Saturday, May 19, 2012

Palestinian Christians

Palestinian Christians

Recently I spent three weeks in the Middle East on a study tour titled Ancient Stories, Current Struggles: Engaging the Lands of the Bible.  Beginning in Cairo, Egypt, we traveled to Luxor, through the Sinai, into Jordan to visit the partially-excavated city of Petra, then to Bethlehem, north through the Galilee, and ended in Jerusalem.  Throughout the tour we combined visits to ancient archeological sites and holy shrines with meetings and discussions with those who were able to give us varying perspectives on the current reality in their countries.

Over the next few months I intend to report on a number of those meetings.  I’m also preparing photo essays depicting our days of travel and posting them on my Facebook page.  Links to the photos can be found in the post titled Travels in the Holy Lands. 

While we were in Bethlehem, we spent a very informative morning at the Bethlehem Bible College, where Instructor and Associate Dean Munther Isaac spoke with us about the current situation for Palestinian Christians.  According to its website, Bethlehem Bible College was founded in 1979 by local Arabs and provides training to young native Arabs desiring to be ministers of the Gospel among their own people.  The school is interdenominational and evangelical in outlook.  The annual enrollment is about 135 students.

Isaac began by mentioning a 60 Minutes segment on Palestinian Christians that had been broadcast just a few days before.  The fact that 60 Minutes was addressing this sensitive topic had prompted Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren to call the chairman of CBS and complain about it even before it was aired.  Isaac was pleased that CBS was courageous enough to complete and broadcast the segment despite pressure to suppress it.  He invited us to view reports on the website of “Christ at the Checkpoint,” an international conference held at the Bible College in March, 2012, in order to hear more voices from the Palestinian Christian community. 

Everyone agrees that in recent decades there has been a radical decline in the number of Christians living in historic Christian Palestinian towns.  There is substantial disagreement, however, over the reasons for the decrease in numbers.  The official Israeli government narrative, as articulated by Ambassador Oren on the 60 Minutes segment, is that they are fleeing radical Muslim violence.  Prof. Isaac asserts that this is inaccurate and simplistic.  The church is caught in the middle of a complicated global religious and political conflict.  Many lives have been wasted and there is much suffering.  Today the Christian community in the Holy Land is struggling to survive.

Noting that “everyone wants to control Palestine,” Isaac gave us a very brief history of the Christian church in the Holy Land.  From the first century the holy sites were maintained by Arab Christians, descendants of the first converts.  In the 15th century CE many of the churches were taken over by the Greek Orthodox.  The Roman Catholic church began major building in the 19th century CE.  Presently there are thirteen denominations in Palestine competing for control of the holy places.  Fifty to sixty per cent of the Christians are Greek Orthodox, about 35% are Roman Catholic, and the remainder are primarily Assyrian, Armenian, Lutheran, Anglican, and other Protestant.  In the northern part of the country Melkite Greek Catholics have a strong community.  Their Archbishop Elias Chacour is internationally known for his work on reconciliation among members of the three Abrahamic faiths living in Israel/Palestine.

Emigration of Christians from the Holy Land began under the Ottoman Empire and increased after the 1948 war.  Today more than two-thirds of Palestinian Christians in the world live outside of Palestine, many of them in South America.  Among Arab-Americans, 75% are Christian.

As for why so many are leaving now, Prof. Isaac stated that it is because of the continuing war and occupation, and especially because of the wall (separation barrier) that Israeli forces have erected.  The people in Bethlehem today feel that they are living in a big prison.  There is economic turmoil and instability.  As we could see when we traveled through the town, the wall is destroying the economic viability of Bethlehem.  Where once there were thriving shops and restaurants, there are now boarded up buildings and a strong sense of uncertainty about the future.

Growth is radically constrained.  Only about 10% of the land around Bethlehem is available to residents for expansion.  The rest has been walled off, confiscated, and given to Jewish settlers.  Similar conditions exist in other Christian communities.  Isaac made it clear that he does not think the Israeli government is targeting Palestinian Christians because they are Christian, but because they are Arab and therefore subject to the same pressures, harassment, and constraints as are their Muslim Arab neighbors.  He urged us to read and study the Kairos document written by representatives of a number of Palestinian Christian churches and published in 2009. It takes its inspiration from the South African Kairos document of 1985 which called on Christians worldwide to support the struggle against apartheid in that country.

Because the Christian community has historically enjoyed a rather high socio-economic status, many are more able to emigrate than are members of the Muslim Arab community.  Those who have chosen to stay are a very committed, determined people.  They recognize what a tragedy it would be if there were no Christians left in the land of Christ’s birth.  Most have lost all hope for change from leaders; they know that lasting change must come from the grassroots.  Through the Kairos document they describe the reality of their lives and invite Christians throughout the world to support them in their struggle for a just and equitable peace in the holy land of their birth.


  1. Salam Marian,
    I met you while giving a lecture with Rami Alchana from Thank you for taking the time to listen about our loved ones that where killed because of the conflict.I have now released my husband's website trying to get the Attorney General to look over our case & bring his KILLERS to trial.Would appreciate it if you can share his story with others & help get more signitures here: Thank you & all the best-Moira Jilani

    1. Peace, Moira,

      It was a privilege to meet you and to hear your story. I've signed the petition and forwarded your message to the others in our group. We'll be praying for a successful petition.

      Blessings, Marian