Palestinian Christians: the forgotten faithful


"We are doing this mass to pray [to] God, because nobody is hearing us. Just God can hear our prayers and He can change the mind of all the people who are putting injustice on the Palestinian people. We are losing our land, Americans are doing nothing for us, Europe is doing nothing for us, just God can help us change the mind of everybody to give us back our own land".

It may surprise you, but these are not the words of some Islamist fanatic, looking to sweep the Jewish people into the sea and create a medieval Islamic caliphate in Palestine. These are the words of Father Ibrahim Shomali, the Catholic priest of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, as he celebrates an open-air mass in the beautiful Cremisan valley. His mass takes place every Friday, as a sign of protest against a planned extension of Israel's separation barrier which will lead to the confiscation of yet more Palestinian Christian land.

In October 2012, the Foreign Secretary William Hague, a politician not known for his activism on behalf of the Palestinians (as his ill-judged statement on Palestine's application for non-member observer status at the UN demonstrated), formed an improbable alliance with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, to protest against Israeli plans to extend its separation barrier near Bethlehem. The extended barrier will run between Cremisan's famous wine-making monastery and convent, separating the two establishments and cutting off the monks from the local Christian community in Beit Jala. It will also separate the convent and more than 50 families from land they own.

But the indignity and humiliation of having ancestral lands stolen are not the only problems facing Palestinian Christians today. Many Christians in the West do not even know that the Palestinian Christians exist. My friend the Rev Dr Naim Ateek of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem tells how, when he tells US Christians that he too is a Believer, the question comes back (presumably from people who think that Jesus came from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania): "Wow, when were you converted?"

"About two thousand years ago" is Naim's stock reply.

As I wrote for New Wine Magazine back in the autumn of 2010:

" is easy to overlook the fact that in the midst of all this political and religious mayhem there is an indigenous Christian community. It is possible to pass through the Holy Land without ever meeting these Believers – many Israeli tour companies deliberately keep them off the itinerary. Yet these “living stones”, so called because of the reference in 1 Peter 2:5 but also because their traditions are as old as the stones around them, struggle on amid intense pressures to maintain their presence and identity, seeking to build bridges between communities, and expressing their faith through compassionate social ministry.

Palestine’s Christian community has not always been small. Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, as much as a third of Palestine’s Arab population was Christian, while in Bethlehem and Nazareth a significant majority of the inhabitants were Christians. Today the picture is very different. In the Palestinian territory as a whole, Christians number just one or two per cent; in Bethlehem and Nazareth the figure has fallen to barely 20 or 30 per cent.

Emigration is the main cause of the decline, as Christians have fled from a land of almost constant repression and violence, squeezed out in a conflict that is perceived – wrongly – to be between Muslim and Jew. The indignities and hardships of occupation have been the biggest single factor in this exodus. It is an astonishing fact, but not one that you will hear from the tour guides, that there are five times more Palestinian Christians in Chile than there are in Palestine today. Ramallah is the main town on the West Bank yet it is said that there are more Christians from Ramallah living in Dearborn, Michigan, than there are in Ramallah itself." 

There has been a lively debate in the West as to the cause of this Christian exodus. Israel and its supporters maintain that Christians are fleeing from Islamic fundamentalism, as manifested by Hamas, the Islamist group now in control of Gaza. They assert, by contrast, that Palestinian Christians in Israel are free to worship and have full legal rights. This latter claim is not borne out by the facts, as our report for the recent House of Lords debate on the position of Palestinians in Israel demonstrated.

Yet as a controversial CBS news report from April 2012 showed, others think it is the intolerable burden of Israel's occupation which is causing Christians to leave Palestine in their thousands. The Israeli Ambassador in Washington tried in vain to get CBS to drop the report, such was the damage it could cause to Israel's Christian Zionist support base in the United States. 

A curious feature of this debate is that nobody ever seems to ask the Palestinian Christians what they themselves think. Yet they have spoken, powerfully and eloquently, and with increasing voice in recent times. In December 2009 leaders of all the major Palestinian Christian denominations endorsed a Kairos Palestine document, a "cry of hope" that the world might finally "stand by the Palestinian people who have faced oppression, displacement, suffering and clear apartheid for more than six decades". The document declared boldly: "we Palestinian Christians declare that the military occupation of our land is a sin against God and humanity".

Even now Christians in the UK are preparing a British and Irish response to Kairos Palestine, and Embrace the Middle East is involved in this, with many other Christian organisations including BMS World Mission, CMS, Amos Trust, Greenbelt and USPG. Kairos Palestine has just this month teamed up with the Bethlehem-based NGO Badil to produce a damning new report on the "forcible displacement and dispossession" of Palestine's tiny Christian community as a result of continued occupation. The report looks at the impact on Palestinian Christians of Israel's "silent transfer policy" (through enforcement of residency rights), the draconian family unification rules (which, as another report by the World Council of Churches showed, have a disproportionate impact on Palestine's Christian community given its small size), child registration requirements, controls on family visits, checkpoints and the separation barrier.

In the Kairos Palestine document, Palestinian Christians wrote:

"Our word to the Churches of the world is...a call to repentance; to revisit fundamentalist theological positions that support certain unjust political options with regard to the Palestinian people. It is a call to stand alongside the oppressed and preserve the word of God as good news for all rather than to turn it into a weapon with which to slay the oppressed."

Are we Christians in the West really listening to this cry for help from our brothers and sisters in the land of the Holy One? And if we have listened, what are we going to do about it?