In land of Jesus, Christians struggle

As conditions worsen, numbers dwindle

BETHLEHEM — Nakla Qaber, whose Greek Orthodox roots stretch back generations in a Christian enclave on the West Bank, runs a successful restaurant at a time when most Palestinians are struggling.

But when it came time for his son and three daughters to make their own way in the world, they went off to college in the United States and Canada and never came back.

“Every time I go to services, I look around and see the number of worshippers declining, Sunday after Sunday,” said Qaber, 63, who lives in Beil Jala, alongside the major Christian city of Bethlehem. “No one wants to leave his country, so this is a miserable thing, but if my sons and daughters stay overseas, someday I will follow them.”

The exodus of Christians from the Holy Land troubles the faithful worldwide. With tensions rising in the past five years and economic conditions worsening, some have begun to whisper about a day when the native Christian population disappears entirely.

Now, with yet another war raging between Muslims and Jews, Christians once again find themselves caught in the crossfire. The vast majority are Palestinian Arabs living in the West Bank, who suffer the same frustrations and dangers as their Muslim neighbors.

Many of them blame the United States for failing to bring peace and stability to the region — thereby allowing a rise in religious fundamentalism that has increased tensions for the descendants of the first Christians.

“Radical Islam does not even like moderate Muslims, so how can it be good for Christians?” said Jack Khazmo, a Syrian Orthodox Christian who edits a pro-Palestinian political magazine called al Bayader Assiyasi. “We Christians belong to this land and to our country, but the rise of radicalism will affect our presence.”


Experts say the Christian population in Israel and the Palestinian territories has fallen steeply in recent years and may number only about 50,000. Since 1948, when Christians were estimated to represent 20 percent of all Palestinians in the region, their numbers have dropped to roughly 2 percent, according to the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, a group based in Bethesda, Md.

“There is a concern about losing the Christian presence in the Holy Land,” said Antonios Kireopoulos, associate general secretary for International Affairs and Peace for the National Council of Churches. “We do not want only to be the caretakers of monuments. But we realize that the tensions and ongoing violence are real.”

Local Christian leaders argue it would be disastrous if the native Christian population disappeared — not just for a people so rooted in the land that they are often referred to as “the living stones,” but also for regional stability. Wealthier, better educated and more closely tied to the West than most Palestinian Arabs, these Christians have long been a moderating force in the West Bank.

Still, members of the 15 denominations of Palestinian Christians often complain they feel invisible, even if they are part of much larger churches in the United States and Europe. Conservative Christians in America tend to support Israel, and many pilgrims visit holy sites in Jerusalem without realizing a native Christian population remains.

Even as they struggle, many Christians in the West Bank strive for influence within the Palestinian Authority. A Christian holds one Cabinet post in the Hamas-led government, seven are members of Parliament and others lead cities like Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jala, which together comprise a historic Christian enclave.

George Sa’adeh, deputy mayor of Bethlehem, said that despite occasional tensions between Christians and Muslims, the groups are generally united in calling for more freedom of movement for Palestinians and a reduction in tensions with the Israelis.

“All the people want peace, even Hamas,” he said. “The people are frustrated. We must stop the killing, and I believe the United States has the power to make peace if it wants to make peace.”


Peace and war are not abstract concepts for Sa’adeh, a Greek Orthodox Christian. One day in March 2003, when he was out shopping with his wife and two daughters, Israeli soldiers mistook his car for one carrying two fugitive terrorists. They riddled it with machine-gun fire, wounding him and his 15-year-old daughter and killing his 12-year-old daughter, Christine.

Sitting in his office overlooking the Basilica of the Nativity, built 17 centuries ago on the site where tradition says Christ was born, Sa’adeh took out a wallet photograph of a smiling Christine and recalled how an Israeli group of bereaved families reached out to comfort him.

“Talking about peace and ending the war takes a lot of faith and courage,” he said. “As Jesus taught us, we must forgive. But when I call for peace, I also call for justice and an end to the (Israeli) occupation.”

Sa’adeh and other Christians need a special pass from the Israeli government to leave the West Bank and visit their churches in Jerusalem. Nisreen Kunkar, who handles public relations for Beit Jala, has been unable to visit the home of her in-laws in Jerusalem, although she has been married for years.

Such obstructions, a number of Christians said, inflame tensions in the West Bank and help persuade many of their religious brethren to emigrate.

Raji Zeidan, mayor of Beit Jala and a Christian, said one of the most confounding and frustrating things that has happened to his one-square-mile city in decades was the recent construction of a barrier separating Israel from Palestinian-controlled territory in the West Bank.

The 20-foot concrete wall, which the Israeli government began building in 2002 to keep out suicide bombers, snakes through the town, isolating stores, separating children from playgrounds and, most important in Zeidan’s eyes, denying Christians access to their own land.

“Beit Jala is a small town, mostly Christian, and we own most of the undeveloped land,” he said. “That is our only chance to flourish and develop, but now it is under confiscation because of the wall. If you lose all opportunities, what will happen? You will go.”

Zeidan and other Christians interviewed downplayed tensions between Christians and Muslims, arguing they have much more in common with each other than with Israeli Jews.


Brothers Khader and Mitri Abu, both Greek Orthodox Christians, and their Muslim friends Ishmael Sorur, Abuzayed Odeh and Abu Iyad have known one another for longer than they can remember.

On a hot, sunny day in Bethlehem last week, the friends sat in an auto body store the Abu brothers own, watching the latest war news on al Jazeera.

“We are living together, and to say we are not is Zionist propaganda,” said Khader Abu, 38. “We were born together, we went to school together and we live beside one another.”

“We share all our life, the good times and bad times,” Iyad added. “We congratulate each other on our holidays, attend each other’s family weddings and family funerals.”

The friends share a hobby of breeding chamois goats, with guidance provided by Odeh, a 51-year-old former quarry owner, on the fine art of producing goats with large bumpy noses and fine long coats.

As the militant leader of Hezbollah spoke on TV about a military action that had killed eight Israeli soldiers, the friends agreed that war with the Israelis was once again causing them suffering.

“It is the Israeli pressure that is driving younger Christians out of Palestine,” said Mitri, 36. “These pressures and humiliations force us to leave.”

Asked whether he was worried that the rise of Hamas would signal trouble for Christians, Mitri scoffed.

“We voted for Hamas because the other party (Fatah) are thieves,” he said. “We want change.”

But Kunkar, the spokeswoman in Beit Jala, said most voters in her town hadn’t supported Hamas and were somewhat nervous about the future.

“I grew up beside Muslims, and our relationship is one of respect,” she said. “But we know Hamas is a fundamentalist movement, so there was concern after the election that they might institute religious rules. So far, they have respected us.”

Hamas is in an awkward position, she added, because while factions within the party want to moderate their positions in order to govern more effectively, war is strengthening the militant wing. She said the elimination of Western aid to the Palestinian Authority, which followed the Hamas victory in recent parliamentary elections, has increased economic hardships.

“The occupation has caused tensions for everyone here, and bombs don’t differentiate between Christians, Muslims or Jews,” said Sa’adeh, the deputy mayor in Bethlehem. “But even though much of my family has moved away, I will never leave. I consider staying my obligation as a Christian.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Star-Ledger, USA
July 30, 2006
Steve Chambers
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday July 31, 2006.
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