Why Are the Christians Leaving the Holy Land?

Deal W. Hudson
April 28, 2008

Catholics in the United States have been slow to grasp the problems facing Christians living in the Holy Land. Many Catholics don’t even know they are there, or that they are Arab Christians. Most Americans equate Arabs with Muslims, in spite of the fact that Arabs were Christians long before they were Muslims.

Arab Christian communities have existed in the Middle East since the second-century a.d. and perhaps earlier. These were Christians whose language was Arabic and who would leave a vast and rich literature of Christian thought and spirituality in their native language. Before the rise of Mohammed in the seventh century, Arab Christians constituted 95 percent of the population in West Asia and Egypt, numbering more than 15 million (9.1 million in Iraq, 4 million in Syria, and 2.5 million in Egypt).

But in Palestine today, the Arab Christian communities are slowly dwindling. The land of Jesus Christ and His first Church are in danger of becoming merely a tourist attraction for visiting Christians from other parts of the world.

According to Bernard Sabella, former professor of sociology at Bethlehem University, there are about 38,000 Christians remaining in the West Bank and Gaza. “The official number,” he told me in an interview, “always stays at 50,000, but there are nowhere near that many today.”

Sabella, who was born in Bethlehem in 1945, is an elected member of the Palestinian legislature. Six seats in the legislature, he explained, are set aside for Christians to represent the Christian population of Palestine. These seats are apportioned according to the percentage of the Christian population, which is actually much lower (1.2 percent) than the number of seats allotted. “This is another reason to keep the number artificially high,” Sabella said.

I asked Sabella if Muslim extremism is the reason for the decline in Christian presence. “No,” he told me, “Christians and Muslims have gotten along very well in the region until recent years.” I challenged him with the widely reported story of the Christian bookseller, Rami Ayyad, slain in Gaza last October by Muslim extremists.

“Christians and Muslims have maintained good relations because we have an understanding not to proselytize each other. Ayyad had been kidnapped and warned not to proselytize, but he was part of an evangelical group from Bethlehem taking aid to Gaza and talking about Jesus Christ. It was too much, especially for the new extremists.”

When I pointed out that this story does provide evidence for a growing Muslim threat, Sabella agreed but insisted it’s a recent phenomenon. “To understand the problem you have to go back to 1948, to the creation of Israel. Out of the 726,000 Palestinian refugees,there were nearly 60,000 Christians or 35 percent of all the Christians in Palestine.”

Everything that has happened to Christians in the Holy Land must be understood, Sabella argued, as the response of Christian communities to the creation of Israel and the series of wars following, especially the 1967 war ending in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. That occupation just passed its 40th anniversary, the longest in modern history. The description of an “Israeli occupation” is strongly disputed. During his January 2008 trip to Israel and the West Bank, however, President Bush called for an end to “the occupation that began in 1967.”

The reasons for the ongoing departure of Christians from the Holy Land are summarized by Sabella:

1) lack of an economic and cultural future under Israeli occupation;
2) increased security measures since the 2nd Intifada starting in 2000 – the security wall, more Jewish settlements and Israeli-citizen-only roads in the West Bank; and
3) the lure of joining already-departed family members in other countries such as Brazil, Canada, and the United States.

In fact, on my last trip to the Holy Land in March 2004, nearly every family I met had sent their children to colleges in the United States. I was told that most of them, upon graduating, never return home. When I asked the parents if they wanted their children to come back, they would shake their heads and say, “There is nothing for them here.”

The story told by Sabella has been chronicled before, most notably in The Body and the Blood: The Holy Land at the Turn of the Millennium – A Reporter’s Journey by Charles M. Sennott. Sennott was the Middle East bureau chief for the Boston Globe from 1997 to 2001. He witnessed both the Muslim terrorism and the reaction from Israelis that increased the burden on Christians in the West Bank and Gaza already struggling to stay on their ancestral land.

Sennott described Christians as caught in a “cultural no man’s land” where “the voices of Muslim and Jewish extremism were drowning them out, squeezing them out of the public space.”

Sabella has seen a significant increase in concern expressed about “religious extremism” in his studies of why Palestinians consider emigrating. But, in spite of the rise of “Islamic political ideology, there are still many associations between Muslims and Christians.” These relationships, no doubt, are one of the key factors slowing the growth of extremism among Palestinians.

“Until there is a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Christian presence will continue to weaken,” he said. It’s obvious that the most likely solution – the two-state solution – remains a distant possibility in spite of recent efforts by Sec. Condoleezza Rice and President Bush to encourage further negotiations.

In the meantime, it is hoped that the United States, working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, can find ways to ease the burden on the remaining Christian communities. Catholics can pray for their Christian brethren in the Holy Land; they can send them support in the form of alms; but there is nothing better than spending some time among them, visiting their restaurants, shops, and homes, hearing their stories, and assuring them you know they are there.

[For those readers interested in visiting the Holy Land, I will be leading a pilgrimage, along with Rev. Paul Tartaglia of Albany, New York, between December 1-12, with three nights in Rome and eight in the Holy Land. Call World Pilgrim Tours, Inc., Suwanee, GA, 800-438-8281 for more information.]

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