israel and palestine religious conflict


Here is a truly incarnational Christmas sermon. Perhaps it’s the one I should have given!

It is remarkable the extent to which Bethlehem today reflects the ‘little town’ of Biblical times. It’s not so little now of course but it’s still a town under occupation and foreign visitors to the town are still questioned as the Magi were.

Father Dave

Bethlehem today

Bethlehem today


Bethlehem Then and Now

Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb’s Sermon

“O little town of Bethlehem” is one of the most famous Christmas Hymns. Bethlehem has become almost a mythological place: Children imagine it with a few “huts,” a few camels and the holy family. At the time of Jesus, Bethlehem was a little town of 300-1,000 inhabitants. What people might not know is that the city of Bethlehem today is not in Israel but in Palestine, and that it is a bustling city with 28,000 people. One third of them are Palestinian Christians.

When Christians today sing “O little town of Bethlehem” they seldom think of the real city with the real people. When it comes to Bethlehem and to Christmas, Christianity has become so spiritualized and so commercialized.

It’s all about Santa, the Tree, the gifts, and the food. But what happened in Bethlehem 2000 years ago was something real. Jesus was born as a refugee. His family was forced to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem. Later his family had to flee the brutality of King Herod and go into hiding in Egypt for two years. Today Bethlehem has almost 20,000 Palestinian refugees who lost in 1948, when the State of Israel was established, their land, homes and belongings and came to Bethlehem seeking refugees. They are still living in three refugee camps waiting for a just solution.

The Christmas story of the Bible has nothing to do with what we know today as Christmas. Take the story of the Magi or the kings from the East. That story is read in a nostalgic way and is being performed over and over again. But a closer look at the story will show that it talks about the Roman Empire and their occupation of Palestine. Empires do not control only the native people they rule; they also work to ensure that visitors coming in contact with the land and its native people are controlled. In 2010 a well-known evangelical preacher came to attend a theological conference in Bethlehem. Upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israeli officials told him that they would like to invite him for a cup of coffee in their offices and have a chat. For almost four hours he was questioned about his decision to attend a conference in Bethlehem, what he thought of the Palestinian Kairos Document, and how he knew some of these “radical” Palestinian theologians. This was supposed to be VIP treatment.. Others who are part of solidarity movements with Palestine are often detained at the Israeli airport and sent back to their home countries.

When this highly reputed American evangelical preacher told us his story I told him, “Welcome to Palestine. As someone who knows his Bible well you should not have been surprised by such treatment. The same VIP treatment was also extended to the Magi from the east that came to see Jesus in Bethlehem. Herod too invited them ‘for a cup of coffee’ to ascertain why they wanted to travel to Bethlehem, and how they knew about the newborn child. So now you have experienced something biblical. Welcome to the Holy Land!”

I still recall how everyone in the group laughed. Then an American woman attending the conference asked me, “So what should we tell the Israelis at the airport when they question us about where we have been? What should we say?” I replied “I wish I could tell you what the angel told the Magi, after visiting Jesus; basically showing them another route not controlled by the Empire. Unfortunately, all roads, airports and borders are controlled by Israel. By the way, an invitation to drink a cup of coffee by Israeli or Arab intelligence authorities is known in political jargon as interrogation.” We seldom read the story of the Magi as them being interrogated by the occupation that holds the power. But this is what it was.

Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus was a besieged city. Today Bethlehem is again a besieged city surrounded from three sides by a 25 foot high concrete wall. So what if Jesus were to be born today in Bethlehem? If Jesus were to be born this year, he would not be born in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph would not be allowed to enter from the Israeli checkpoint, and so too the Magi. The shepherds would be stuck inside the walls, unable to leave their little town. Jesus might have been born at the checkpoint like so many Palestinian children while having the Magi and shepherds on both sides of the wall.

So where is the Gospel in all of this? The good news is this: God came into no other than this troubled, wounded and real world. He is real and wants to enter into our real world with all its complexities and fears. Christmas is real. It is not a myth or a wonder world. The Gospel is that God became one of us, one like us. He came as a child, vulnerable, and weak. And yet through his vulnerability was able to overcome the empire. Christmas is God’s promise to us that we will have life, peace, and future. For us Palestinian Christians and citizens of Bethlehem the Christmas story of then is our story today. Praise God that Jesus is the same: yesterday, today and forever.


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!

Father Dave

ban on Christmas tree


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!



  • 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.


  • 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.”


  • 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.”


  • 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.’


  • 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.

(See here for a map of Israeli settlements around East Jerusalem and the E-1 plan. See here for a map of settlements surrounding Bethlehem.)


Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal was the 13th Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem – a diocese that includes Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. He is also a personal friend of mine.

As ever, this great campaigner for peace urges us to commit ourselves to the task of reconciliation and peace in the year ahead. Father Dave

Bishop Riah (right) with me and Sheikh Mansour in 2006

Bishop Riah (right) with me and Sheikh Mansour in 2006

Dearest Friends, the Children of Light,

The time has come for hearts to be targeted and brains to be triggered.   A loaded gun is pointed at our orbiting star.  Wake up dear companion comrades from a long sleepy coma.  How much harm has the human race inflicted on each other, how violently, rather instantaneously, and perhaps irreversibly, have we injured the universe entrusted to us.

Some prophesize, others predict.  Some approve, others contradict.    Yet, our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic arena.   It is the only world known so far to harbor life.

“I implore you, I beg you, and I order you: stop the repression” said Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador to his people.  Let us join hands to stop the crimes all around.  Instruments of destruction, like cannibals, feed on rivers of blood.  Tanks, like carnivores, swallow up human bodies both dead and alive.  Submarine sharks and F16 fighter eagle jets, fire hatred from high above and from deep below.  Spy satellites are indeed smart…!!

Half dead and half alive should not be our choice.  The question of birth remains as mysterious as that of death.   The first is joyous; the second sorrowful.   Behold, not even the most distinguished geniuses in the history of mankind remember being born!    Most of us mythologize about it.  Dates mark our entry and departure to and from the world’s gateway.  Every birth is a miracle.  Every birth is a resurrection.  When the sun sets, it dies only to rise again.

May the Prince of Peace; the sun/Son of Truth, of Justice and of Life rise on the horizon of all nations.  May we witness the Omega of all evil and celebrate the Alpha of love, reconciliation and tranquility through 2013.

Wishing you a joyous Christmas and a most blessed New Year.

+Bishop Riah

13th Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem

Christmas 2012


“Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” (Luke 2:14)

If it’s happening in Bethlehem again then it may catch on! 😉


Bethlehem Awaiting a Uniquely Joyful Christmas

Palestinians Rejoicing at UN Recognition as Non-Member State

JERUSALEM, DEC. 19, 2012 (…) – An auxiliary bishop of Jerusalem says this Christmas in the town where Jesus was born will be particularly joyful.

Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of Jerusalem told the charity Aid to the Church in Need that Bethlehem will enjoy a uniquely festive Christmas because Palestinians welcomed as a “victory” the recent UN recognition of Palestine as a non-member state.

Bishop Shomali suggested that the morale of Palestinians – both Christians and Muslims – was boosted by last month’s “status upgrade.”

“For Christians in and around Bethlehem,” the bishop told ACN, “Christmas this year will be joyful because of the UN recognition of the Palestinian state.

“This has given people a lot of morale and indeed is seen by many as a victory.”

But Bishop Shomali said the festive spirit was tempered by many overseas tourists scrapping Christmas pilgrimages to the Holy Land in response to last month’s Israel-Gaza conflict.

“There will certainly be fewer pilgrims and other visitors from overseas,” he said. “Many have cancelled their trips here but we will still have many people coming from Galilee and elsewhere as well as many Christians from Bethlehem.”

Bishop Shomali also told ACN that the conflict in Syria is of grave concern to Christians in the Holy Land.

“What is happening in Syria casts a dark shadow. It impacts on us very greatly. We are not happy with what is happening in Syria. We are anxious and sad about the situation there.”

“There are good and bad feelings this Christmas,” he concluded, “but if we consider that Christmas is above all a spiritual feast, I believe it will be a very good celebration.”