Is Christianity dying in Bethlehem?

While in 1948 Christians comprised 80% of Bethlehem's population, today they make up only 20%. As Christmas approaches, In Jerusalem visits Jesus' birthplace.

bethelehem 88 (photo credit: )
bethelehem 88
(photo credit: )
It's a warm Sunday morning at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Mass is being held inside the church on the Feast of the King. Inside, the choir's soft tones echo around the many worshipers. Franciscan monks take confessions in intricate mahogany boxes below the thick pillars which dominate the building. At the end of the service, members of the congregation gather in the courtyard to greet one another. The impression is of a strong, healthy community, but this belies the increasingly difficult circumstances in which Bethlehem's Christians find themselves. The city's Christian population has been in decline since 1948, when it accounted for 80 percent of the total. That figure has now dropped to about 20% in greater Bethlehem. The flight of this endangered bird has gone more or less unnoticed by the international media as they focus on the cock fight around them, but when commentators apportion blame for the change, they inevitably tie it into the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Israel there is a real fear that Bethlehem's Christians are fleeing persecution by their Muslim neighbors. David Parsons of the International Christian Embassy recently wrote in a Jerusalem Post op-ed that those Christians who remain suffer from the same Islamic hostility that is battering Israel, and which views both Jews and Christians as followers of "inferior" faiths naturally destined to be subjugated by Muslims. This view is sometimes openly endorsed on the other side of the fence. In 1999 Sheikh Yussef Salameh, the Palestinian Authority's undersecretary for religious endowment, praised the idea that Christians should become dhimmis - second-class citizens "protected" by a majority Muslim administration. What do Christians in Bethlehem have to say about life as a minority in a predominantly Muslim city? Tony is a hairdresser and chorister at the German Church. He tells me that two years ago the police had to heighten security at the Christmas parade after a religious fanatic from Hebron threatened to bomb it. But he claims that such threats are rare, and invites me to come and watch the event. His brother moved to San Francisco in 1988, shortly after the start of the first intifada, not because of Muslim persecution but rather because of the threat of IDF bombs, and because of the economic downturn and the curfews that were imposed at the time. Dr. Samir Hazboun is chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce & Industry. He says sectarian violence is not a big problem. "In the street you will see many young people walking with crosses around their necks. Nobody is intimidating them." Hazboun argues that the Christian community receives PA government support as well. Hamas gave $50,000 to the Ministry of Tourism to decorate Manger Square for Christmas, he said, explaining that Hamas feels Christians can be useful in negotiating with the US. "George," a Bethlehem lawyer, concedes that Hamas is not accountable for sectarian violence. "The aggression doesn't come directly from Hamas," he says. "I don't know of them ever stealing land from a Christian, for example." But he claims that behind the scenes, Hamas is trying to impose Islam on Christian neighborhoods. "For example, there is a mosque in a Christian neighborhood which Arafat had built only for palace protocol. Hamas has transformed it into a working mosque and put four speakers on it, when two is the norm. Calls to prayer now ring out four times a day, starting at four in the morning." Hazboun believes the main problem is "the breakdown of law and order. This is like a snowball which increases in size and drags more problems into its path." The city's public sector has been on strike for the past seven months. This means there is no such thing as a judiciary. "This is the clan community," explains Hazboun. "If you are strong you will survive. If you are weak you have no place here." Unfortunately for the Christian minority, in Bethlehem size is strength, which does not bode well for them. George says that even when the courts are working, most cases are "settled" by the families involved. "A Christian family has a maximum of 100 members, but a Muslim family can have as many as 5,000. When the settlement [in lieu of jail time] in a murder trial can be as much as $65,000, [the usually wealthier] Christian family will find it very difficult to pay, while for them [the poorer but larger Muslim families] it is much easier." One man I met, who insisted that nothing about his identity be revealed, told me this situation is being exploited by the local mafia. They seize the land of Christian families by using false documents and Christian fronts, knowing the courts on which the Christians rely are ineffective, and that Christian families are in any case less likely to stand up for themselves. At the end of my meeting with George, he warns me that many Christians, out of either a sense of fear or solidarity with their fellow Arabs, are reluctant to speak honestly to foreign journalists about their experiences. My meeting with "Joseph" goes some way toward confirming this. When I approach him he looks nervous, as if he is thinking it would be safer not to talk - an attitude I was already familiar with. I had been told by another prominent Christian, who I understood had been beaten by a Muslim gang, that he couldn't talk about his experiences because it would jeopardize his job. Like Joseph, he works in banking, and believes he has a lot to lose. This is hardly surprising; lucrative jobs are rare in this city. Joseph eventually decides that he will talk to me, as long as his identity remains secret. In November his cousin, a mechanic, was insulted by some Muslim teenagers from the local school, who shouted sectarian insults at him. In return he pushed them. Later on, the youths' clan came to take vengeance. Joseph shows me a picture of his face shortly after the attack. His left cheek was bruised and swollen, but in comparison with the rest of the family, he was fairly lucky. The attackers broke one of his cousins' arms and cracked the skull of another. His wife and mother, he says, were also beaten. I ask Joseph whether the police came to their help. He says four officers turned up, but when they saw they were up against 50 men they fled. Joseph stresses that his Muslim neighbors came to his aid and were horrified by what had happened. His family also received overwhelming public support. The imam in the neighborhood mosque condemned the violence and encouraged Muslims to support them. Around 5,000 people, Christian and Muslim alike, donated money so the family could get proper hospital treatment. This incident reminded me of a comment George had made previously. "The violence doesn't come from religious people," he had said, "the violence comes from uneducated, tribalistic people who use religion as an excuse to justify their aggression." The sentiment is that sectarianism is not an integral part of the Islamic side of their society, let alone a necessary part of Islamic societies in general. There are, however, two underlying non-religious causes of sectarianism which have been brought up by people on both sides of the argument. The first is the social status which Bethlehem's Christians enjoy. By and large they are wealthy and educated. This means it is easier for them to emigrate. But it also means they are a lucrative target for thieves. Ironically, their money provides little protection in court, since the city has no judicial system to speak of. The other factor which separates some people as "others" within the community is their reluctance to join the violence against Israel. Dr. Hazboun proudly claims that the IDF would not be able to name a single Christian involved in terrorist activity during the intifada. While many people would see this as testament to the moral courage of the community, poor Muslim families living in neighboring refugee camps take it as a sign that Christians place their faith (or protection of their possessions) over the wellbeing of their countrymen. Sectarianism exists here, although the scale is debatable. The problem for Bethlehem's Christians is that they are unwilling to stand up against it when it occurs. George and Joseph both stressed that they try to act on the ideal of turning the other cheek. But if current emigration trends continue, soon there will be no cheeks left to turn. All those who spoke out against serious sectarian violence requested that their anonymity be ensured for fear of reprisal.