Easter in the Holy Land: Christians in the Occupied Land


Ahead of the Easter celebrations, Palestinian Christian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) issued a statement calling on Christians around the world to “put an end to Israel’s violation of our right to worship freely in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.” Like all Palestinians, Christians’ freedom to worship is denied by Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement through a network of military checkpoints, a separation wall and a rigid permit system. In the 29 March statement, the Christian NGOs declared that “Easter celebrations are hostage to the whims of the occupation authorities, as part of policies that aim to push Christians to emigrate.” The issue of Christian emigration from the Holy Land and the future of the Christian presence there is a source of concern for many Palestinians. A recently published Sabeel survey, conducted in the summer of 2006, found that the Christian population in the Holy Land has been declining over the years and linked its shrinking presence to the unstable political situation and the associated dire economic conditions. The alarming decline in the size of the Palestinian Christian population is endangering their presence and future in the Holy Land, specifically in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Christians of the Holy Land

According to the Sabeel study, the Christian population in the occupied territory and Israel is less than 160,000. According to the office of Latin Patriarch and Archbishop of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, there are approximately 400,000 Christians in Israel, Jordan and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. In these three countries, or the Holy Land, Christians are divided among thirteen traditional churches: five Orthodox, six Catholic and two Protestant.

Many Palestinian Christians believe that they are the forgotten Christians. Although they receive many messages of support from churches around the world, they argue that more can be done to put an end to the conflict and that churches can intervene on their behalf by calling for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinian Christians argue that Christians worldwide, specifically politicians, fail to see that they are part of a society and people under occupation.

“We are forgotten when it comes to the political leaders and to the political agendas for the region. We can say that the political agendas are indifferent to the survival or disappearance of Christians,” Sabbah wrote in the 2007 winter issue of the Sabeel newsletter. He added that some in the U.S. Congress “believe that we are endangered by our Muslim society” and offered to “protect us as a special community, independent of the conflict, while the overall occupation, oppression and injustices are taking place.” In response to the offers, Sabbah states that uprooting Christians from their Palestinian society is not the way to help. Rather, “it is the way to kill us. We keep saying: we are human beings; we are part of our society, of those who die, of those who go to prison, and of those whose houses are demolished.” He warns that Christians “cannot and must not be set apart as mere spectators entitled to enjoy an ‘inhuman, disembodied’ life, while others are paying the price of freedom by their lives or their daily suffering.”

Emigration and its Causes

According to the Sabeel survey, emigration is the major factor affecting the future of the Palestinian Christian presence in the occupied territory and Israel. However, the numbers are much higher in the occupied territory than in Israel. That, according to Romell Soudah, a lecturer in economics at Bethlehem University, is due to the political and economic situation in the West Bank. Writing in the Sabeel’s 2007 winter newsletter, Soudah, who worked on the Sabeel survey, said “those who are processing papers to leave represent 4.5 percent of the total Christian sample population in the West Bank which is double the annual Christian population natural growth rate.” The study is based on a survey of 1500 families in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The 750 families interviewed in the occupied territory were from the West Bank and East Jerusalem and did not include the approximately 2,500 Christians in the Gaza Strip.

The survey identified five reasons for Christian emigration: 1) unemployment, 2) bad economic and political conditions, 3) living conditions, 4) join family members, and 5) work and study. All, 100 percent, of those surveyed in Israel said living conditions are the cause for emigration. In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the majority, 44.7 percent said unemployment was the main factor for emigration followed by 42.6 percent citing bad political and economic conditions as the reason. About 9 percent said they left to join relatives and 4 percent left to pursue their education. The survey concluded that the overall reason for emigration among Christians in the occupied territories is due to the economic and political conditions. These two factors were cited by 87.3 percent of the total respondents.

“Christian emigration is highly influenced by political factors,” Soudah wrote in the Sabeel newsletter. “Like all Palestinians, Christians in the West Bank live under occupation with serious human rights infractions by Israel. The confiscation of Palestinian land particularly took a sizeable portion of Christian private property in the Bethlehem area where 50 percent of West Bank Christians live.” He added, “The separation wall has also cut off the Bethlehem area from its vital connection with Jerusalem, as well as with other Palestinian areas. As a consequence, people become separated from their families and loved ones, from work and from essential facilities such as health centers, schools and universities.”

A Historical Look at a Dwindling Population: 1945-2005 and 2006 Estimates

The Sabeel study relied on several other surveys to illustrate the decline in the size of the Christian population from the mid-sixteenth century to today. A study by Sergio Della Pergola, “Demography in Israel/Palestine: Trends, Prospects, Policy Implications,” reveals that between the mid-sixteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, there was a population growth among the Christian community in Palestine. Christians, who made up 3.8 percent (6,000 persons) of the population in the mid-sixteenth century, grew to 7.3 percent (143,000) by the mid-twentieth century–”precisely, in 1947, one year before Israel was created.

A 1945-46 survey by the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry which looked at the Christian presence per district, found the highest concentration of Christians was in the District of Jerusalem, 31.8 percent (46,130), followed by the District of Haifa, 23.2 percent. At the time, the towns of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala were part of the Jerusalem district.

Today, it is estimated that the number of Christians in the Bethlehem area, which includes the towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, is roughly 22,000 and 8,000 in Jerusalem, although, in 2005, the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, put the number of Christians in Jerusalem at slightly over 12,000 (with over 2,000 non-Arab Christians).

As of December 2006, the Sabeel survey estimated the number of Christians in the Bethlehem area, which includes the towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, to be roughly 22,000 and 8,000 in Jerusalem, although, in 2005, the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, put the number of Christians in Jerusalem at slightly over 12,000 (with over 2,000 non-Arab Christians).

Even with the higher number provided by the Israeli census, the Sabeel survey concludes that, when compared with the 46,130 persons in 1945–”31,330 in Jerusalem, 6,490 in Bethlehem, 3,540 in Beit Jala and 4,770 in Beit Sahour–”the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area today has a Palestinian-Christian population that is, at a minimum, 12,000 persons less than in 1945.

According to the Sabeel survey, in 62 years (1945-2005) there has been no growth in the town of Bethlehem. Beit Jala faired a little better. In 62 years, it added about 3,000 persons, growing from 3,540 in 1945 to roughly 6,400 Christians in 2005. Beit Sahour added 2,600 to its 4,770 Christians in 1945 for a total of 7,370 in 2005.

Using Using the estimated 2 percent annual growth rate of the 1940s, survey analysts argue that the Christian growth rate, which is hampered by emigration, especially of the youth, is a real cause for concern. Based on the 1945 figures:

  • Jerusalem’s 31,000 Christians in the 1940s should have doubled (62,000) by 1980 and should reach roughly 93,000 by 2007.
  • In 1980, Bethlehem’s 6,490 Christians of 1945 should have numbered 12,980 and 19,470 in 2007.
  • Beit Jala’s 1980 population should have been 7,080, an increase of 3,540 from 1945 and should be 10,620 by 2007, a significantly higher number than its 2005 population of 6,400 as stated by the Israeli Bureau of Statistics.
  • Beit Sahour’s population should have registered at 9,540 in 1980 and 14,310 by 2007.

Other Christian towns in the occupied territories also fall far below the 2 percent growth rate predictor. Again, based on the 1945 figures, Ramallah’s 4,520 Christians and the 3,890 in the surrounding villages of Aboud; Ein Arik; Jifna; Taybeh; and the town of Birzeit, combined, should have reached 16,820 in 1980 and 25,230 by 2007.The Sabeel survey put their combined Christian population at approximately 12,950 in 2006.

The same dismal numbers register in the Nablus district which had a Christian population of 1,560 in 1945 compared to today’s estimated 700.There are a little more than 2,000 Christians in the Jenin district, higher than its 1,210 population in 1945, yet lower than it should have been in 1980 based on the adopted 2 percent annual growth rate calculation and far from the 3,630 mark for 2007.

To many western Christians, the fact that the Gaza Strip was one of the first areas where Christianity spread is a surprise. Many also do not realize how long the Palestinian Christian presence in the occupied territory dates back. The first converts to the teachings of Jesus were Palestinians. In 1945, Gaza’s Christian population was placed at 1,300, mostly in Gaza City. Today, the mostly Greek-Orthodox Christian population is estimated to be 2,500 – 3,000.

The Sabeel survey estimated that in 2006, the total Palestinian Christian population in the Occupied Palestinian Territory was approximately 50,000. According to the 1967 Israeli census, there were 42,494 Christians in the Palestinian territory when it occupied it. If the 2 percent annual rate is used to calculate the Christian population growth, based on the 1967 figure, the Christian population in the Occupied Palestinian Territory should be approximately 94,000 by 2007. Given the current emigration trend, it is unrealistic to expect that even with a 2 percent annual growth rate, that the Christians of the occupied territory will reach that number.

In his concluding statement on the findings of the Sabeel study, Soudah wrote: “The continuous confiscation of land, military roadblocks and the separation wall coupled with restrictions on mobility and access give the impression that people are living in a cage, dehumanized, with little hope for freedom and normal living. This situation really affects the core of the Christian community in Palestine and is the primary factor for forcing Christian Palestinians to leave.”