Religion: The forgotten people

Christian leaders warn: Faith of Christian minority in W. Bank, Gaza could become extinct soon.

west bank church 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
west bank church 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The head of the Gaza Strip's tiny Roman Catholic community cancels Christmas Eve's Midnight Mass, citing recent Palestinian violence. The top Catholic official in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah, calls the traditional birthplace of Jesus "a city of conflict and death" as a result of Israeli counterterrorism measures. It is Christmas 2006, but there is little holiday spirit for the Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite the lull in violence in Israel, only a trickle of foreign tourists are visiting Bethlehem. These are not easy times for Christians living in the Holy Land. And the outlook is even bleaker. The steady flight of the tiny Christian minority from the Palestinian Authority territories has caused some Christian leaders to warn that the faith could be virtually extinct in its birthplace in a matter of decades. "It is a reality that the Christian community is leaving the West Bank and the Gaza Strip at a rapid pace - and it seems that nothing can be done to stop this reality," said Rev. Alex Awad, dean of students at Bethlehem Bible College. "Within 15 years Christians in the Holy Land will be a totally insignificant minority, with just people running the churches and the institutions and no viable Christian community in the Holy Land." Awad, a Baptist pastor who lives in Jerusalem but makes the short commute to Bethlehem during the week, said that without a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, something which he readily agrees is far-fetched, the coming years will see a "total collapse" of Christianity in its birthplace. The Palestinian Christian population has dipped below 2 percent in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, down from at least 15% in 1950 according to some estimates. Only about 3,000 Christians, mostly Greek Orthodox, live in Gaza, amid a strongly conservative Muslim population of 1.4 million. (About 150,000 Christians - 80% of them Arabs - live in Israel, 2.1% of the total population, according to figures released this week by the Central Bureau of Statistics.) "If the situation continues, the churches here will soon be museums," said Rev. Naim Kuri, an outspoken Evangelical Christian who leads Bethlehem Baptist Church and who has recently relocated to Jerusalem. NO CITY in the Holy Land is more indicative of the great exodus of Christians than Bethlehem, which fell under full Palestinian control as part of the failed Oslo Accords. The biblical town of 30,000, located just eight kilometers south of Jerusalem, which has been the focus of pilgrimages for nearly two millennia, is now less than 20% Christian, after decades during which Christians were the majority. Thousands of Christians have left the city during the last six years of Palestinian violence for a better life in Israel or the West, as the dire economic situation, Israel's security barrier and the fallout from the political situation, including the growing strength of radical Islamic movements like Hamas, have made life in the town increasingly unbearable. "There is no life, no jobs, no work and no future in Bethlehem," said M. Raheb, a Christian Arab who lives in Jerusalem. Two of Raheb's sisters live in Bethlehem, and are trying to get out, he said, while a third left for Sweden two years ago. He added that the situation in Bethlehem has only deteriorated further following Hamas's victory in January's Palestinian Legislative Council elections, with Christians discriminated against by the Muslim majority. The economic malaise, coupled with the rising unemployment rates and the PA's inability to pay civil servants, has only further aggravated tensions in the city. Raheb suggested that Israel should do more to help the fast- dwindling Christian population. "It's not the Christians who are attacking Israel," he said. "Christians are not terrorists." "It is very sad [that] hundreds of families have gone to get away from the troubles here," said Peter Robinson, a native of New Zealand who has lived with his Christian Arab wife in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala for much of the past two decades. Economic pressures pushed his wife's brothers to emigrate to Chile. Robinson said that the upset Hamas election victory was "a big shock" for the area's Christians. "Many despaired, and just left," he said. Tourism, the lifeline of the whole area, has been severely sapped, as the situation has turned once-bustling pilgrimage sites such as Bethlehem into relative ghost towns. MANY CHRISTIANS living in Bethlehem will often point to the security barrier that Israel has erected to stop Palestinian suicide bombers from slipping into Jerusalem and other cities as one of the most serious handicaps to their existence. Yet, at the same time, most will also agree that life under Israeli rule - for a quarter century following the 1967 Six Day War - was far better than it is today under PA rule. "There is no doubt that the situation now is much worse than it was under Israeli occupation," Awad said. "Before Oslo, things were much better," he added, saying the difficulty Bethlehem residents face in getting a permit to enter Jerusalem is worse now than when the city was under Israeli military occupation. "The situation today is much worse; there is no government, no police, no security," Kuri said. Kuri, a born-again Christian who is something of a black sheep for his connection with Christian Zionists and overtly pro-Israel stance, said that he finds it increasingly difficult to alleviate the suffering of his congregants. "We feel we are the forgotten people," he concluded.