Palestinian clergy: ‘Annexation could be the final straw for a viable Christian presence in Palestine’

Author: Jeff Wright

Publication Date: 20/8/2020

Source: Mondoweiss

Palestinian clergy address crisis of Christian emigration in letter to diplomatic missions

 

“Annexation could be the final straw when it comes to a viable Christian presence in Palestine,” declare pastors representing four of the Holy Land’s historic denominations. “For Palestine, Bethlehem and particularly its Christian population… annexation will be particularly catastrophic.” 

The July letter sent to diplomatic missions in Palestine/Israel—later released as an Open Letter—denounces Israel’s threatened annexation and calls upon the leaders of the world to “stop this severe injustice.” Written by clergy serving seven Christian congregations in Bethlehem and the neighboring towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, the letter continues, “This is land theft! We are talking about land that is largely privately owned and that our families have owned, inherited and farmed for hundreds of years.”

Munther Isaac, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, Academic Dean of Bethlehem Bible College, and one of the missive’s cosigners, says, “The letter came from pastoral needs; we had to speak for our congregants. This is about the future of our community.”

In spite of the recent agreement between Israel and the UAE, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu maintains that plans for annexation are merely on hold. Of the almost thirty missions receiving the letter, only two have responded to acknowledge its receipt, Australia and Slovenia.

Despite Christians’ uninterrupted presence through two millennia, the church leaders in Palestine are deeply concerned about the dwindling numbers of Christian families in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. In Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, the population in 1947 was 85% Christian. Now it is less than 12 percent. Today, of the around 4.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, there are about 46,000 Palestinian Christians, and around 1,100 in Gaza. 

What accounts for the loss?

According to Zionists—both Jewish and Christian—the church’s faithful are escaping violence from their Muslim neighbors and the threat of a growing Islamic empire. The Jewish Virtual Library, hosted by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, maintains, “For the Christian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, life under the thumb of the Islamists threatens their existence as a community and has forced many to flee their homes.” It is a common refrain among supporters of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies. 

Nothing could be further from the truth.  

“As any Palestinian—Christian or Muslim—will tell you, it is the Israeli occupation that is making life unbearable for Muslims and Christians alike,” wrote the Rev. Alex Awad, former pastor of the East Jerusalem Baptist Church and a member of the Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace in an article appearing in the Washington Report in October 2019. 

In 2017, the West Bank’s Dar al-Kalima University surveyed around 1,000 Palestinians, half Christian and half Muslim. Among the study’s conclusions: “the pressure of Israeli occupation, ongoing constraints, discriminatory policies, arbitrary arrests, confiscation of lands added to the general sense of hopelessness among Palestinian Christians,” who are finding themselves in “a despairing situation where they can no longer perceive a future for their offspring or for themselves.”

In Isaac’s most recent book, The Other Side of the Wall: A Palestinian Christian Narrative of Lament and Hope, Isaac writes,

In actuality, the Israeli occupation controls every aspect of our lives: water, movement, borders and family reunification, to name just a few. Terms like checkpoints, permits, settlements, and the separation wall define our reality… Injustice and inequality define life in Palestine today.

All of this means that the number of Christians in the land has declined consistently. People, especially young families, both Muslim and Christian Palestinians, are leaving the land and looking for a better life elsewhere. They are seeking opportunity, equality, and freedom which is simply not available to them in Palestine.

In his Washington Report article, Awad acknowledged that “Christians in the Palestinian state feel the pressure of being a tiny minority in a predominantly Muslim society and are even more sensitive to the threats of radical Islam, which endangers them as well as their Muslim neighbors. From time to time, frictions and injustices are experienced by the minority Christians as would be the case for any minority group anywhere in the world.” But Awad, Isaac and other Palestinian Christian leaders refute claims that Palestinian Christians are leaving because of tensions between them and their Muslim neighbors. As Awad wrote, “The biggest challenge to Christians in Palestine is the continuing Israeli occupation.” 

Christians are inextricably woven into the fabric of Palestinian life

Leaders of the thirteen traditional Arab Christian denominations in Palestine are quick to remind the world that Palestine is the cradle of Christianity and that, for two millennia, Arab Christians have maintained the faith’s holy sites and shaped, nurtured and protected Palestinian culture. 

In his address at a 2007 conference, “The Forgotten Faithful” hosted by Jerusalem’s Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Center, Latin Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah said, “We are human beings; we are part of our society, of those who die, of those who go to prison, and of those who houses are demolished. All these people are part of us, and we are part of every human being, of Muslims and Jews alike…. We are part of this conflict because it is not a conflict between Muslims and Jews; it is a conflict about the dignity of the human person, and about human rights and freedom.” [1https://theintercept.com/2018/12/16/israel-messianic-jews-ethinic-cleansing-palestinians-pence/">reported by The Intercept in 2018, Executive Director of the Alliance for Israel Advocacy (a lobbying group of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America) Paul Liberman said, 

Our organization advocates, and it’s in our proposed legislation [to the US Congresshttp://www.cryforhope.org/">Cry for Hope: A Call to Decisive Action.

Notes

1. The Forgotten Faithful: A window into the life and witness of Christians in the Holy Land (Editors Ateek, Duaybis & Tobin, 2007, Publisher Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Center
2. Ibid

Link: https://mondoweiss.net/2020/08/palestinian-clergy-annexation-could-be-the-final-straw-for-a-viable-christian-presence-in-palestine/

 

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