Palestinian Christians: An Historic Community at Risk?


On a moonlit December evening in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, seventeen-year-old Johnny Thaljiya was outside his cousin’s souvenir shop.  He had just finished the evening mass at the historic Greek Orthodox Church of the Nativity where he served as an altar boy.  Suddenly, Johnny let out a scream and grabbed his throat as he fell to his knees and collapsed.  Family and friends rushed to his side and realized that Johnny had been shot through the throat by an Israeli sniper, not an unusual fate for young Palestinian men these days.  Rushed to the hospital, it was too late to save him.  Johnny died within an hour as the number of Palestinian deaths crept toward 800 over the previous 16 months of the al-Aqsa intifada.

Sadly, the international community has done nothing to protect Palestinian youths and other civilians from a fate like that of Johnny Thaljiya.  A U.S. veto at the United Nations (UN) has blocked impartial international observers who would function as buffers between the Israeli army and the Palestinians.  Today every Palestinian is at risk under this occupying army and increasingly every Israeli is at risk as the violence continues to escalate in the occupied Palestinian areas and inside Israel.

Often overlooked in this descent into war in the Holy Land is a community whose presence may not survive the next 25-30 years in Israel and Palestine: the dwindling Palestinian Christian community.  Many Palestinian scholars believe that Palestinian Christians could disappear in the Holy Land within a generation if the present war and emigration patterns among Christians continue.  It is ironic that as Palestinian Christianity celebrates its anniversary of 2,000 years in Palestine and Israel, the community is on the verge of extinction.  Perhaps more troublesome is the fact that little is being done by the West or the international Christian churches.  Most striking is the fact that the Middle East policies of the nation with the largest and most powerful Christian majority is underwriting the destruction of Palestinian Christianity through its uncritical support of Israel’s war machine.

The British Mandate and al Nakba:

The British census of 1922 placed the Christian Palestinian population in Jerusalem at just over 51 percent, the majority being of the well-educated mercantile class.  Gradually, Zionist settlement increased the proportion of Jews in Palestine, but the Jewish presence in Jerusalem remained relatively small.  However, the hostilities that followed the UN partition vote of 28 November 1947 had a devastating effect on the Palestinian population with between 725-775,000 refugees being expelled from their ancestral lands.

Historian Sami Hadawi estimated that over 50 percent of Jerusalem’s Christians were expelled from their west Jerusalem homes, the largest single numerical decline of Christians in Palestine in history.  Hadawi’s study concluded that in Jerusalem a higher proportion of Palestinian Christians became refugees after 1949, a ratio of 37 percent of Christians to 17 percent of the Muslims.  The higher ratio of Christians was due in part to the fact that the majority lived in the wealthier western Jerusalem districts seized by Israel during 1948-49.  Further, approximately 34 percent of the lands seized by Israel were owned by Palestinian Christian churches, and they were simply taken by force with no compensation given to the previous owners.

Bethlehem University Sociologist Bernard Sabella reports that by 1966 Palestinian Christians had declined to 13 percent of the total Palestinian population in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, a significant decline from the 18-20 percent that had held until 1947.  However, following the 1967 war and continuing until the signing of the Oslo Accords on 13 September 1993, the population decline was more dramatic.  Sabella places the ratio of Palestinian Christians to Muslims at 2.1 percent in 1993.  This decline was a direct reaction to the severity of the Israeli occupation and the lack of an economic, educational, vocational, and secure life in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank.

Had the 18 percent of the 1922-47 period remained, the Palestinian Christians would have numbered close to 300,000 by the early 1990s.  Inside Israel, the Palestinian Christians grew to approximately 160,000 by 1993, compared to a Muslim population of 650,000.  However, by the turn of the century and the second intifada, the emigration patterns continued to the extent that Christians now number only an estimated 1.6 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

If these rates continue over the next generation, Palestinian and western scholars observe that the indigenous Palestinian Christian population will be on the verge of extinction within a generation.  Some call this the “museumification” of the indigenous Christians of Palestine and Israel, indicating that there will only be a small number of elderly Christians left to show churches to western tourists, but the churches will be empty, having no local community to worship and inhabit them.

Many Palestinian Christians are now stating, perhaps as an appeal to the conscience of the West, addressed especially to the people and the government of the United States, that Palestinian Christianity may die within a generation if a just peace is not implemented in Israel-Palestine soon.  The fundamental crisis for Palestinian Christians is the same as that for all Palestinians-the occupation and the brutality of Israel’s measures against the entire Palestinian community.  Until the United States implements policies with full accountability which will bring Israel into compliance with UN resolutions 242 and 338, all Palestinians and Israelis will continue to suffer insecurity, economic deprivation, and death from the inhumane status quo of occupation.

What Palestinian Christians Want:

Perhaps the most succinct and accurate articulation of the Palestinian Christian position is found in the Jerusalem Sabeel Document of 2000, produced by the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem.  Led by the Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, former Canon of St. Georges’ Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem and Director of the Sabeel Center, this document summarizes what the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Christians accept as the basis for a just peace in the conflict.  The document begins with a biblical and theological rationale for their position and then turns to the moral basis for their “Peace Principles.”

Once a moral framework has been articulated, the document outlines the legal and political framework for a just peace.  Citing UN resolutions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Fourth Geneva Convention, this framework essentially reiterates the international consensus held by every nation with the sole exceptions of Israel and the United States.

These moral, legal, and political principles state the unambiguous basis for a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  Since 1948, it is estimated that approximately 50 peace proposals have been brought forth and all have failed.  In some cases the United States, (often under pressure from Israel) has opposed the principles outlined in the Sabeel Document, despite the fact that the United States has been a signatory to these very principles.

Fortunately, most Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox church bodies in Europe, Canada, and the United States have now adopted official policy statements that are in complete accord with the Sabeel Principles.

The task now is to translate these national policies into active moral, spiritual, and even political advocacy by the clergy and laypersons.  The mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches can make a significant difference in the near future if there is a concerted effort at education and organization, and there are some indications that the pendulum is swinging in that direction.  The struggle for Palestinian rights remains a distant hope, but the official policies are now in place and the infrastructure for significant action is coming into view.

Don Wagner is associate professor of Religion and Middle Eastern Studies, and executive director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at North Park University.