Christians Anonymous

Though sometimes forgotten, the Jerusalem district Christian community is growing.

Gaza christians 88 (photo credit: )
Gaza christians 88
(photo credit: )
Anonymous. The word comes to mind when researching Jerusalem Christians, likely the world's oldest Christian community. Initially I noticed it's difficult to find hard statistical data on native Jerusalem Christians. Demographic statistics at the Jerusalem Municipality categorize them as 'non-Jews,' lumping them in with Muslims, Druse and expatriate Christians. While the municipality kept statistics on its Christian population until 1995, it no longer considers such a division necessary, according to a city spokesman. (As a professional spokesman, he avoided saying 'statistically irrelevant,' but one understands.) Balancing Jerusalem Municipality numbers with data from the Central Bureau of Statistics (a bit tricky because the city made no distinction between native and expatriate Christians while the CBS was concerned with Jerusalem district, not the city) one finds the numbers slightly increased since 1967. The CBS proposes there are presently 12,600 (mostly Arab and Armenian Christians), while German writer Ulrich Sahm, working with the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, found about 14,000 native Jerusalem Christians. (Sahm found Bethlehem statistics so confusing, he satirically 'discovered' there are minus 2000 Christians in the city of Jesus' birth). Perhaps more important than the numbers is the proportion of Christians relative to the other faiths in the city since 1967. While the Christian population increased slightly, Muslim numbers quadrupled and the Jewish community increased by 75%, rendering Christians about 2% of the total. The disparity is most clearly seen in Jerusalem's Old City, where the number of Christians has dropped by about 400 but the percentage has decreased from 30 to 18. Even the Christian quarter is almost 25% Muslim. The shops in the area are 90% Muslim. *** More telling than the demographics is the vulnerability perceived by the Old City Christians, which contributes to their anonymity. No members of the Christian community were willing to use their own names. Last August, when a shooting in the Christian Quarter between a Muslim assailant and Israeli security guards resulted in 11 wounded - most of them Jerusalem Christians - many Christians felt the incident illustrated their predicament. Samir, a professional working in the Old City, said 'We're trapped between two larger peoples that don't like each other... and they don't like us either.' 'To the Arabs, we're Christians, which means Crusaders, and to the Israelis we're Arabs, which means terrorists,' according to Jack, an Old City shopkeeper. 'We're not able to trust anybody. I haven't been to confession in 15 years because I don't trust any priest!' One indication Christians are sensing their diminished presence is their willingness to marry outside their denomination. Children are raised according to the denomination of the father. Typically Christian girls never married Muslims, 'but now you hear about it every few months,' according to George, who works in the Old City. 'There aren't enough boys to go around.' Maria, a Syrian Orthodox resident of the Old City, agrees that there are more boys than girls, but attributes the intermarriage to 'the naivete of those girls.' Two Roman Catholic brothers said they can't find wives in Jerusalem 'because all these girls want to leave. If you want to stay in Jerusalem you can't find a girl to marry you.' Maria agrees with the brothers, saying 'most, maybe 80% of the girls would like to leave.' She adds that she is among the majority. 'I wouldn't hesitate,' she says unashamedly. Maria says Christian girls face special problems in Jerusalem because 'in the market, the Muslim boys say things they would never say to Muslim girls.' She adds that occasionally, in the crowded market after Muslim prayers on Fridays, 'someone will reach out and [inappropriately] touch' a Christian girl. Another symptom of Christian insecurity is the low birthrate among Christian women; it is the lowest of the three communities and decreasing drastically. In 1995 the average Christian woman bore 2.7 children, but in 2006 the number dropped to 2.1 - a 22% decrease in a decade. In November the Interior Ministry reported an increase 'in the hundreds' of Arab applications for Israeli citizenship. Most experts agree the increase stems from speculation that east Jerusalem might fall under Palestinian Authority control. Based on the well-publicized Christian exodus from Bethlehem and persecution against Christians in Gaza - both cities under PA control - it is assumed many of these applications are from Christians. In Hamas-run Gaza, Christian worker Rami Khader Ayyad was murdered in October after an elderly Christian woman was beaten, robbed and accused of being an 'infidel.' In the past year, both a church and the Bible Society bookstore have been firebombed. Most Christians report some harassment when residing in a Muslim neighborhood, stating that Muslim children enter their gardens and they are helpless to expel them. Salim said a local thug entered his home and knocked his grandmother to the floor while trying to steal her jewelry. He said the local Mukhtar (head of the Muslim community) advised him to install burglar bars. Samir moved from the Muslim majority neighborhood where he and his mother lived to a Jewish neighborhood 'where nobody knows who you are' as a result of Muslim hostility. Now married and living near his mother, he says he would leave Jerusalem but needs to take care of her. Still, he says he has made preparations by getting licensed to practice his profession in Canada. While the implications of Christian exodus have been only talk and speculation to date, Samir thinks Palestinian governance of east Jerusalem would be 'the feather [translating from Arabic] that breaks the camel's back.' Other interviewees agreed, insisting Christians would 'automatically leave' or would prefer Israeli citizenship, although older interviewees suggested Christians would try to live under Palestinian rule 'and then make up our minds.' While most called Israel a better option, all recognize that, as Arabs, they are the object of racism in Israel as well. Jack cites administrative hassles, but says if an Israeli friend goes with him, he gets better service. He also believes Arabs are discriminated against in the job market. Samir says he is hassled at checkpoints and the airport. A recent survey by the Israeli Association of Civil Rights bears out such allegations. *** Following the Christians' anonymity because of their self-imposed namelessness, the anomymity hat trick is completed by Christians worldwide who are unaware of Palestinian Christians. Samir says he meets Americans in the Old City who are shocked to find he is both Arab and Christian. All interviewees concur that this anonymous Christian community is characterized by lack of support from sister churches. 'Jews [worldwide] support the ultra-Orthodox who don't work but just study and have five children to a family. The Muslims have large extended families who help each other out, and even they receive help from churches. We're a small community and don't receive anything,' according to Jack. 'We don't want handouts, but they could help establish businesses or provide scholarships.' Justus Reid Weiner, a human rights lawyer, recently echoed these remarks while addressing the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (see Page 4). Weiner says there will be no more Christians in the PA administered territories in 15 years unless Western institutions help with jobs. 'The systematic persecution of Christian Arabs in Palestinian areas is being met with nearly total silence by the international community, human rights activists, the media and NGOs.' Weiner attributes this silence to local Christian leaders who 'sing the PA's tune.' Prof. Petra Heldt, who teaches 'Christian Communities in Jerusalem' at Jerusalem University College, says this loyalty to the PA stems from 'the dhimmi atmosphere.' (Dhimmi is the protective status given to non-Muslim minorities in exchange for loyalty and subjugation to the Muslim majority.) 'The world only hears the party line, which says that everything is fine with the exception of Israel,' explains Heldt. 'Since the real suffering of the Christians has very little to do with Israeli politics, and the reality is not talked about, nobody really knows.' Interviewees were divided along age lines on the question of leaving Jerusalem, younger people seeing emigration as a legitimate option while the older generation considers it 'disgraceful.' Hanna, an east Jerusalem businessman who once gave a Bible to Yasser Arafat, said: 'I have a calling in order to serve God in what I am doing now and remain a good witness to non-Christians here.' He insists: 'If you are a loyal Christian you will definitely not leave this country... you will stay. If you leave you will betray both your faith and your nation.' Another businessman succinctly said he will remain regardless of who governs: 'I don't care if their big sheikh comes, I'm staying!' This article appeared in The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition