Based on our years as parish priests in Palestine, we were appalled by the false allegations regarding Palestinian Christians made in recent weeks by Israeli spokespeople, such as Ambassador Michael Oren.

We were perplexed not because of their position, which has been part of the official Israeli narrative for many years, but by how openly they have distorted facts and misconstrued the plight of Palestinian Christians pursuing justice and peace.

These spokespeople have wrongly propagated a cynical discourse misleadingly touting “Christian persecution by Muslims.” Every Friday, we celebrate the holy mass attended by hundreds of Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jerusalem in the Cremisan Area of Beit Jala. The holy service, celebrated among ancient olive trees, was not a prayer to end a “Muslim-led persecution” but to prevent Israel from confiscating this area of land that belongs to 58 Palestinian Christian families – Israel’s latest attempt to consolidate its ring of settlements that aim to sever Bethlehem from Jerusalem. This is one last attempt to prevent a land confiscation that would have catastrophic consequences for the local Christian population.

Since the Israeli occupation began in 1967, Israel has confiscated thousands of acres belonging to Palestinian Christians and Muslims. In the Jerusalem and Bethlehem areas, Christians have been severely affected by Israel’s colonization policies. As an example, approximately 5,436 acres of land from northern Bethlehem were unilaterally annexed by Israel to create the illegal settlements of Gilo and Har Homa – which Israel now cynically calls new Jerusalem “neighborhoods.”

These “neighborhoods,” aim to physically separate Jerusalem from Bethlehem and, for the first time in history, prohibit Palestinian Christians from worshipping in the holy city of Jerusalem.

It is also completely disingenuous for Israeli spokespeople to argue that the population of Christians in Israel has “tripled since 1948.” In fact, figures show that the percentage of Christians in the area began to decrease in 1948, when Israel was created.

Much of the so-called “growth” in Israel is due to the immigration of foreigners and while it is true that in numbers Christians have grown in both Israel and Palestine due to natural increase, the percentage would be much higher in absence of the ongoing Israeli displacement policies against the indigenous Palestinian population.

In fact, Israeli spokespeople “forget” to mention that in 1948, 75 percent of the Palestinian Arab population, including Christians, of what is now the State of Israel became refugees. Entire Christian villages were destroyed by Israel; and tens of thousands of Christians were expelled. Some areas of today’s west Jerusalem, such as Talbiya and Katamon, were home to thousands of Palestinian Christians whose homes were looted and private property confiscated.

Since the occupation of the West Bank in 1967, Israel has implemented a policy of taking as much as land as possible and as few as Palestinians as possible. Palestinian Christians, particularly in Jerusalem, have suffered the consequences of this policy.

Considering the hundreds of cases put forth by Palestinian Christians living in occupied east Jerusalem, if Israel continues its policies of residency revocations and home demolitions, within a few years the Christian community in Jerusalem will not count more than 6,000 faithful.

Next week, thousands of Palestinian Christians from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank will once again be denied their right to worship in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for Easter celebrations.

And, if they are lucky enough obtain a permit from the Israeli military to enter Jerusalem, they will have to cross through humiliating security checks to cross from one part of their occupied homeland to another.

We still have to live with the irony that Christians tourists from all over the world will freely access the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, located just a few kilometers away from our homes, while we cannot enjoy the same right. As Easter brings its message of resurrection, we will be praying for the resurrection of justice for everyone on this land.

During our years of priesthood, we have paid visits to many Palestinian Christian political prisoners jailed in Israeli prisons, participated in funerals of Christians who have lost their lives in this bloody conflict, assisted families divided by the Israeli policy of stripping Palestinian residency rights, and lobbied on behalf of our parishioners whose property was confiscated by Israel.

In the West Bank Israel does not differentiate between Palestinian Christians and Muslims in its policies. Several studies have shown that the Israeli occupation and settlement activities are the main reason for Christian emigration.

These claims are not Palestinian “propaganda” but have been largely researched by the US government, the European Union and the United Nations. In fact, all the recent International Religious Freedom Reports published by the US Department of State highlight this issue.

To conclude, Palestinian Christians are not persecuted by Palestinian Muslims. The end of the Israeli occupation would allow all our people, Christians and Muslims, to develop all our potential living side by side.

Fr. Faysal Hijazeen is the parish priest of the Ramallah’s Holy Family Church and head of Latin Patriarchate Schools in Palestine and Fr. Ibrahim Shomali is parish priest of the Annunciation Church in Beit Jala.

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