Above Image: Taken in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem (July, 2016).
While shopping in a small gift shop in the Israeli city of Nazareth last summer, I recall engaging in some small talk with the local shop owner, who over the course of our conversation told me he was a Palestinian Christian. At one point, and I don’t recall what I said to prompt the declaration, he exclaimed “We were the first Christians!”
Nazareth is, after all, the hometown of Jesus Christ and has had a significant continual Christian population from much of the last two millennia. I smiled and he laughed and then we completed my purchase of a small crucifix for my son. For some reason, the shop owner’s proud words have stayed with me since the trip and often come to mind when I think of the Palestinian people that I met during my time there.
My summer visit to the Holy Land was the result of an education and cultural exchange mission to the West Bank and Israel in July of 2016 and hosted by the American Federation of Ramallah-Palestine. I was part of a group that included four other U.S. academics. I have written about my experiences during the trip here.
As a result of my visit, I had a number of other memorable interactions with Palestinian Christians beyond the shop owner mentioned above. Indeed, it was a thoughtful Palestinian Christian colleague of mine who initially suggested I take the trip to better inform my understanding of the complexities of the ongoing Palestinian-Israel conflict; a charming Palestinian Christian from Chicago guided us while we were there (spending most of our time in the West Bank); numerous local guides were Christians as well, proudly displaying their crucifixes hanging from their necklaces; on our first night in the West Bank we were welcomed with a nice dinner by Mousa Hadid, the Palestinian Christian Mayor of Ramallah, the defacto capital of the Palestinian National Authority; and we had lunch a few days later with Vera Baboun, a Christian and the first female Mayor of Bethlehem. Baboun, is the former principal of a Roman Catholic High School and former lecturer in English Literature at Bethlehem University, and thus spoke quite eloquently, and intensely, about the problems she experienced in her dealings with the Israeli government as we dined.
Above Image: (L) Dinner in the West Bank with Mousa Hadid, the Christian Mayor of Ramallah. A fascinating discussion and a fascinating place to have such a discussion (July, 2016). (R) Vera Baboun, the Mayor of Bethlehem, (taken from Wiki commons-https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39593957).
One of the most significant things I took away from my interactions with so many Palestinian Christians was their intense dedication to Palestinian causes and their genuine concerns, or even fears, over Israeli policy as it related to the West Bank. This applies to Palestinians of all social classes, from shop keepers and tour guides to the mayors of historically important Christian cities, regardless of where they make their homes (e.g. Jacksonville, Chicago, Ramallah, Nazareth, Bethlehem, etc…).
I admit to feeling a certain affinity and sympathy for these Christians. As both a historian of pre-modern religion and as a Catholic, how could I not? Many of them, through the unfortunate circumstances of so much conflict in the region over the last seventy-five years, have lost considerable wealth, lands, and family members. While all Palestinians, Christian or Muslim, have suffered from such effects, Palestinian Christians finding themselves as a minority (representing only around 6% to 7% of the world’s twelve million or so Palestinians) seem to have suffered more as suggested in their continually declining numbers. According to the British government’s “Report to the League of Nations on Palestine and Transjordan, 1937,” for example, in 1922 Palestinian Christians represented 9.5% of the total Mandatory Palestine population. By 1946 that number had dropped to 7.9% and today the Palestinian Christian population in the West Bank is estimated to be between 1% and 2.5% and less than 1% in Gaza, with most Palestinian Christians now living abroad, but keeping a keen eye on what happens in their historic homeland.
It seems to me, based on many conversations I have had with Americans about the ongoing troubles related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that these Christians seem almost non-existent in their considerations of the issue. I recently discussed the issue with an intelligent man, a U.S. Christian, who was fiercely supportive of Israel as he saw the country in conflict with Islamists and groups like Hamas, and thus saw Israel as being on the side of the angels in such a conflict. The man is not an academic, who has time to read books and think about and investigate such issues, but rather a businessman who puts in a lot of hours working at his craft. When I began discussing the issue of Palestinian Christians, he was taken back, as he had not really considered the issue. “The Mayor of Ramallah is a Christian?” he asked? In another instance, he commented, “Yeah, I guess Bethlehem and Nazareth would have significant Christian populations.”
In the mind of the man I describe above, and as I assume is the case with many Americans, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one dimensional, in that they see it as a conflict between Israel, a western style democracy (a claim many Palestinians living in the West Bank are quick to challenge, considering their current situation and perspective), and the Islamic militants of Hamas, a group listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Consequently, particularly in the post 9/11 era, it is not surprising that many Americans reflexively embrace the Israeli side in a dispute framed in this way. Yet there are various complexities that should be considered. Hamas is active in Gaza, where they have real authority, but not in the more heavily populated West Bank. Thus, Palestinians are divided in their political loyalties, with significant differences in leadership between the Hamas administered Gaza Strip and the Palestinian National Authority administered West Bank. Indeed, the differences in government and outlook between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are so significant that they have led to discussion of a so-called “three state” solution to the conflict. So while Americans are certainly not likely to ever see Hamas very sympathetically, it should be made clear that Hamas does not represent all (or most) Palestinians or the interests of Palestinian Christians, for whom U.S. Christians should presumably have much more sympathy.
Moreover, the Palestinian Christians I know, whether living in the U.S. or the West Bank, are fierce in their support of Palestinian causes as they relate to Israel. There is genuine unity among Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians on the issue.
Yet their unity on Israel aside, there some other apparent divisions between them, which they generally do not seem to like to talk about. In much of the West Bank, for example, Muslim women cover their hair, while Christian women do not. I noticed that many Christian women do, however, wear large visible crosses around their necks. During the course of my trip, I had the opportunity to visit An-Najah National University in Nablus. I recall asking a female Muslim professor there if Christian women felt they needed to wear the visible crosses to show the majority Muslim population that they are Christian, and so would not be expected to cover their hair in public. She seemed slightly indignant at the question, lecturing me on the freedom of all Palestinian women to wear whatever they like. After that exchange, a Palestinian Christian woman who overheard the exchange quietly told me that my assumptions were essentially correct, regardless of what the professor had just told me.
I have also asked both Palestinian Christian and Palestinian Muslim friends if they ever felt that Christians were relegated to a second-class status by the Muslim majority or if they were ever exposed to hostility as a result of their faith. My Muslim friends insisted this was not the case, citing the unity of the Palestinian people, the formal commitment of the Palestinian Authority to equality, and the governance of Christian mayors over Muslim majority cities such as Ramallah and Bethlehem. My Palestinian Christian friends responded differently, suggesting that I had hit on something that Palestinian Christians experience, but they did not want to discuss it, at least not in the context of my trip. They preferred to focus on the unity of the Palestinian people in their current situation as it related to Israel, rather than discuss such matters with me. But it seemed clear, from their delayed responses, occasional slight smiles, and the apparent initial uncertainty of how they should respond, that my question had struck a chord.
There have been, unfortunately, instances of poor treatment of Palestinian Christians by the Muslim majority. Consider the case of the Christian inhabitants of the city of Bethlehem. In 1947 they accounted for 85% of the population, but by 1998 had declined to only 40%. Certainly, much of reason for the decline in the population has to do with Palestinians fleeing the bad economic situation in the West Bank, to include the Israeli seizure of lands, regular closure of roads that shut down commerce and the ability of Palestinians to get to work, poor access to water, and occasional conflicts, but Christians have left in higher numbers than Muslims, resulting in the demographic shift noted above. As Victor Batarseh, the former mayor of Bethlehem, noted in 2005, Christians were more motivated to move because they faced all of the above-mentioned hardships, plus those of being a religious minority. Perhaps the most notable recent incident was in 2015, when the Mar Charbel monastery in Bethlehem was set on fire resulting in significant damages, with Maronite Church representatives blaming Islamic extremists for the arson.
There is a bit of an ongoing debate over why Christians, in disproportionately higher numbers, leave the Palestinian territories. One Israeli publication, for example, argued the reason for the high number of Christian emigres was due to “Cultural and religious suffocation in a mostly Muslim city,” and even “persecution” as “Christians feel like they are trapped in a cultural and religious ghetto.” Yet, conversely, the Palestinian Centre for Research and Cultural Dialogue polled the city’s Christians in 2006 and found that 73% of Christians believed the Palestinian Authority treated Christian heritage with respect and 78% attributed the high numbers of Christians leaving the city to the Israeli blockade. Based on my experiences traveling through the West Bank and speaking with people in a variety of settings and circumstances, I think the poll numbers sound about right. Palestinian Christians may sometimes suffer as a result of their minority status at the hands of some Islamic extremists who wish them harm, but it is not so great that it shatters the unity they share with other more tolerant Palestinian Muslims who prefer to keep their focus on Israel, rather than each other. This unity isn’t, however, necessarily enough to keep Christians there if they have the means to leave.
Even the fact that a disproportionately high number of Palestinian Christians leave the West Bank is, in itself, a bit divisive. I once asked a Palestinian Christian friend, who does not want to be cited here, what Palestinian Muslims thought of the Christians leaving the region to live, in many cases, in majority Christian countries. He paused, but then frankly responded, “They don’t like it. They can see it as selling out.”
Whatever the case, it is my hope that a thriving Palestinian Christian community can remain in the West Bank. To do so it will be important that they, as a minority community, are protected by the Palestinian Authority and, more importantly, that the hardships brought about by the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be alleviated.