Palestinian Christians: The Unknown Victims

Palestinian Christians: The Unknown Victims

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Palestinian Christians: The Unknown Victims

Johnny Yousef George Thaljieh has become known as the "Martyr of the Nativity Church." He was not a suicide bomber or even a stone thrower, just a 17-year-old kid who belonged to the small Palestinian Christian minority that is often forgotten in what is seen as a war between Muslims and Jews. There was a shooting that day in late October 2001, as there often is between Beit Jala and the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, but none near the Nativity Church. As his mother says, “Nothing was done to make the Israeli sniper think Johnny was a threat.” He had just been to church and was playing with his 4-year-old cousin in Manger Square when the bullet struck him with a fatal blow. When the siege at the Church of the Nativity ended and Johnny was forgotten, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) pulled its soldiers, tanks and armored personnel carriers from Bethlehem and lifted the curfew on the city. The remains were a fractured, disjointed and disoriented Christian community. Not only were a large number of Orthodox Christians affected directly by the closure of the Church of the Nativity, but the great majority of Christian Palestinians in general were indirectly affected by the days of curfew, and what they consider siege. Many feel abandoned by Europe and the US, humiliated by Israel, often rejected by their Muslim neighbors, and worst of all, they fear their society is just a few years from extinction. Despite the initial jubilation that erupted when Israel lifted its curfew after a 39-day grueling standoff between the IDF and gunmen holed up in the Church of the Nativity, reality has come crashing down on this community. Unfortunately, the Christian population of Bethlehem only serves as one example among many. Thousands of Palestinians throughout the Middle East and the world are subjected to prejudice and neglect. Often, they are not welcomed by their Jewish and Muslim neighbors, and are forced to live in communities of fear. Receiving no coverage and attention from the media, these Christians try day after day to survive in lands that have been forced upon them. Palestinian Christians are a people searching for an identity. An identity that has been lost in the turmoil of the Middle East. (Dan 14)
The exodus of the Christians from the region of the Palestinian Authority acquires special significance when one realizes that the entire Christian-Arab population of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip currently totals only 61,000, about 2 percent of the Palestinian population of about three million.

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(Dan 14) The region of Bethlehem, Beit Sahur and Beit Jala, once regarded as a Christian stronghold, now contains about 30,000 Christians compared to about 120,000 Muslims. (Sennot A1) These figures help to reveal a fault line between Palestinian Christians and their Muslim brethren. Although Former President Arafat and the Palestinian Authority attach great importance to the Christians as a means of recruiting support in the Christian countries of the West for their demands, in practice, the Christian population encounters a hostile attitude on the part of the Muslim Palestinians. (Dan 14)

Many Christian Palestinians feel isolated amid what they see as an overwhelming influence of Islam within the new government. Data possessed by Israeli authorities indicate the Muslims are desecrating Christian holy places, damaging property, extorting money from businessmen, and even abusing the dignity of Christian women. Reports held by the Israeli government include horrifying stories. Tanzim activists frequently harass young Christian girls coming to enjoy themselves in the center of Ramallah, and unfortunately, no one comes to their aid. Nasser Abu Hamid, the head of the Tanzim in the Alamari refugee camp in the southern entrance to Ramallah, demanded NIS5,000 for agreeing to release from arbitrary arrest a kidnapped Christian Palestinian. (Gutman 1B) The Palestinian Authority refused to protect an arak (Arabic alcohol) factory owned by Christians in the outskirts of Ramallah, and the factory was attacked by Islamic activists. (Gutman 1B) Abu Halbiya, whose views were broadcast live on Palestinian TV, incited against the Christians as far back as October 2000. Abu Halbiya, the former rector of Islamic University in Gaza, gave a sermon there in the Halil Alwazir mosque, in which he accused the Christians in the "territories" of links with Britain and the United States, and claimed that "the Christians and the Jews are partners in the struggle and hatred directed against the Muslims." Abu Halbiya called on Muslims to fight against these two religions. The same evening thousands of Hamas activists went to the Gaza seashore and smashed up and set alight liquor stores belonging to Christians, saying they were "harming morality." (Ateek 32)

In February 2001, the Christian cemetery in Beit Jala was desecrated by Muslims, but Arafat's police made no efforts to arrest those responsible for the crime, although their identity was well known. When the Christian residents of Beit Jala approached Christian organizations in the world, including the Vatican, and complained Muslim Palestinians were deliberately using the houses of Christians in their town to fire on Gilo, international Christian solidarity could not meet the challenge. Christian churches did not dare to apply real pressure to the Palestinian Authority to halt the firing. The Catholic Patriarch Michel Sabbah, in a letter to Arafat, threatened to move his residence to Beit Sahur if the Tanzim continued to fire from there, thus endangering the lives of Christian residents of the town. However, this threat carried no weight, and no change was made. (Drummond 7)

Within the area on the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the historic peace process begun in 1993 gave a temporary hope for both Christian and Muslim Palestinians alike that they may soon have their own independent state. Gaza and less than one-third of the West Bank currently fall under full or partial control of the Palestinian Authority. (Ateek 12) But for Christians who endured occupation and fought alongside Muslims in the intifadah, life under the Palestinian Authority has been filled with anxiety. Palestinian Christians cite fears of institutional discrimination in the Palestinian Authority, which has adopted Islam as its "official religion." In shaping the "basic law" of the new authority, the legislators relied on "sharia," or the laws codified in the Koran. (Gutman 1B)

Specifically, Palestinian Christian leaders cite land laws that prescribe the death penalty for selling land to Jews. This law is often interpreted by the average Palestinian as preventing Muslims from selling to any non-Muslims, including Christians. This misinterpretation has gained currency because of the preachings of radical Muslim sheikhs who refer to all non-Muslims as "infidels." (Ateek 35) But most of the feelings of discrimination are subtle, Christians say. Ghada Mansour, 29, a former producer of a news show on the authority-controlled Voice of Palestine radio, says a news director told her that Christian names should not be included in obituaries read on the air. And on another occasion, several colleagues acted shocked toward her when she told them she was Christian. The atmosphere, she says, contributed to her decision to leave her job. Another woman who is a nurse in a health clinic was told she should not wear a necklace with a crucifix because she might "offend" some Muslims. (Sennot A1)

Former Palestinian Authority President Arafat has actively condemned religious intolerance. He has long cultivated Christian support for the Palestinian cause and frequently invokes references to the church spires of the Old City along with the minarets when he speaks of reclaiming Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. His wife was Christian. (Gutman 1B) Prominent Arab Christians have been in the vanguard of the region's nationalist and secular democratic movements. One of them is Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi. She expressed disappointment that Arafat, like Netanyahu, has bowed to religious extremist forces within his government. "There is a sense that this is the language of the day," she says. "One political force has to prove it's more fundamentalist than the next. And then suddenly the parameters of political debate are drawn along religious lines." And she is "troubled" about the rising influence of Hamas, the militant Islamic organization, on the shaping of the new Palestinian authority. (Gutman 1B) In the land where their roots and religion began 2,000 years ago, indigenous Christian communities are dwindling in the face of economic hardship and rising fundamentalism. As a result, Christians of all ages are leaving the region.

Along with the tense relations with Muslims, Palestinian Christians live in constant fear of the Jewish Israeli community. After the IDF removed troops from Bethlehem, Manger Square was a confusion of people anxious to complete errands or shop, something they were no able to do for more than a month; it was the longest-lasting siege Israel has had on any Palestinian city since the start of the new hostilities. (Mahnaimi, et al.) The city was left in desolation, with piles of rubbish, herds of journalists and groups of soldiers who congregated on Manger Street. But, the business and economy of the city had halted. Barbershops remained one of the only thriving businesses. One such shop, the Star Saloon, owned by a man known as Abu J'od, was frequented by journalists and guards. "Sure we're making money now," says Abu J'od, "but we have not made a shekel in the past five weeks. We had no food." (Mahnaimi, Smith) With checkpoints on every public road and curfews hindering everyday activity, the Christian community of Bethlehem has been unable to regain an everyday routine. According to many sources, financial problems are not the only catalyst for the flight of Christians. According to these reports only about 30,000 of the Bethlehem area's 130,000 population remains Christian. (Mahnaimi, Smith) Ironically, Christians were once the overwhelming majority. And now another flood of emigration looks to be surging. Some 60,000 Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza now constitute only about 1.5 percent of the entire Palestinian population. (Dan 14)

The tortuously long standoff at the Church of the Nativity has punctured a hole in what little stability the Christian community enjoyed and will likely increase what is already a steady trickle of emigration into a large outpouring. Christian Palestinians have traditionally chosen emigration as a method of self-defense in periods of instability. But while the Christians do not want to be saved by the Jews they do want salvation to come from their Western brethren, which many believe should have applied all possible pressure to resolve the Church of the Nativity standoff much earlier. For instance, many Christians expressed great anger at Italy for accepting the deportation of militants from the church, thus ending the impasse and facilitating Christians moving on with their lives. "Even 20 years ago France and Italy defended the Catholics, and the British protected the Protestants, and the Russians the Orthodox, and now they have stopped looking eastward," says Munayer. "Obviously," he adds, "they now look at the Middle East from their own political interest - there is no doubt that the Christians here are swimming against the trend." (Mahnaimi, Smith ) Religion ties soar in the Middle East, but as Muslims and Jews continue to draw upon their religious contingent, Christians must begin to look elsewhere for hope.

Looking beyond the Christian issue, Palestinians in general are forced to live in tension with Israelis. More than 1,400 homes in Beit Jala have been damaged since the intifada began in September 2000. (Jensen 6A) The last time Israeli tanks invaded in October 2001, they came to quell gunfire directed at Gilo but left many innocent victims either dead, homeless or jobless. (Jensen 6A) One of 12 "martyrs" whose pictures are plastered around the village was a mother of two shot while buying milk for her children. (Jensen 6A) Issa Shatleh, an accountant, showed the remains of his house to international newspapers. The top three floors were uninhabitable, peppered by .50-caliber machine-gun fire and the gaping holes of tank shells. Bullets and shell fragments were embedded in the walls. Shatleh's elderly father had a heart attack during the shelling and remained in the hospital for months. The only undamaged room in the house sleeps 13. His brother, Walid, is a teacher and scoutmaster. He used to interact with Israelis, even attending a camp in Germany with a mixed group of Jewish and Palestinian scouts. However, now the danger and fear keep him from such an association. Angry and scared, Walid speaks of emigration. “You Americans are always worried about Israel's security, but what about our security?" he asked. "I'm a teacher, not a terrorist. Who is protecting me from Israeli aggression?" (Gutman 1B) Walid’s attitude of disdain towards America and the western world is becoming a more popular view among Palestinians. Many of them hold the view that the international community is more concerned with profitability and than with the basic human rights that are being violated.

Professor Jad Isaac of the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ), which is actually located in Bethlehem, says the only way to protect the Palestinian populace is with international observers. And the best way to protect Israel from Palestinian terrorists is to end its occupation of Palestinian land and pull out its settlers. "The only reason Israel objects to 'internationalizing' the conflict," he said, "is that it does not want the rest of the world to see how it robs us of our land, our water and our dignity.” The situation can be described as colonization under the guise of security. “And it's being done with the help of your American tax dollars. If you didn't give Israel your weapons, your aid and your vetoes in the U.N. Security Council, Israel would never be able to get away with it." (Jensen 6A)

International observers have been recommended by numerous foreign envoys and formally requested three times by the Palestinians before the U.N. Security Council. But they have never been accepted by Israel because it believes the United Nations is biased in favor of the Palestinians. Washington supports Israel's contention that observers should only be deployed with the agreement of both sides. ARIJ is a statistical and mapmaking institute, funded by donations from the European Union, that works to end tensions in the region on both sides. It uses satellite imagery to create maps that show that, even though Israel has ceded a percentage of the West Bank to Palestinian rule, it has taken over the territories and the bulk of their resources. (Jensen 6A) Since its 1967 victory in the Six-Day War, Israel has either confiscated or declared as "closed areas" more than 55 percent of the West Bank and 25 percent of the Gaza Strip. (Jensen 6A) The confiscated land was used to build settlements, bypass roads or military installations. The closed areas are either "greenbelts" or security zones totally closed off to Palestinians. (Jensen 6A) They cannot live there or go there. ARIJ says Israel has also diverted West Bank water to Israeli cities, leaving the Palestinians only 15 percent of that resource. (Jensen 6A) Eighteen Jewish settlements have been built in Gaza and more than 200 in the West Bank, housing, at last count, 209,000 settlers. (Jensen 6A) The settler population has nearly doubled since the Oslo peace process began in 1993, fueling Palestinian fears that Israel never intended to relinquish any of them. (Jensen 6A)

Jewish neighborhoods have sprung up all over annexed East Jerusalem, changing the demographics of what used to be the Arab Quarter. They contain another 200,000 Jews, whom Isaac regards as "colonists." Near Bethlehem sits Har Homa, a controversial Jewish housing development built on a hilltop that used to be Arab land. It was designed to expand the boundaries of Greater Jerusalem and consolidate Israel's hold on the Holy City. But it stands empty except for the army troops stationed there. (Jensen 6A) Few Israelis want to buy homes within gunshot range of resentful Arabs. The settlements and housing developments on the outskirts of Jerusalem are connected by an intricate network of bypass roads. More than 200 miles of roadwork, costing $3.2 billion, has been completed since the Oslo accords were signed. "A settler can drive the length and breadth of the West Bank without seeing a Palestinian," said Isaac, "while we remain locked up in our cages." The "cages" he refers to are 64 cantons where the Palestinians theoretically have self-rule. But they are isolated from one another and completely under Israel's military control. Each is encircled by settlements, "closed areas," bypass roads, checkpoints, roadblocks and army patrols. (Jensen 6A) Israel says these are security measures needed to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks. And what of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's offer to give the Palestinians a state of their own if they would only stop attacking Israelis? A look at ARIJ's maps show he's not offering much. The West Bank is divided into Areas A, B and C. Area A, under total Palestinian control, constitutes 18.2 percent. Area B, under civilian Palestinian administration but Israeli military control, has 21.8 percent, and C, closed to all Palestinians, covers 60 percent. (Jensen 6A) "The cumulative area of the 64 cantons covers about 40 percent of the West Bank," said Isaac. "If Sharon has his way, this area will correspond closely with that of any Palestinian state recognized by Israel in the indefinite future. Such an arrangement would, in fact, eliminate the possibility of a viable state and leave the Palestinians permanently submissive to Israel. "The Palestinian enclaves would be completely surrounded by Israel and movement between these areas dependent upon Israeli approval. Furthermore, what Sharon calls the western and eastern 'security areas,' along with the hill aquifer, are the most fertile parts of the West Bank and the richest sources of water. That would leave the Palestinians with no basis for economic development." (Jensen 6A) The infringements of Prime Minister Sharon and the Israeli colonists continually jeopardize the well being of Palestinians and are in essence moves to subject them to complete submission. Without an economic foundation and the freedom to execute even the most basic of everyday activities, Palestinians will eventually lose all bargaining power and potentially fade out of existence by losing their culture and the rest of their identity.

In recent years the international community has begun to recognize the increased importance of immediate action in the Middle East. Media outlets all across the world have begun to dedicate massive amounts of coverage time to the crisis in this region. No longer can the average news audience feel distant from this conflict as it escalates to the point where the next development could affect everyone. Nevertheless, as this rise in awareness may improve some aspects of the Middle East, Palestinian Christians still remain in the shadows of the conflict. Constantly, they are neglected by the international world and fail to receive coverage. This is mainly true in western media. Time and time again, western media, specifically that of the United States, has perpetuated a harmful stereotype of all Palestinians being Muslim. Either from either from failure to recognize the other parties involved or just plain irresponsible reporting, many Americans immediately label Palestinians as Muslim. Too many newscasts refer to Islamic Hamas as the guardians of the Palestinians, and the Muslim leadership of the PA is always highlighted. Too few newscasts outline the despair of Bethlehem residents as their lives and religions are endangered from both Muslims and Jews. One striking example of this neglect can be seen from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Heather Knight’s article titled “Christian Palestinians Rally in S.F.” seemed at first glance to actually address the cries of Palestinian Christians and recognize their existence. (Knight A8) However, the striking majority of the article dealt with the counter Jewish rallies. Although she did feature Palestinian Christians in her article, they were in no way the focus of her writings. Articles like this one perpetuate the ignorance of everyday Americans to the call and existence of the Christians.

By evaluating the peace agreements regarding the Middle East, the neglect of the international world can be seen even more clearly. Throughout the years, there have been many peace agreements. From Camp David and the Oslo Accords to the talks that continue even today, there has never been mention about the rights of the Christian Palestinians. In no form of writing have the diplomats laid out the right of return for these people or laid the foundations for their protection. In all of these agreements, the Palestinians have been lumped into one group, but with the religious relations becoming more and more important, certain distinctions must be made. No longer is it prudent to group the Christians continually with the Muslims, because due to the stereotypes, their identities will be further lost to the world. Peace agreements must include concessions for all, and the international community must remove the veil of ignorance from its majority.

Christian Palestinians are a forgotten people. Without the attention of the international world, they live in the shadow of both their Jewish and Muslim neighbors. The Palestinian Christian sector, especially in the Bethlehem area, consists of a fragmented array of Arab and non- Arab, Armenian, Greek, Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical, Lutheran, and a half dozen other minor orders in between. But all of them share one common identity: that of a threatened minority.

Works Consulted

Ateek, Naim S. Faith and the Intifada: Palestinian Christian Voices. Markyknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992.

Dan, Uri. “The Exodus of Palestinian Christians.” The Jerusalem Post. 11 Jan 2002: 14.

Drummond, James. “Palestinian Christians Look to Patriarch for Fresh Start.” The Times (London). 8 Sept. 2001: 7.

Gutman, Matthew. “What in God’s Name Am I Doing Here?” The Jerusalem Post. 16 May 2002: 1B.

Holliday, Laurel. Young lives caught in war and conflict. New York: Pocket Books, 1999.

Jensen, Holger. “When Will the Israelis Understand? Infringements Leave Palestinians Feeling They’re Under Siege.” Rocky Mountain News. 2 Feb 2002: 6A.

Knight, Heather. “Christian Palestinians Rally in S.F.” The San Francisco Chronicle. 8 April 2002: A8.

Lewis, Bernard. The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. New York: Touchstone Books, 1997.

Mahnaimi, Uzi, and Colin Smith. “Bethlehem’s Star Wanes Under Siege.” The Times (London). 23 Dec. 2001.

Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Sennot, Charles. “Christians Anxious Under Palestinian Rule; A Test of Faith In the Holy Land.” The Boston Globe. 17 Jan. 1999: A1.

Shlaim, Avi. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. New York: W W Norton & Company; 1999.
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