The Israeli government is loathe for this sort of news to get out, as it threatens one of the key demographics amongst the state’s supporters – ie. American Evangelicals!
In my conversations with Christians in the US I find that most are not even aware of the existence of Palestinian Christians! All Palestinians are assumed to be Muslims (and are accordingly suspected of terrorism).
Palestinian Christian presence in Palestine endangered as a result of the occupation
There is an on-going conspiracy against the Christian presence in the Palestinian territories, said Hanna Issa Hadithah, an activist who supports the Christian presence in Palestine.
“The [Israeli] authorities bear primary responsibility for emptying the land of the Christ of Christians,” Hanna Issa said in an interview held in Ramallah.
Issa, who also heads the Muslim-Christian committee for supporting Al Quds and sanctity, added that there are currently 4300 Christians in Jerusalem only. However, the number of Christians in Jerusalem has almost halved in the past decade.
“The number of the Christians that remained in the Gaza Strip is now 1230 and 40,000 in the Occupied West Bank,” he added.
According to official statistics, Christians constitute less than 1 per cent of the Palestinian population in the Palestinian territories (the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza).
Issa said that in the year 630, Christians made up 90 per cent of the population, “and now they constitute less than 1 per cent of the Palestinians residing in Palestine due to forced displacement by the Occupation, the economic situation and inducements by some missionary Zionist Christians.
The head of the committee also highlighted that Israel controls the areas where sacred Christian sites are located as well as the routes to these sites; therefore, Christians prefer to emigrate from the area.
Noting that the immigration of Christian Palestinians begun to take on a political nature since the middle of last century, “Israel’s objectives behind the rise of Christian immigration from Palestine is to empty its lands from Christians.” “It aimed at emptying Palestine from its civilizational components and diversity in line with the Israeli policy toward damaging the Palestinian people’s culture and scattering Palestinians around the world.
Issa noted that all Palestinians – Muslim and Christian – have a common culture and live in the same circumstances. “But the immigration of Christians from Palestine requires a serious and responsible pause by relevant political actors.
He noted that the Palestinian Authority has no strategy to confront this decline, and that there is no purely Christian Church in Palestine to follow up on the catastrophe. Churches in Palestine are affiliated with other Christian denominations in other countries, and there is no Christian Church for Palestinian Christians; one which would confront the danger.
He concluded that the Palestinian Authority’s institutions and civil society organisations in Palestine must prevent this emigration and reinforce the presence of this group, “as there is a dire need to find a comprehensive vision for the nation’s issues, and serious work need to be undertaken by Muslims and Christians together in order to confront the various challenges that the Palestine Issue faces.”
Hopes are running high world-wide that the new Pope will bring sweeping changes both within the church and to the church’s relationship with other religious and political bodies. At such a critical juncture for the future of Palestine, the leaders of both Fatah and Hamas in Palestine will be keen to establish a positive relationship with the new Pontiff.
Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, was somewhat of a failure when it came to Palestinian rights. While the Vatican was always supportive of Palestinian statehood, Pope Benedict made an unfortunate statement in 2006 about the history of Islamic violence that put a lot of Muslims offside. Moreover, being German and growing up in the Nazi era, Benedict was constantly on the back foot with regards to Israel.
Hopefully the new Pope will bring in a new era, but we must not count our chickens before they hatch. It is worth remembering that it is not the Pope but the Curia who control the church, and the Curia has not changed (not yet, at any rate).
The New Pope and Palestine
By: Daoud Kuttab for Al-Monitor Palestine Pulse
What concerns people the most is the political direction that the leader of the world’s more than 1 billion Catholics will take on issues such as women’s rights, relations with other faiths and foreign policy.Electing the leader of the world’s Catholic faithful is always an unpredictable affair. The choice of Argentina’s cardinal, now Pope Francis, has lived up to the mystery.
Palestinians and peoples of the Middle East have been searching hard in the new pontiff’s history to try and figure out where he will stand on the issues that are of concern to them.
Two issues were prominently talked about in this regard. The Jesuit background of the new pope was quickly picked up as a sign that the new leader of the Catholic Church will pay attention to socio-economic issues and not just theological ones.
In the Middle East, Jesuits are known to have established schools of higher education and other projects supporting the poor. His coming from a non-European country (apparently the first time in a millennium) also ensures, many believe, a more internationalization of the Vatican.
The Palestinian leader who congratulated the new Pope was naturally quick to invite the Holy Father to visit the birthplace of Christianity. The congratulatory cable to the Vatican included an invitation to the pontiff to visit Bethlehem. Pope Benedict, as well as Pope John Paul, had visited the Holy Land, including an important visit to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem.
The Vatican has generally been supportive of Palestinian rights and the need to end the occupation of Palestine. But equally the leaders of the Catholic Church have placed tremendous efforts to improve relations with Israel and also with world Jewry.
A recent agreement between the Vatican and Israel was signed that resolved a number of issues regarding Catholic holy sites in Jerusalem and the status of priests in Jerusalem and the area. Some felt that Vatican gave too much to the Israelis, especially allowing them control over the Last Supper room.
The compromise in which the Vatican will retain a symbolic seat on the table was seen as too much of a compromise to an occupying power that took sovereignty by military control.
The Vatican’s auxiliary bishop in Jerusalem, William Shomali, a Palestinian, told the National — an English language newspaper based in Abu Dhabi — that he hoped the new leader would continue with the church’s policy of addressing the difficulties facing Christians in the region, especially in countries such as Iraq, where many have been forced to flee because of sectarian fighting.
Bishop Shomali also expressed optimism that Pope Francis’ Argentine nationality could help breathe new life into the Israel-Palestinian peace process because, he said, Argentina “was a friend of the people of the holy land.”
But perhaps the most important issue of interest in the region is the possibility and potential of Catholic/Christian relations with Muslims. Pope Benedict caused a rift in relations with a statement in 2006 in which he quoted an anti-Muslim thinker’s statement on Islam.
The head of Islam’s leading higher educational institute, Al-Azhar, was quick to welcome the new Pope Francis and has called for change. “We are hoping for better relations with the Vatican after the election of the new pope,” said Mahmud Azab, an adviser to Ahmed al-Tayyeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar.
Arab Christians, while dwindling in numbers, are still an important influential group on Arab nationalism and intellectualism. Christians in areas such as Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine will be looking closely as to what the Catholic Church under Pope Francis will say and do in order to stem the migration epidemic and to encourage remaining Christians to stay in their countries.
Palestinian Christian leaders have been insisting that the emigration problem is turning holy sites and churches into dead rather than living stones. The need to encourage and empower this dwindling group is much bigger than their percentages in society.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor‘s Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. Active in media-freedom efforts in the Middle East, Kuttab is a columnist for The Jordan Times, The Jerusalem Post and The Daily Star in Lebanon, and has co-produced a number of award-winning documentaries and children’s television programs.
Read more: www.al-monitor.com…
It is hard to think of the fir tree as being especially ‘Christian’. I believe it goes back to St Boniface (in the 8th century) who substituted the small fir tree, with its evergreen pins symbolising eternal life, for the traditional pagan oak. Even so, few people today would be aware of any such symbolism. It seems that the issue is really the observance of the holiday itself, and it’s hard to imagine that the tourist trade in Israel will not suffer if its hotels refuse to acknowledge the very occurrence of Christmas and New Year!
December 24, 2012
The terror lurking in a Christmas tree
Israel tries to ban non-Jewish celebrations
By Jonathan Cook in Nazareth
Israel’s large Palestinian minority is often spoken of in terms of the threat it poses to the Jewish majority.
Palestinian citizens’ reproductive rate constitutes a “demographic time bomb”, while their main political programme – Israel’s reform into “a state of all its citizens” – is proof for most Israeli Jews that their compatriots are really a “fifth column”.
But who would imagine that Israeli Jews could be so intimidated by the innocuous Christmas tree?
This issue first came to public attention two years ago when it was revealed that Shimon Gapso, the mayor of Upper Nazareth, had banned Christmas trees from all public buildings in his northern Israeli city.
“Upper Nazareth is a Jewish town and all its symbols are Jewish,” Gapso said. “As long as I hold office, no non-Jewish symbol will be presented in the city.”
The decision reflected in part his concern that Upper Nazareth, built in the 1950s as the centrepiece of the Israeli government’s “Judaization of the Galilee” programme, was failing dismally in its mission.
Far from “swallowing up” the historic Palestinian city of Nazareth next door, as officials had intended, Upper Nazareth became over time a magnet for wealthier Nazarenes who could no longer find a place to build a home in their own city. That was because almost all Nazareth’s available green space had been confiscated for the benefit of Upper Nazareth.
Instead Nazarenes, many of them Palestinian Christians, have been buying homes in Upper Nazareth from Jews – often immigrants from the former Soviet Union – desperate to leave the Arab-dominated Galilee and head to the country’s centre, to be nearer Tel Aviv.
The exodus of Jews and influx of Palestinians have led the government to secretly designate Upper Nazareth as a “mixed city”, much to the embarrassment of Gapso. The mayor is a stalwart ally of far-right politician Avigdor Lieberman and regularly expresses virulently anti-Arab views, including recently calling Nazarenes “Israel-hating residents whose place is in Gaza” and their city “a nest of terror in the heart of the Galilee”. Although neither Gapso nor the government has published census figures to clarify the city’s current demographic balance, most estimates suggest that at least a fifth of Upper Nazareth’s residents are Palestinian. The city’s council chamber also now includes Palestinian representatives.
Christmas trees “offensive to Jewish eyes”
But Gapso is not alone in his trenchant opposition to making even the most cursory nod towards multiculturalism. The city’s chief rabbi, Isaiah Herzl, has refused to countenance a single Christmas tree in Upper Nazareth, arguing that it would be “offensive to Jewish eyes”.
That view, it seems, reflects the official position of the country’s rabbinate. In so far as they are able, the rabbis have sought to ban Christmas celebrations in public buildings, including in the hundreds of hotels across the country.
A recent report in the Haaretz newspaper, on an Israeli Jew who grows Christmas trees commercially, noted in passing: “Hotels – under threat of losing kashrut certificates – are prohibited by the rabbinate from decking their halls in boughs of holly or, heaven forbid, putting up even the smallest of small sparkly Christmas tree in the corner of the lobby.”
In other words, the rabbinate has been quietly terrorizing Israeli hotel owners into ignoring Christmas by threatening to use its powers to put them out of business. Denying a hotel its kashrut (kosher) certificate would lose it most of its Israeli and foreign Jewish clientele.
Few mayors or rabbis find themselves in the uncomfortable position of needing to go public with their views on the dangers of Christmas decorations. In Israel, segregation between Jews and Palestinians is almost complete. Even most of the handful of mixed cities are really Jewish cities with slum-like ghettoes of Palestinians living on the periphery.
Apart from Upper Nazareth, the only other “mixed” place where Palestinian Christians are to be found in significant numbers is Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. Haifa is often referred to as Israel’s most multicultural and tolerant city, a title for which it faces very little competition.
Non-Jewish New Year celebrations “seriously forbidden”
But the image hides a dirtier reality. A recent letter from Haifa’s rabbinate came to light in which the city’s hotels and events halls were reminded that they must not host New Year’s parties at the end of this month (the Jewish New Year happens at a different time of year). The hotels and halls were warned that they would be denied their kashrut licences if they did so.
“It is a seriously forbidden to hold any event at the end of the calendar year that is connected with or displays anything from the non-Jewish festivals,” the letter states.
After the letter was publicized on Facebook, Haifa’s mayor, Yona Yahav, moved into damage limitation mode, overruling the city’s rabbinical council on 23 December and insisting that parties would be allowed to go ahead. Whether Yahav has the power to enforce his decision on the notoriously independent-minded rabbinical authorities is still uncertain.
But what is clear is that there is plenty of religious intolerance verging on hatred being quietly exercised against non-Jews, mostly behind the scenes so as not to disturb Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” image or outrage the millions of Christian tourists and pilgrims who visit Israel each year.
We are grateful to The Institute for Middle East Understanding for this comprehensive list of facts and figures on Christians in the Holy Land. The facts speak for themselves. Despite all rhetoric to the contrary, the Israeli government continues to push forward with its program of ethnic cleansing!
- PALESTINIAN CHRISTIANS IN THE HOLY LAND -
BASIC FACTS & FIGURES
- Today, there are roughly 200,000 Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land, descendants of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
- The majority of Palestinian Christians are Greek Orthodox, with smaller numbers of Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Copts, Episcopalians, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Maronites, Syrian Orthodox, and several other Protestant denominations.
- There are no official figures on the number of Palestinian Christians in the occupied territories, but according to the Lutheran ecumenical institution the Diyar Consortium there are 51,710 Christians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. They are concentrated mainly in East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus, and Bethlehem.
- Christians comprise roughly 2% of the population of the West Bank, while Gaza’s estimated 3,000 Christians account for less than 1% of the coastal enclave’s population. While Gaza’s Christian population has remained steady in recent years, the number of Christians in the West Bank has continued to dwindle as many emigrate as a result of the difficulties of living under Israeli military occupation. Lower birthrates for Christians have also contributed to their shrinking percentage of the population.
- According to Israeli government figures, as of 2009 there were about 154,000 Christian citizens of Israel, or about 2.1% of the population. Of those, approximately 80% are Palestinian Arabs, including 44,000 Roman Catholics, while the rest are non-Arab immigrants, mostly spouses of Jews who came from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
ATTACKS AGAINST CHRISTIANS & THEIR HOLY SITES BY ISRAELI SETTLERS & EXTREMISTS
- The number of violent attacks by Jewish settlers against Palestinians, including Christians, and their property has risen by about 150% each year since 2008, with 154 attacks in the first half of 2012, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
- In recent years, settlers have begun so-called “price tag” attacks against Palestinians in response to Israeli government actions that displease them, such as the dismantling of settlement “outposts” (nascent settlements built without official approval from Israeli authorities). Often, such attacks take the form of vandalism and desecration of Muslim and Christian holy sites, including a string of arson attacks against mosques in the West Bank and Israel.
- In December 2012, Jewish extremists vandalized the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem for the second time, painting “Death to Christianity,” “Jesus, son of a whore,” and “price tag” on its walls and slashing tires on cars in its parking lot.
- In October 2012, the St. George Romanian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem was vandalized, its door damaged and garbage dumped in its entrance. It was at least the third act of vandalism against a Christian holy site in the previous five weeks. A week before the Romanian Church was attacked, vandals spray-painted “Jesus is a bastard” and “price tag” on the Franciscan convent on Mount Zion.
- In September 2012, attackers set fire to the door of the Latrun Monastery in Jerusalem. Believed to be a “price tag” attack, the arson took place a week after the Israeli government evacuated settlers from the Migron settlement “outpost” in the West Bank.
- In February 2012, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that over the previous two months, vandals had attacked two churches and a Christian cemetery on Mount Zion. In the attacks on the churches, the perpetrators spray-painted “Jesus is dead,” “Death to Christianity,” and “Mary was a prostitute” on the walls. One of the churches, the Narkis Street Baptist Congregation in Jerusalem, was previously the target of arson attacks in 2007 and 1982.
- In November 2011, Haaretz reported that ultra-Orthodox Jews were cursing and spitting at Christian clergy in the streets of the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem “as a matter of routine.” The chief secretary of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate stated: “It happens a lot. You walk down the street and suddenly they spit at you for no reason.” A student at the city’s Armenian Seminary complained that he was subjected to insults and spitting from ultra-Orthodox men on a daily basis, stating: “When I see an ultra-Orthodox man coming toward me in the street, I always ask myself if he will spit at me.” According to a separate Haaretz article published in February 2012, spitting incidents were so prevalent that some priests had stopped visiting certain parts of the Old City.
- In June 2012, Dan Halutz, former chief of staff of the Israeli army, which as an occupying military force is ultimately responsible for security in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, said that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t really interested in stopping the perpetrators of “price tag” attacks, stating: “If we wanted, we could catch them and when we want to, we will.”
- In March 2012, the Guardian newspaper reported that senior European Union officials had drafted a confidential report concluding that Jewish settlers are engaged in a systematic and growing campaign of violence against Palestinians and that “settler violence enjoys the tacit support of the state of Israel.”
DISCRIMINATION BASED ON RELIGION
- Christian Palestinians who are citizens of Israel suffer from the same widespread official and unofficial discrimination that other non-Jews do, in everything from land ownership and housing to employment and family reunification rights.
- There are more than 30 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel, directly or indirectly, based solely on their ethnicity, rendering them second- or third-class citizens in their own homeland.
- 93% of the land in Israel is owned either by the state or by quasi-governmental agencies, such as the Jewish National Fund, that discriminate against non-Jews. Palestinian citizens of Israel, including Christians, face significant legal obstacles in gaining access to this land for agriculture, residence, or commercial development.
- In November 2010, the influential chief rabbi of the city of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, issued a ruling forbidding Jews from renting property to Gentiles. The following month, some 50 other municipal chief rabbis, also on the government payroll, signed a letter supporting Eliyahu and his decree. One of the signatories, Rabbi Yosef Scheinen, head of the Ashdod Yeshiva religious school, stated, “Racism originated in the Torah… The land of Israel is designated for the people of Israel.”
- In October 2010, the Knesset approved a bill allowing smaller Israeli towns to reject residents who do not suit “the community’s fundamental outlook” based on sex, religion, and socioeconomic status. Human rights groupscriticized the move as an attempt to allow Jewish towns to keep Arabs and other non-Jews out.
- The US State Department International Religious Freedom Report 2009 noted, “While well-known [religious] sites have de facto protection as a result of their international importance, many Muslim and Christian sites are neglected, inaccessible, or threatened by property developers and municipalities.”
- In the occupied territories, Palestinian Christians suffer from the same restrictions, including on movement, applied to all Palestinians living under Israel’s 45-year-old military rule. These restrictions do not apply to the more than 500,000 Jewish settlers living in illegal settlements in the occupied territories.
- According to the US State Department International Religious Freedom Report 2007: “The Israeli Government gives preferential treatment to Jewish residents of the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, when granting permits for home building and civic services.”
DENIAL OF FREEDOM OF WORSHIP
- Although Israeli officials frequently claim that Palestinian Christians and Muslims have free access to their holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem and other areas under Israeli control, in reality Israeli restrictions make it difficult or impossible for most Palestinians in the occupied territories to worship freely.
- Since 1993, Palestinians living in the in the occupied West Bank and Gaza have been forbidden by Israel to enter occupied East Jerusalem without a difficult to obtain permit. As a result, millions of Palestinian Muslims and Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza are prevented from accessing their holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City.
- In April 2011, 15,000 Christian Palestinians applied for a permit to enter occupied East Jerusalem to worship at Old City holy sites for Easter, but Israel only granted approximately 2,500 of them.
- According to the US State Department 2011 Report on International Religious Freedom, published in July 2012:
‘Strict closures and curfews imposed by the Israeli government negatively affected residents’ ability to practice their religion at holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, as well as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
‘Reports of Christian clergy, nuns, and other religious workers unable to secure residency or work permits increased during the year. Christian advocates claimed that the difficulty of obtaining permits gradually worsened in the last 10 years. Israeli authorities continued to limit visas for Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank or Jerusalem to single-entry visas, complicating clergy travel, particularly to areas under their pastoral authority outside the West Bank or Jerusalem. This disrupted their work and caused financial difficulties for their sponsoring religious organizations.
‘Separately Israel generally prohibited entry into Gaza by Arab Christian clergy, including bishops and other senior clergy to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority.
‘The separation barrier significantly impeded Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and made visits to Christian sites in Bethany and Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who live on the Jerusalem side of the barrier.’
BETHLEHEM & EAST JERUSALEM UNDER SIEGE
- There are currently 22 Israeli settlements built on land belonging to Bethlehem, the city where Christians believe Jesus was born, including Nokdim, where recently resigned Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lives. They surround the city and, along with Israel’s wall, isolate it from Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.
- In and around Bethlehem there are some 32 physical barriers to Palestinian movement erected by Israel, including checkpoints, roadblocks, dirt mounds, and gates. As with other Israeli restrictions on movement in the West Bank, Israeli Jews are allowed to bypass them freely.
- Historically, Jerusalem has been the religious, economic, and cultural center of Palestinian life in the West Bank. Since occupying and illegally annexing the eastern half of the city in 1967, Israel has attempted to separate and isolate East Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied West Bank by building a ring of settlements around its outskirts. As in the case of Bethlehem, this ring of settlements has been reinforced by the wall Israel is constructing, which also separates Israeli settlements in and near East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.
- According to the 2009 US State Department International Religious Freedom Report: “Many of the national and municipal policies in Jerusalem were designed to limit or diminish the non-Jewish population of Jerusalem.”
- According to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem: “Since East Jerusalem was annexed in 1967, the government of Israel’s primary goal in Jerusalem has been to create a demographic and geographic situation that will thwart any future attempt to challenge Israeli sovereignty over the city. To achieve this goal, the government has been taking actions to increase the number of Jews, and reduce the number of Palestinians, living in the city.”
- In December 2012, the Israeli government announced that it had advanced plans for settlement construction in the so-called E-1 corridor of East Jerusalem, prompting international condemnation, including from the United States, which has long-pressured Israel not to build in E-1. If completed, Israel’s plans for E-1 would effectively sever East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and cement the division of the West Bank into separate cantons, making the creation of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories all but impossible.
Highlights are courtesy of Father Roy:
Palestinian Christians swept aside as Israel rewrites history
He vanquished a dragon, saved a princess and passed into myth. What popular culture knows about St George (or Georgius, in Latin) pretty much begins and ends with the children’s fairy tale, but there is a historical figure underneath that legend. Born about 1,800 years ago, St George’s father was a soldier in the Roman army, and his mother was a Palestinian Christian. After his death, he was hallowed by the Catholic Church, but what is less known is that Muslims also venerated his name.
It remains one of history’s curiosities that when European Crusaders invaded Palestine in 1096, they did so under a banner dedicated to a soldier who was born and buried in the Holy Land eight centuries earlier.
Few places on Earth, if any, have inspired so much jealous devotion, not to mention bloodshed, as historical Palestine has over the centuries. More often than not, that blood has been shed by foreign invaders, from both East and West.
After more than 60 years since the Naqba and the start of Israeli occupation, it is natural to be weary of the conflict. It could also be argued that conflict is natural to this land.
But Israeli policy is wreaking a decidedly unnatural consequence. A land that has been home to Christians, Muslims and Jews for millennia is being reshaped.
Evictions of Palestinians from homes and villages increases year by year as Israeli settlements steal more land. It is nothing short of ethnic cleansing. There is serious talk of outright annexation of Area C – 61 per cent of the West Bank – without which Palestine will never be a viable state. Centuries of coexistence may soon be consigned to the history books.
Under the rule of Islamic caliphates since the 7th century, Christians and Jews coexisted with Muslims peacefully for the most part. They were not always afforded the same rights, but they were protected and integrated into society, a marked contrast to the anti-Semitism that persisted in Europe.
The conflict that defined the Holy Land, until the 20th century at least, was the invasion of the Crusaders and so-called clash of civilisations between Muslims and European Christians. Another historical irony is that Jews fought side by side with Muslims in the defence of Jerusalem against the first Crusaders.
The razing of Jerusalem’s Church of Holy Sepulchre in 1009 is seen as the pretext for the European monarchs’ obsession with the Holy Land (although the church was soon rebuilt). What followed less than one century of Crusader rule in Jerusalem, Salaluddin’s retaking of the city in the 12th century and several centuries of intermittent war.
There are still poignant lessons from that history. After the Siege of Jerusalem, Crusaders slaughtered most of the city’s Muslim and Jewish population; after Salaluddin’s victory, Jews and Christians were allowed to settle. And, of course, after centuries of bloodshed, the European incursions were ultimately, completely futile.
After 1948, that land of Palestine became only a historical note, and a dream of Palestinians who were forced from their homes. After the Naksa, the 1967 War, that historical Palestine was further whittled away until, today, less than 22 per cent of the first proposed independent state of Palestine remains. Even that is now under threat.
Palestinian Christians have shared their Muslim compatriots’ pain in the past 64 years, increasingly marginalised in a land they have inhabited for over 2,000 years. Across the region, dwindling Christian communities are often blamed on the rise of Islamists but this is an oversimplification and, in Occupied Palestine, almost wholly a mistake.
Certainly some Islamist groups, heavy on ideology and light on political nous, have been their own worst enemies. Hamas is not blameless in its treatment of Gaza’s Christian minority. Last week, Christians demonstrated after stories emerged that five people, three of them children, had been forced to convert to Islam. The story may just be rumour, but such an act would be indefensible. And Gaza’s Christians are alienated enough to believe it is possible.
In truth, however, Hamas has neither the desire inside Gaza, nor the influence outside of it, to truly marginalise Palestinian Christians. The Christian Palestinian population has suffered, less visibly, just as Muslims have. Christians now account for only 4 per cent of the West Bank population and less than 10 per cent of Palestinians in Israel.
Over the last year in particular, attacks by Israeli extremists on Christians have increased. A Christian cemetery on Mount Zion has been desecrated and two churches vandalised (one of them, Jerusalem Baptist Church, had already suffered arson twice since 1982). “Death to Christianity”, “We will crucify you” and “Jesus son of Mary the whore” graffiti stain the walls. That defilement would cause outrage in almost any country, but not in Israel.
It is in Bethlehem, birthplace of Christ, where the exodus has been most pronounced, with more than 10 per cent of Christians leaving just in the past decade.
Israel’s ill-conceived plan to expand a majority Jewish state in historical Palestine does not distinguish between Palestinian Muslims and Christians. That hollow distinction has allowed Israel to peddle the old line about a “clash of civilisations”, when Palestinians have been living side by side for millennia.
The Palestinian struggle has always been about more than religion. Historical Palestine is not just about 64 years of struggle against an illegal occupation, or Israeli efforts to erase the history books, but about how Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived together for centuries. Palestine, in a modern sense, is not about religion, it’s about justice.