1- Who Are the Palestinian Christians?
Palestinian Christians have deep roots in the land. The great majority, estimated at 400,000 worldwide or roughly 6.5 percent of all Palestinians, are of indigenous stock, whose mother tongue is Arabic and whose history takes them back, or at least some of them, to the early church. At present, the 50,000 Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip make up only 2.2 percent of the total population estimated in the mid-nineties at 2,238,0001. Palestinian Arab Christians in Israel were estimated, for the same year, at 125,000 or 14 percent of all Arabs in Israel'. Christians in Palestine and Israel make up 175,000 or 2.3 percent of the entire Arab and Jewish population of the Holy Land.
A majority of fifty-six percent of Palestinian Christians are found outside of their country. This situation of out-migration resulted from the exodus of 726,000 Palestinian refugees in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Fifty to sixty thousand Palestinian Christians, comprising 35 percent of all Christians in pre1948 mandatory Palestine, were among the refugees'. In 1996, these refugees and their descendants are spread over the entire Middle East but primarily in the sixty refugee camps dotting the topography of the West Bank (19 refugee camps); Gaza Strip (8 refugee camps); Jordan (10 refugee camps); Syria (10 refugee camps) and Lebanon (13 refugee camps).
As for Palestinian Christians, refugees and non-refugees, they are found mostly in urban areas of the Middle East but many have opted to leave to far away lands such as the USA, Central and South America, Australia and Canada. The dispersal of Palestinians since 1948 has spared no one family or group. The demographics of Palestinian Christians is as much shaped by the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as it is the demographics of Palestinians in general.
Palestinian Christians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip belong to fifteen different denominations, the largest of which are the Greek Orthodox (51 percent), and the Roman Catholics (32 per cent.) Some smaller denominations, such as the Copts who are originally from Egypt, do not number more than a score of families. Yet each denomination or community maintains a rich tradition of rites and rituals, beside educational and other institutions, that speaks of its long presence and attachment to the land called holy.
Foreign Missionary Schools and Their Impact
A history of foreign - mostly by European - missionary sponsorship of schools, which started around the midst of the nineteenth century and originally intended to serve the local Christian population, has left clear impact on the community and its outlook. The advantage that the Palestinian Christians had in earlier access to education was to be reflected later in the development of a socioeconomic, occupational and employment profile that made them adopt rather earlier than other Palestinians, the style of life associated with the middle class, its preferences, and unfortunately, its limitations. It is argued that the European educational institutions, by exposing Palestinian Christians to foreign languages and cultures, accelerated among them the notion of relative deprivation, which was felt first towards the turn of the century when Christians from Bethlehem and Ramallah areas, comparing their backwardness of the Ottoman Empire to the progress being made in Europe and America, started on the process of emigration to North Central and South America.
The Impact of the 1948 and 1967 Wars
But Europeans, missionaries and others, cannot be blamed for all the ills of the Middle East even though some Europeans can be blamed for the most of the ills that afflicted the Holy Land in the twentieth century. Palestinian Christians, an integral part of their society, suffered the consequences of the intensive Arab Jewish communal conflict in the first half of the twentieth century When t communal conflict came to a head in martial confrontation in 1948, Arab Palestinian society was forced to re-organise. Many Palestinian refugees, including Christians, established themselves in the newly emerging Amman capital of Jordan, as traders, professionals and businessmen. Others opted leave to North American and Arab Gulf destinations. Those who went to Arab Gulf countries eventually came back to retire in their hometowns such as B Sahour, the town best known for The Shepherds' Field. Others who opted to North America and further destinations established themselves and the families there and became diaspora communities with the usual sentiment attachments to the homeland and its fading memories.
The 1967 War heralded drastic changes for the whole of Palestinian society in the West Bank and Gaza. Economic, social, organisational and politic changes took place amidst mounting tensions between the Palestinians, on t one hand, and Israeli military authorities and Jewish settlers, on the other. With these changes and with the precarious population balance between Arabs and Jews, there was a growing realisation among some Israelis and Palestinians of the need to work towards a political solution that would end the occupation and secure the basic rights of Palestinians. Christians, tending towards the mainstream and secular political organisation, took part in the efforts of their society to end occupation and to establish Palestinian national rights. But Christians, with their middle class background and occupational preferences, got increasingly sensitive to the instability and uncertainty which accompanied long Israeli military rule. Palestinian Christians, judging from the rate of emigration among them, which was double the national rate between 1967 and 1993, were especially susceptible to the practices of Israeli occupation authorities as more than 12,000 of them left East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip to go abroad.
The Intifada and the Oslo Accords
The intense political relationships between Israelis and Palestinians came to a head-on clash with the outburst of the Intifada in December 1987.Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip actively participated in it; some became martyrs, others were imprisoned and still others had to hide from Israeli pursuit. Christian communities reacted collectively as they pressed, like other Palestinians, for an end of occupation and for a new relationship with the Israelis based on mutual respect and recognition of rights. The Intifada itself, as perceived by Palestinians and their leaders, was a call to make peace with Israel based on the presence of two peoples on the land. Besides, the Intifada made Palestinians proud that they could confront Israelis as equals.
The Intifada and its success were key factors that made possible the negotiations leading to the Oslo accords. With these accords, the stage was set for the political transformation and the natural excitement which accompanied it. Palestinian Christians, like other Palestinians, have shaped events and have been equally affected by them. The time of transition and transformation now called for an optimistic stand and a departure from the past and a break with it. But would the time of transformation and transition be read alike by Palestinians in different walks of life? And how would expectations of a new order and of the future in general, be affected by various economic and social indicators? Would Christians with their educational, occupational and income profile react in much the same way as other Palestinians?
Excellent Christian-Moslem Relations
In order to better understand or contextualise the Palestinian Christian response, there is need to reaffirm the traditionally excellent relations between Christians and their Moslem neighbours. This tradition of good Christian-Moslem relations has evolved through centuries of coexistence and exchange in the cities of Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Ramallah and in the rural areas such as Zababdeh, BirZeit and other towns and villages where Moslems and Christians live side by side and interact in their pursuit of daily pre-occupations and concerns. A number of factors have historically contributed to this tradition of excellent Moslem-Christian relations:4
First, the modem history of Palestine with the Arab-Israeli conflict affecting the entire population equally, with the experience of dispersal and loss of homeland.
Second, the contribution which Christian institutions, mostly Western, have made since the 19th century to the education, health and other needs of the population irrespective of religion.
Third, the presence of the Holy Places, and the recognition by Islam of the centrality of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth to Christianity. This recognition is best crystallised in Caliph 'Umar's "al-Uhda al-'Umariyya" which was his guarantee of the safety of Christians and their holy places in 638 when Islam entered the country.5
Fourth, the urban nature of the Christian population and its living in religiously mixed Christian-Moslem neighbourhoods, thus emphasising openness and neighbourly relations. In those instances where Christians lived in villages and rural areas, relations were always characterised by friendly co-operation and communal sharing.
Fifth, Christians take equal pride in their national and religious roots. Being a good Christian has never detracted from being a good Palestinian nationalist, and vice-versa.
Sixth, the Ottoman Miller system which recognised the autonomy of the Christian communities to run their own internal affairs, especially those related to religious and civil matters.
Socio-Economic Profile of Palestinian Christians
The socio-economic profile of Palestinian Christians can also provide the context within which one can understand how they assess their present situation and look to the future. Christians are an older community with a median age of 32 years in contrast to that of the rest of the population which stands at 16 years. The older age structure among Christians is related to the emigration of younger members, older age at marriage and to the fact that Christian fertility is lower than the national average. Christian families have a lower number of children than their Muslim counterparts. The sex ratio of males to every one-hundred females is significantly lower in communities which have suffered from emigration such as Jerusalem where the ratio stands at 83 males to every 100 females.
On educational attainment, Christians tend to be over-represented particularly among those with a university degree. The distribution of Christians in education shows that they are twice as likely to have a university degree and twice less likely not to have had an education or to have finished just elementary education.
However, the gap which existed earlier on in educational achievement, is no longer there. The spread of education and the enrolment of Palestinian women in schools and universities has practically erased the difference that once existed. Presently, all of the Christian private schools in the greater Jerusalem Bethlehem-Ramallah area have an overwhelming majority of Muslim students.
As to the distribution of Christians by occupation, they are definitely not farmers nor construction workers. Few are skilled mechanics but even fewer are unskilled workers. Christians are found in the white collar professions: civil service and teaching, beside self-employment, trade and commerce. There are fewer unemployed among Christians than among Muslims. Sixty percent of Christians are found in the various tertiary service sectors, which gives a clear indication about the occupational profile of the community.
The educational and occupational profile of Christians gets reflected in better income, on average. Christians are over-represented by over twice as much as Muslims in the highest income bracket and under-represented by as much as three times in the lowest income bracket. Forty-six percent however, fall in the same income brackets as sixty percent of the general population.
The better income enjoyed by Christians is paralleled by a high correlation on their placement on a property index. Palestinian Christians, accordingly, can be categorised as a well-educated community engaged in white collar professional employment with above average income and property.
Christians are an overly urban community as ninety-seven percent of them live in the urban localities of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Only three percent report living in villages and refugee camps. While historically Christians have lived in urban areas, the accelerating rate of urbanisation among them is due to the fact that the villages that were once populated by Christians, especially in the Ramallah and Jenin area, can no longer economically support their inhabitants from work on land and related activities. Migration to the cities was a natural consequence, especially after 1967, as Israeli economic policies made many Palestinian villages into dormitory communities, with most of their labour force commuting daily to work in Israel. As a result, many Palestinian Christians from villages have elected to migrate to Jerusalem and other West Bank cities and join the communities already established there.
A Tradition of Emigration
Palestinian Christians have experienced a relatively long tradition of emigration since late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Early emigration was motivated by worsening political and economic conditions in the Ottoman Empire. A feeling of uneasiness with the atmosphere of backwardness in all spheres of life was strengthened by the fear of conscription of young men to the Ottoman army. Families pulled in their resources to enable younger male members to travel to Central, South and North America in order to make a new living. Once these were established in their new localities, they invited other members of their families to join them.7
The factors that affected emigration trends at the turn of the century among Middle Eastern Christians, including Christians of the Holy Land, can be grouped under three interconnected sets:
First, there were the prevailing bad socio-economic and political conditions which acted as constraints on the prospects of advancement for communities, families and individuals.
Second, there were the educational and vocational characteristics of Christian Arabs which were in the process of formation as a result of missionary educational activity in the region. These characteristics, blended with an entrepreneurial spirit of Christian villagers such as those in Bethlehem and Beit Jala, reinforced the tendency to leave.
Third, the pull of distant "Christian" lands was too strong to resist given that in those lands fortunes could be made and, at the same time, the community could be preserved through the translocation of indigenous churches in the diaspora. Emigration was thus made a viable alternative to a stagnant and backward society which offered no hope for a better future.8
Palestinian Christians in a Migrant Community
At the end of the twentieth century and given the political and economic conditions prevailing under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Christian community fits well the definition of a migrant community: "A community with high educational achievement and a relatively good standard of living but with no real prospects for economic security or advancement will most probably become a migrant community".9 An emigration survey, undertaken by the author in 1993 on 964 Palestinian households, Christian and Moslem alike, in the central area of the West Bank, upholds the relationship between high levels of education and standards of living and intention to emigrate. Among the 239 Christian households interviewed, intention to emigrate was double that exhibited by the Moslem households.10
The Christian sample in the 1993 survey had slightly more years of education and better income, on average, than the rest of the population. In addition, it was clear that almost all of those intending to leave, among Christians, have immediate members of their families abroad. The bad economic and political situation were primary reasons for wanting to leave: 88 percent of those wanting to leave specified the bad economic situation while 61 percent blamed the bad political situation.
Conditions that will help stop or discourage emigration are primarily the improvement of the political situation, mentioned by 47 percent of all respondents and the improvement of the economic situation mentioned by 40 percent.
Peace and its Importance to Stop Emigration
Another indicator of the importance of the political situation is the response received on a question of whether respondents intent on emigration will still leave if peace were to take place. Forty-nine percent of those intending to leave would not, if peace were to take place. Among Moslems, 38 percent said they would not leave while among Christians the percentage of those who would not leave with peace came close to two-thirds and stood at 65 percent. This is further proof that the political situation is an important push factor and that if this situation improves, emigration among Palestinians will be drastically reduced. Based on this and other findings, it becomes clear that the political factor plays an important role in encouraging Palestinians to emigrate or to stay put in their country.
But Why Do Christians Leave?
But why do Christians leave at a higher rate than the rest of the population? The answer is not simple as it involves interrelated factors and their mutual effects on one another. First, the socio-economic characteristics of the Christians which make them more likely candidates for emigration. Second, the fact that emigration is not a new phenomenon for the Christians and that there has been a relatively long tradition of emigration, particularly to distant "Christian" lands. Third, Christians are more sensitive than the general population, to bad economic and political conditions, particularly if they perceive that the prospects for advancement are not forthcoming. Regardless of how one explains this sensitivity, it has to do with the Christian demographic, economic, educational and occupational profile.
Some conclusions from the 1993 survey throw light on factors which render Palestinian Christians more prone than the rest of the population, to take the difficult decision of leaving.
There is clearly a relationship between the higher rates of departures and the overall bad or worsening economic and political situation during particular years.
The process of emigration for whole families starts when one of the children goes abroad to study, marry and/or work and eventually pulls the whole family to him/her.
Those religious communities with higher percentage of household members abroad are more likely to have their members exhibit intention to emigrate than those communities with lower percentages. A closer look at the religious communities with high a percentage of immediate family members abroad reveals the following percentages in descending order: Armenian Orthodox 61%; Syriac Orthodox 50%; Greek Orthodox 32%; Latins 28%; Moslems 23%; Greek Catholics 15%; and Protestants 8%.
When intention to emigrate is examined, the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Syriac Orthodox exhibit the highest percentage of those wanting to leave. The Protestants have the lowest percentage while the Latins and Greek Catholics are placed in the middle. One can therefore, argue that in principle, the smaller the religious community the more it is likely that members of this community will choose to leave. It is appropriate hence to provide some demographic data and indicators on the size and distribution of the various denominations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Size and Distribution of Palestinian Christians Palestinian Christians are found in over fifteen different localities with concentration in the urban centres of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah. Following is the distribution of Palestinian Christians by denomination in the various localities of the West Bank and Gaza:
Greek Orthodox ------536 ------------2133 ------------4733 --------------5749
Latins --------------------443-------------2934-------------1116 ---------------919
Denomination----- BirZeit----- EinArik----- Gaza----- Jenin
Greek Orthodox---- 918----------- 211-------- 2207------- 169
Greek Catholics-----39----------------------------22----------- 41
Protestants---------- 80------------- 40
Total------------------ 2158---------- 328--------- 2479--------- 537
Denomination----- Jericho----- Jerusalem----- Jifna----- Nablus
Greek Orthodox------ 256--------- 3500------------- 272-------- 436
Latins-------------------- 164---------- 3900------------- 369--------- 291
Greek Catholics------ 81----------- 500--------------- 8------------- 64
Syriacs------------------- 22----------- 250
Protestants ------------12------------- 850-----------------------------250
Armenians* ---------------------------- 1500 - -
Copts* ------------------------------------------------------ 250 - -
Ethiopians* ------------------------------- 60 - -
Maronites* ------------------------------- 100 - -
Total-------------------- 535------------- 10,910--------- 649---------- 1041
(*The figures are inclusive of the West Bank, but the major concentration is in Jerusalem.)
Greek Orthodox----- 4000------------ 72------------- 631
Latins---------------------1100---------- 872------------ 1302
Greek Catholics-------- 650--------- 166------------- 125
Total------------------------- 6450------ 1110------------ 2251
The total number of Palestinian Christians is 49,702 distributed among the various denominations as follows:
Greek Orthodox---- 25,835------------ 52.0%
Latins------------------- 15,168------------ 30.5%
Greek Catholics---- 2848--------------- 5.7%
Protestants---------- 2443---------------- 4.9%
Syriacs--------------- 1498----------------- 3.0%
Armenians---------- 1500----------------- 3.0%
Copts----------------- 250------------------- 0.5%
Ethiopians---------- 60--------------------- 0.1%
Maronites----------- 100-------------------- 0.2%
(Source: Christians in the Holy Land, Edited by Michael Prior and William Taylor, the World of Islam Festival Trust, London, 1994.)
The Decline of Jerusalem's Christians:A Sad Example of Dwindling
Numbers Jerusalem, the city where the "Mother Church" originated, provides a dramatic example of the effects of the dwindling numbers of its Christians. While Jerusalem's Christians are blessed with probably the highest "church per capita" in the world with one church for every 177 Christians, the decline in the number of Jerusalem Christians continues. Emigration is responsible for this decline as the political conditions, especially since 1967, have pushed many Palestinians out of their country. The extent of the Christian decline is best understood by the fact that in 1944 there were 29,350 Christians living in the city; today, Jerusalem's Christian population is only 35.5% of what it used to be 50 years ago." There is concern by some, both Church officials and experts, that if preventative and curative steps are not undertaken, then the dwindling of Christian numbers will continue unabated eventually causing the disappearance of community life in some of Jerusalem's churches.
Rites, Rituals and Celebrations:
The Community Reaffirmed Perpetually The rites, rituals and traditions of Palestinian Christians are factors which still pull the community together and reinforce its raison desire. They are also a strong signal of identification with Palestinian society; its ordeals and expectations. In spite of the sombre shadows with which politics in the Holy Land sends on Xmas, Palestinian Christian parents still endeavour to celebrate Xmas with a semblance of joy within the family. Trees are decorated a couple of days before Xmas and they are kept standing, in most homes, through the Greek Orthodox Xmas on 7th January and the Armenian Xmas on 19th January. Families, especially children, take great pride in the replication of the nativity scene under the Xmas tree and, as elsewhere, await Santa's visit with impatience.
But Christmas remains the hallmark of Bethlehem as Easter Week is that of Jerusalem. The Easter season begins with the carnival weekend when those intent on fasting have the last chance, until Easter Sunday, to satisfy their culinary buds with rich dishes and sweets. Lent is kept by most families including children who abstain from eating meat on Wednesdays and Fridays and undertake to perform small "sacrifices" here and there.
With the arrival of the first Easter Pilgrims, especially those from Cyprus and in years past, from Egypt and other neighbouring countries, the atmosphere of Easter starts to assert itself. Stands that sell souvenir items are found on every street corner and in front of souvenir shops in the Christian Quarter and in alleys leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Candles of all sizes and designs are offered for sale and local children, on Easter vacation from school, employ their freshly learned foreign words and phrases to entice pilgrims to buy souvenir items.
Easter Week: Palm Sunday
Easter Week starts with Palm Sunday. Some families in Jerusalem's Christian Quarter specialise in preparing palm branches in tree-like designs with pockets to hold flowers. These are sought by local families, especially those blessed with small children, and they are decorated with flowers and coloured ribbons in preparation for Palm Sunday service, which is truly a community event. At the end of the service, olive branches are distributed to parishioners as an omen for peace.
In the afternoon of Palm Sunday the community takes part in the traditional procession from Bethphage, a village on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives, to the Church of St. Anne just inside St. Stephen's Gate in the Old City. Palm Branches, symbolising victory, are carried by all. At the termination of the procession, the branches are shaken as the Latin Patriarch, who headed the procession, enters the church. The sound produced is reminiscent of that of tree leaves shaken by the crowd which gathered around Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. After the procession, another of those events which testify to the good Moslem-Christian relations takes place. Christian and Moslem boy scout troops, which on Palm Sunday 1995 numbered 32 different troops from all parts of Palestine and which helped keep order in the procession, circle the walls of the Old City in their colourful uniforms and their flags as they play band music of popular nationalistic tunes.
On Good Friday, Christians of Jerusalem as well as thousands of pilgrims from all over the world, show ex
Sabt an-Nour: Saturday of Holy Fire Saturday is the Saturday of Light, "Sabt an-Nour". This is the day when the resurrection of Christ is commemorated in the ceremony of "Holy Fire" which takes place in the Sepulchre holding Christ's tomb. Hundreds of pilgrims, mostly Cypriots, Greeks and Copts, sleep overnight by the Sepulchre to be among the first to receive the holy fire. Locals start joining them in the early morning as the church, its square and roofs, become packed with crowds. All carry bundles of candles and glass lanterns.
Around noontime, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and his entourage proceeds from his residence to the Holy Sepulchre, through a staircase leading from the roof to inside the church. Meanwhile, Christian youths gather in one of the squares of the Christian Quarter and proceed through the narrow alleys to the church. On their way, they alternately carry one of them on their shoulders as he leads them in shouting slogans. Among these, one can hear: "Repeat loudly after me - Oh Virgin (Mary) peace be unto you - from Christians and Moslems alike," and "We Christians and the candles in our hands - for St Geries (St. George), AI-Khader, we pray." As the youths enter the church, they circle the Holy Sepulchre repeating: "This is the tomb of Our Lord - Our Lord is Jesus Christ-Christ has bought us-With his precious blood he has redeemed us we are today happy." After circling the sepulchre three times, they await the official procession led by the Patriarch and for the participation of members of old Arab Orthodox families who, as a tradition, carry embroidered banners and flags.
The procession finds its way from the Catholicon Church, east of the Sepulchre, around the cupola of the Holy Sepulchre. At the end of the procession, the Patriarch is led into the chapel of the tomb and the crowd, which heretofore has shown excitement, falls silent in anticipation of the appearance of Holy Light. The Patriarch stays for an hour or so in prayer and meditation and then around 1.30pm, the "Light" appears and is quickly passed from one bundle of candles to another. Glass lanterns are lit as well and the more faithful go over the blaze of the candles with their hands and then cross themselves in benediction. The Light spreads instantly to the environs of the church and the whole place, inside and out is ablaze. Joyful ululations are heard, bells start ringing and holy fire is already on its way to more distant places in the country and elsewhere.
The Greek Orthodox and other boy scout troops, including Moslems, who await the Light on the roof of the church, start playing their bands as they proceed all together through the narrow alleys of the Christian Quarter. They are met by the group of youngsters now carrying lit candles and lanterns, as they again shout slogans which intermingle with the band music. The atmosphere is one of public joy and celebration and local Christians start greeting one another with the traditional Easter greeting: "Christ has arisen" and its response: "He has really arisen."
Christians, Political Developments and the Future of Jerusalem
Where do Palestinian Christians stand with respect to the political developments taking place in the region? What do they expect specifically for the future of Jerusalem, given their history, communal identification and excellent relationships with their Moslem compatriots?
Palestinians Christians support the political developments now taking place in the region. These developments provide hope that an era of peace and prosperity is finally beginning to take shape in our troubled land and region. The peace process is particularly important for Christians since there are indications that with the coming of peace, lower numbers of Christians will think of emigration. The disappointment felt by Palestinians on the election and performance of the Likud right-wing Israeli government and the inability of Mr. Neganyahou, the Prime Minister, to really lead his people to peace is a great letdown to all Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians.
The Issue of Jerusalem: The Christian Community and its Leaders But if Palestinian Christians are generally for a just and comprehensive peace, where do they stand on the issue of Jerusalem and its future? We can detect two overall responses from the Christian community and its leaders on this issue: on the one hand, the Christians of Jerusalem are concerned over daily preoccupations and constraints which the present political environment places on them. On the other, the Church leadership, while sensitive to the preoccupations and constraints felt by its faithful, is conscious of the need to highlight the Christian presence in the Holy City irrespective of the restraints and pretensions of temporal governing arrangements. But this highlighting, as will be illustrated later, is done with due respect to other religions and their faithful who equally view Jerusalem as their Holy City.
For Jerusalem Christians, Jerusalem is "Al-Quds," the holy, and the presence of their community in the city is confirmation of the continuity of Christ's new beginning. This is the "mother of all Churches" and there are links, claimed or real, that link Palestinian Christian communities to the early church. As Palestinians, they see that the fairest political solution for Jerusalem lies in its becoming the capital of two states. Municipal arrangements should be made in order for the different populations to govern themselves and administer their affairs without interference of the other side on the one hand, and yet maintaining the oneness of Jerusalem on the other. Thus Palestinian Christians in the city are no different in their overall orientation for the future of the city than their Palestinian compatriots.
A majority of Christians do not envision a real peace without finding a compromise solution on Jerusalem whereby the two national groups, Palestinians and Israelis, and the three religious groups, Jews, Moslems and Christians, will all feel comfortable and at ease in the city. This comfort and ease cannot transpire without a solution that will satisfy both the national and religious aspirations of each and every community in the city. It is only then that the city will truly become a city of peace.
Other Challenges to Palestinian Christians
In spite of properties, buildings and real estate which the various churches have in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, Christian communities have not been able to become self-sufficient. Dependency on partner churches elsewhere is a characteristic that is almost universal among the Holy Land churches. If this partnership weakens, there is doubt that local churches can make it on their own. This is difficult to say because the church is a community that is supposed to be self-sufficient. In one sense, the church is a microcosm of society and as such, should be self-dependent. Emigration, on the one hand, weakens the church and therefore there is need to address this issue and to find remedies and preventive cures. Emigration, however, is a reflection of political and economic factors on which the church, given the circumstances, does not have power or influence. The churches, it must be admitted, have continuously witnessed the Palestinian society through education, health, social and other institutions, and activities and enterprises. Some churches are doing the best they can, considering their limited resources. Other churches however, have yet to come to grips with the difficult realities of their community and with the need to revitalise it.
Obligation of Palestinian Christians We, as Palestinian Christians, also have an important role to play and, I am afraid, we have not done so to date. We need to be faithful to Christ's teachings especially at times when tensions and pressures seem to be impossible to overcome. Unfortunately, we are only human and with mounting pressures, we often choose the easy way out: USA, Canada, Australia ... In the final analysis, however, it is really not the easy way out but the most difficult and the most costly to the integrity of our community and our church in the Holy Land. We have an obligation to ourselves and to our children to stay put and to overcome, together with all the inhabitants of this land. We are today still in the midst of political conflict but we can see some concrete signs of change towards peacemaking. We are called upon to be witnesses to these changes and to take an active part in them.
In spite of all our shortcomings, as churches and as faithful, we are a proud and hard working group of people. We recognise that the political situation and the long history of Israeli occupation since 1967 have left their marks on our communities and their dwindling numbers. At the same time, the instability of our region is an important fact which encourages emigration. The challenge is clearly to be able to live in a secure and comfortable environment. The sense of communion with Churches all over the world reinforces our determination to accept the challenge and to overcome the difficulties. It also helps us to witness our own society and its transformation towards a national state.
A Message of Hope
A Memorandum issued by twelve heads of different churches and Christian communities in the Holy Land in November of 1994 has called on all parties involved "..to go beyond all exclusivist visions or actions, and without discrimination, to consider the religious and national aspirations of others, in order to give back to Jerusalem its true universal character and to make of the city a holy place of reconciliation for humankind."12
Christians, according to the memorandum, "believe the Jerusalem of the Prophets to be the foreseen place of the salvation, in and through Jesus Christ." As to the continuing presence of a Christian community, the heads of churches emphasise that "Jerusalem is the place of roots, ever living and nourishing," and that "the local church with its faithful has always been actively present in Jerusalem and witness to the life and preaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ upon the same Holy Places, and its faithful have been receiving other brothers and sisters in the faith, as pilgrims, resident or in transit, inviting them to be reimmersed into the refreshing, ever-living ecclesiastical sources."
It is this spirit, applicable not simply to Jerusalem but to the entire Holy Land, that should motivate all of us to work for the peace of Jerusalem and for that of the Holy Land in its entirety.
Palestinians, Muslims and Christians alike, have paid a heavy price for the creation of Israel. We still suffer from the wounds of the century-old conflict. Some of us are not ready yet to explore reconciliation, others have taken the first steps, still others have gone further.
The future, however, cannot be moulded without the hope which emanates from religious traditions that believe in the One God. These traditions should become a mainstay that would encourage all of us, in this Holy Land, to search for answers to very difficult questions such as the future of Jerusalem, holy for the three monotheistic religions and claimed politically by Israelis and Palestinians. Hope, based on religious heritages, should also help us find ways to accept each other with justice, compassion and willingness to reconcile, regardless of how long and hard the process.
Some may think that speaking of hope is simple pontification that would lead us nowhere. But of hope we should continue to speak, not simply because it is in the essence of Christian witness, but because the alternative to hope is utter despair. Despair spells continuation of conflict, war and disruption of the lives of generations to come. We, as Palestinian Christians and as an integral part of our people, its history, present ordeals and future expectations, should particularly be speaking of hope because with it we can stop emigration, strengthen our communities and contribute to a different future of this Holy Land. With hope we can be at peace with ourselves, with our neighbours and with our own religious heritage as Christians.
Dr Bernard Sabella
Associate Professor of Sociology - Bethlehem University