school children. The bus driver, a Christian from Shfaram, was among the injured. In March 2002, a suicide bomber murdered 15 people in Haifa’s Matza restaurant, a popular meeting place among the city’s Jewish, Christian and Muslim residents.
Despite these incidents and the general atmosphere of conflict during the last few years, the Christian communities continue to thrive. According to Israel’s English-language daily, the Jerusalem Post (November 18, 1994), the number of Christians living in Israel has trebled since the re-establishment of the State in 1948. Whether they are praising political actions of the Israeli government or criticizing them, Israel’s Christian population continues to experience freedom of speech, religion and movement.
Sadly, the same cannot be said about Christian communities living under Palestinian Authority (PA) rule. Here, they struggle for a place and a voice in a largely Moslem, non-democratic society. While Christians may be found in several Palestinian cities, the majority remains in Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour. These three cities once boasted overwhelmingly Christian majorities. However, many young, well-educated Christians are now choosing to emigrate to the US, Canada, England and Australia, due in part to the shattered economy and on-going violence.
The Christian population of Bethlehem, a town synonymous with Christ and Christianity, has dwindled from over 60% in 1990 to just 20% in 2001. Amazingly, there are now more Beit Jala Christians reportedly living in the small Caribbean nation of Belize than in the entire city of Beit Jala itself.
Christian emigration has grown to such an alarming rate that some local churches have held conferences to find ways to stem the emigration flood. Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, Catholic Relief Services, the Holy Land Christians Cooperative Society, and other agencies have sponsored programs to encourage Christians to remain in the area.
Some Christians have cast their lot publicly with their Muslim compatriots. Prominent figures, such as Canon Naim Ateek and Archimandrite Atallah Hanna are noted for their support of the Palestinians’ resistance, and the latter has come close to promoting the notion of armed struggle. At the same time, these church officials are exploiting the open composition of Israel’s society as they export their overt hostility into the diplomatic arena.
Nevertheless, many other worshippers privately they express fears about their future. Christians continue to be suspect in Muslim eyes, and have been subjected to harassment, physical attacks, and property destruction, due in part to Muslim identification of Christianity with the West and Western values.
A particular case in point is the “Talitakoumi” school in Beit Jala, which is financed by the Protestant Church in Berlin. The head of the German Liaison Office to the Palestinian Authority protested against the use of the school for terror activities against Israel.
In an incident about Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, Israeli Prime Ministerial Spokesperson Ra’anan Gissin stated that “a 10 percent tax (‘jizya’) was levied on the Christians to help finance the Intifada” (International Christian Embassy web site, December 2002).
It appears that the Israel army has been sensitive to the needs of the Christian population, by lowering the visibility of troops immediately prior to and during the Christian festivities and by allowing secure transport during holidays for Christians from the surrounding areas to holy sites. Conversely, the PA leadership has, over the past several years, politicised the celebrations. Much attention was garnered during the Intifada by its forbidding public Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, citing ‘Palestinian suffering’ as the reason and by choosing this sensitive period to turn public attention to Chairman Arafat’s confinement in Ramallah.
As the population continues to dwindle in Palestinian areas, the remaining community is becoming an uncertain minority. While Christians living under the PA can praise the actions of the Palestinian leadership, they are unable to openly or vocally criticize the PA for fear of physical or economic harm.
Ultimately, if Christians are to maintain a presence in the Holy Land, the status of Christians in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority will need to be given more attention and the trend towards emigration reversed. What we can see is that if Christians are allowed to practice their faith freely and with full social rights, as in Israel, the community has demonstrated the clear ability to flourish.
© Israel My Beloved