Future for Palestinian Christians

(Chicago) –” Dr. Munib A. Younan spoke about the future for Palestinian Christians and the prospects for justice, peace and reconciliation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Rev. Younan is bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and Palestine and he expressed his concerns for the future of Palestinian Christians and all Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

Recent statistics from a religious conference in Jersualem revealed there are an estimated 162,000 Palestinian Christians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Approximately 120,000 live within the 1967 Green Line, 40,000 live in the West Bank and 2,000 live in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian Christians did not convert to Christianity and have been in existence since the first Pentecost. Moreover, they have lived peacefully with the Muslims for 14 centuries, added Younan.

Palestinian Christians made up approximately 15 –” 20 per cent of the population within historic Palestine before 1948. In 2007, they are an estimated 1.5 per cent.

“Some say (the emigration) it’s because of systemic Muslim persecution,” Younan said, who quoted a recent study by Bethlehem University that found the continued disintegration of the indigenous population was because of “…the political situation in occupation and lost hope in a just peace.”

A recent survey conducted by the Palestinian Centre for research and Cultural Dialogue, (and summarized on OpenBethlehem.org) found that “78 per cent of Christians who live in Bethlehem say the emigration is because of Israeli blockade. Findings from the same survey found that 90 per cent of Bethlehemite Christians had Muslims friends and vice-versa. Nine out of ten Bethlehemites said Israel’s wall surrounding their city is for the confiscation of Palestinian land.”

OpenBethlehem.org has recently created several slide-show presentations on the status of their city. With photographs and fact-finding information they show what is happening with the Christian Holy sites as a result of Israeli occupation and settler activity in Bethlehem, especially near Rachel’s Tomb (forbidden to Bethlehem’s Christians and Muslims). Their photo story, “Bethlehem Today” explains that they made the presentation “…in response to the recent accusations by the Israel lobby of anti-Christian discrimination and abuse in Palestinian society.”

In September 2006, the Israeli Government officially annexed the tomb and the area around it and reclassified it as part of Israeli-controlled Jerusalem (OpenBethlehem.org presentation, The Annexation of Rachel’s Tomb: Stories from behind the Walls ).

UN statistics reveal that 45 per cent of the entire Palestinian population is unemployed and approximately 65 per cent live below the poverty line. Checkpoints, roadblocks and curfews restrict peoples’ movement and access to daily-life activities.

With the deliberate destruction of Gaza’s power plant last summer, most of the population has little electricity and the pumps that drain the sewer and waste water are near collapse.

With the economic strangulation caused by the wall and the Palestinians’ struggle for survival, people see a future that is bleak.

“We are afraid of certain voices in Israel who talk about the policy of transference,” Younan said. “In the midst of overwhelming injustice, we, as Palestinian Christians should be brokers of justice, instruments of peace and defenders of human rights. People are trying to turn political battles into religious wars and we cannot let it happen because everyone is the loser.”

Although Younan has a history of denouncing violence and advocating for peace and justice, he receives what he describes are “love letters” from some Christian Zionists. His overall assessment is if Jewish, Muslim and Christian extremists run the world, then there will be no room for moderates, who practice mutual respect and tolerance.

“The new wave of anti-Semitism and the growth of Islamophobia…through ignorance, fear…it fuels hatred against the other,” Younan said. “The Palestinian Christian churches have denounced such intolerance and extremism and as ministers of reconciliation who urgently seek to see God in other religions urge others to see common values…forgiveness and healing…because it’s time religion became part of the solution rather than part of the problems.”

Younan quoted a Muslim leader (Mufti) who explained at a July 2005 conference in Amman that the Arab Christians are the group that holds Arab society together. Moreover, Younan describes the Palestinian-Christian community as the “bridge builders” between the East and the West for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which bears influence on the diverse Middle East Crises.

After several Palestinians attacked five Palestinian churches in September 2006, Hamas announced they would punish anyone who harmed Palestinian Christians or their churches. In addition, security increased around Bethlehem, which has a significant Christian population. The next day several Palestinian Christians received flowers from people in Gaza.

The US says Hamas is a terrorist group.

After a proposed Palestinian Constitution called for Islam to be the religion of Palestine and Shari’ah law for legislation, Palestinian Christians and secular Muslims expressed their discontent and explained that the Holy Land is a land for all religions and should promote rights for all religions.

“We did not say these things because we are scared or oppressed but because we are equal citizens in our society and we help shape our society,” Younan added.

With regards to the conflict between Fatah and Hamas, the churches have written both parties and asked them to stop fighting among themselves. Church leaders have offered their negotiation services.

Whether both parties are receptive to the opportunity presented to them is questionable.

As Younan pointed out, negotiations make it possible for both sides to gain something.

In terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Younan explained that the root-cause of the problem is illegal occupation and the continued expansion of illegal Israeli settlements. Although most Israelis say its violence and terrorism, Younan asks whether religion accepts occupation and violence.

Younan did not mention the impact Israeli occupation, settlement expansion and construction of the wall has on historic Christian and Muslim holy sites. Do the indigenous Christian and Muslim inhabitants have access to these holy places?

According to OpenBethlehem.org, “US Christians, meanwhile, are likely to be shocked by the discovery that seven out of ten Christians in Bethlehem believe Israel treats the town’s Christian heritage with brutality or indifference.”

“The Bethlehem poll, which was carried out by the Palestinian Centre for research and Cultural Dialogue, shows on the other hand that more than two-thirds (73.3%) of Bethlehem’s Christians believe that the Palestinian Authority treats Christian heritage with respect. That result will surprise some who believe that the election of Hamas has strained Christian-Muslim relations in the town.”

According to Younan, most Palestinians believe in a two-state solution along the 1967 borders that includes the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Moreover they want a just resolution for the refugees. They want security in a state that is contiguous, viable, independent, and sovereign, which means international boundaries and access to natural resources. A recent news report reveals that Israel controls 80 per cent of the water. Palestinians want an end to the occupation and the settlements.

Some Palestinian voices (who live in the Holy Land and in the Diaspora) have called for a one-state solution.

Although the Arab World sees the US superpower upholding justice and peace for some people and not for others, growing voices in the Arab World and abroad state the fact that one of the core problems to the Middle East Crises is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“The road to peace is through Jerusalem and then Baghdad and then the rest.”