Economically, the Holy Land’s tiny Christian minority is thriving as its moves into the holiday season this year. But, except for a one-time boost from a wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, their numbers are barely growing and they face petty discrimination in the streets and from the government.
In the birthplace of Jesus, the Christian population is shrinking. Israel counted just 154,500 Christians at the end of 2011, or just 2 percent of the the population, the Central Bureau of Statistics said Thursday. Most of them are concentrated in the Galilee, but even there they are outnumbered by Muslims. In Nazareth, they number 22,200 out of a population of about 73,000. In Jerusalem they make up just 11,600 of the city’s nearly 800,000 residents.
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The vast majority of Christians in Israel are Arabs or Palestinians, which puts them into an awkward position in the region’s complicated dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although they are accorded equal rights, Israel increasingly sees itself as a Jewish state as well as a democracy while Palestinian nationalism, once officially secular, has grown increasingly Islamist.
The country's Christians are a diverse population of Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Copts, Episcopalians, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Maronites, Roman Catholics and Syrian Orthodox.
Although the number of Christians in Israel grew in the 1990s as Russian Christians joined Jewish relatives who immigrated to Israel, the birthrate in the Christian population of 2.1 children per woman in 2011 was barely at the replacement level. Among Muslims, the rate is 3.8 and among Jews 3.0.
But Christians are in some ways better off economically than Israel’s majority-Jewish population. They do better in the national matriculation exams, with some 62% of them passing in 2010 compared with 58% of the Jewish population and 46% of Muslims. The unemployment rate for Christians, at 4.9%, is lower than for the general population.
But Christians have also been subjected to being spit upon in the
streets of Jerusalem by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who have strong memories of
persecution by Christians in Europe over the centuries. Christians
complain that the Interior Ministry, which has been controlled for many
years by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, makes it difficult for them to
get citizenship papers, visa and other vital documents.
Last August, the ministry refused to renew the residency permit of the
Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem on accusations of forgery, which the Bishop
denied. No charges against the bishop were filed and he remained in
Nearly a decade ago, Muslims fought a bitter battle with their Christian
neighbors in Nazareth for the right to build a mosque beside the
Basilica of the Annunciation, a conflict that drew the interest of the
Vatican, the White House, and an international coalition of Catholic and
Protestant Christian church groups.
But these incidents, said Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious
Coordinating Council in Israel, do not reflect the general state of
inter-communal relations. On the whole relations with the Jewish
majority are “relatively good,” said Kronish whose ICCI serves as an
umbrella group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations promoting
“The tensions are not over religion, they are over nationalism,” Kronish
told The Media Line. “That doesn’t means there is a lot of love and
understanding. But if you wanted to compare that to anti-Muslin
sentiment by Jews, there is no comparison. Jews don’t think Christians
are involved in the conflict. When they think Palestinians, they think
In Palestinian-ruled areas, their situation is arguably worse and their
numbers are shrinking. Approximately 98% of Palestinians in the West
Bank and Gaza Strip are Sunni Muslims. Although the ruling Palestinian
Authority takes no official census by religion, a 2008 demographic
survey conducted by local Christian groups estimated there were about
50,000 Christians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and between 1,000
and 3,000 in Gaza.
A US State Department report on religious freedom, released last
September, cited Christian leaders as saying that Palestinian Christian
emigration has accelerated since 2001, about the time that the second
Intifada broke out. That, together with lower birth rates, has reduced
Anthony Habash, regional director for the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical
Foundation, attributed the emigration to economic factors stemming from
Israel’s control over the West Bank and Gaza and he said the outflow
had gradually slowed.
In particular, he points to the security barrier Israel has been
constructing on or close to the lines separating pre-1967 Israel from
the West Bank as well as the network of roadblocks across the West Bank,
which are designed to prevent terrorist attacks but have the effect of
limiting Palestinian movement.
“Many young people are seeking to find jobs abroad in Dubai or North
America,” Habash told The Media Line. “They also are looking for study
opportunities. After the building of the wall, for many young people it
became easier to study abroad in Jordan or elsewhere. Then they decide
to stay outside Palestine.”
The IDF announced on Monday that special measures to ease the movement
of Palestinian Christians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip from now
until January 20 to allow for seasonal celebrations.
Habash’s organization is helping to stem the tide of emigration by
helping Palestinian Christian find jobs, assist them in renovating their
homes and providing educational scholarships. In the West Bank town of
Bethlehem, where the Christian population has shrunk to 7,500 from
20,000 in 1995, the foundation is working with the local
telecommunications company, Paltel, to build a call center that would
employ 100 people.
Asked about the impact of growing Islamic piety on the Christian exodus,
Habash said it is a factor in the Gaza Strip where the Islamist group
Hamas is in power, but not a serious one in the West Bank where the
pro-Western Fatah party rules.
“An advantage for (Palestinian) Christians is that they are raised in an
Islamic society,” he said. “They share the same values, culture and
heritage. There is much understanding between Muslims and Christians.”
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