Christians nearly absent in Holy Land

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Palestinian Catholic Bishara Michael makes the sign of the cross on his son, 3-month-old Gabriel, during an annual Franciscan-led pilgrimage to the Qasr el-Yehud baptism site by the Jordan River in October 2010. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

LONDON -- By now, the threat facing Christianity in its birthplace is depressingly clear. Christians represented 30 percent of British Mandate Palestine in 1948, while today in Israel and the Palestinian Territories they’re 1.25 percent. The Catholic patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, warns that the Holy Land risks becoming a “spiritual Disneyland” -- full of glittering rides and attractions, but empty of its indigenous Christian population.

That decline is part of a Christian exodus all across the Middle East, the reasons for which are well-known:

  • Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which affects Arab Christians as much as Arab Muslims;

  • Lack of economic opportunity;

  • Rising Islamic fundamentalism;

  • Christians in the area tend to be better-educated and more affluent, and thus stand a better chance of getting out. As one observer says, in the Middle East frustrated Christians emigrate physically, while frustrated Muslims emigrate ideologically.

Yet even when the big picture is familiar, its details still pack emotional punch.

Raphaela Fischer Mourra, daughter of a German father and Palestinian mother, was born and raised in Bethlehem. In 2000, at the age of 15, she lost her father to an Israeli missile attack as he raced to rescue neighbors; she describes him as “the first Christian martyr of the Second Intifada.” Samer Makhlouf, a 35-year-old raised in a Christian village on the West Bank, was arrested by Israeli troops at 15 for tossing a stone. He was detained for four months, he says, interrogated and tortured. Another Palestinian Christian, Jacoub Sleibi, says his family is forced to haul water to their home in Bethlehem, while fresh water flows abundantly through nearby Israeli settlements.

Illustrating that no one has a monopoly on pain, there’s Rabbi Daniel Sperber of Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, who describes scraping bone and skin out of burned Israeli tanks to make DNA identifications, calling it the sort of tragedy “that has touched every Israeli family.” His children have been afraid to get on the school bus, he said, worrying that it might blow up.

These were among the voices at a conference on Christians in the Holy Land in London July 18-19, cosponsored by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols. Held at Lambeth Palace, the spiritual headquarters of Anglicanism, the event aimed to raise “literate, compassionate awareness” of the Christian plight.

Yet awareness is the easy part. Knowing what to do is harder, because the situation is maddeningly complex.

Impact of Israeli policy

Makhlouf, a Catholic, said that of the four problems facing Christians in the Holy Land, the first three are “occupation, occupation, occupation.”

Palestinian Christians insisted that the factors fueling their exodus -- political discrimination, lack of employment, restrictions on freedom of movement -- are fundamentally the result of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Access to holy sites is one difficulty. Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have different residency cards, and movement back and forth requires a permit that’s hard to obtain. Christians in Bethlehem often cannot cross the roughly six miles to Jerusalem to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Residency policies also divide families. Reportedly, there are some 200 Christian families split between the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The 1993 “Fundamental Agreement” between Israel and the Vatican, designed to regulate the legal status of church properties, is another frustration. The Knesset has never acknowledged the deal, and in the meantime, Israeli has declared Christian sites such as Mount Tabor and Capernaum to be national parks.

On the other hand, several speakers argued that as the lone democracy in the region, Israel gives Christians a better break than elsewhere.

Sperber said that more than 50,000 Christians have settled in Israel from the former Soviet Union, and others are arriving from the Balkans and Asia. As a result, he said, “the churches are full in Tel Aviv and Haifa” and in Jerusalem.

Sperber said there is also a “tremendous upsurge” in Christian pilgrimage -- so much so, he said, that his neighbors struggle to leave their houses because narrow alleyways are packed with Christian tourists.

As a result, Sperber said, there is a Christian “renaissance” in Israel.

Bernard Sabellah, a Christian academic and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, differed.

There were 35,000 Christians in Israel in 1948, he said, while today it’s 110,000. Given natural demographic increase, he said, the Christian population should be 150,000, suggesting a “missing” 40,000 Christians. Moreover, he asserted, a recent survey of young Christians in Israel found that 26 percent want to leave -- the same as in the Palestinian Territories.

Enthusiasm coursed through the gathering about the Arab Spring, and the vision of pluralistic, democratic societies that animates its young protagonists.

The Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, said the Arab Spring demonstrates that “the people are demanding to be heard,” and that as Arab Christians, “we join our Arab brothers and sisters.”

Sabellah said the uprisings mean the majority of Arabs want to live “in an open, preferably secular, democratic society.” That’s especially true, he said, for Christians.

“I have no problem with Islam, but I want to be a citizen, not a tolerated minority by a gracious act of Israel, or Assad, or Abu Mazen, or the King of Jordan,” he said.

Arab Spring ambivalence

Yet some Christians are ambivalent, wondering if the Arab Spring will deliver on those heady promises.

“I look at it with great hope, but also great worry and fear,” Makhlouf said. “The future is not clear. ... What’s next? Is it the Muslim Brotherhood? More Islamic regimes?”

U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said he recently returned from Gaza, where the elderly voiced worries. “They’re afraid of Hamas, and they’re afraid of the Arab Spring,” he said.

Conservative British Member of Parliament Tony Baldry said he recently visited Egypt, where he met Coptic and Catholic leaders who “are not optimistic.” Christians, he said, worry that “by next year, the Muslim Brotherhood will be in control of the military.”

There’s much to applaud in the Arab Spring, but it’s also naive, as Baldry put it, “to think that every change is necessarily for the better.”

There was a palpable sense that the region is moving toward fresh disaster -- perhaps a new intifada, or a new war in Lebanon, or new conflict between Al-Fatah and Hamas. A September vote on Palestinian statehood in the United Nations could unleash conflict.

Some suggested that the right approach to aiding Christians is to focus on grass-roots initiatives, ignoring the bleak political landscape.

“We are not sitting by the wayside waiting for politicians or anyone else to create a path to peace,” Dawani said.

In the end, a both/and approach seemed to prevail -- small-scale initiatives as confidence-building measures, while pursuing political breakthroughs.

Sabellah stressed the importance of focusing on practical matters such as residency, housing, and freedom of movement, which could be resolved even in the absence of a comprehensive peace deal. “Lofty dialogue will get you nowhere,” he said. “Let’s not waste effort.”

Why Christianity matters

LONDON -- The argument at the July 18-19 conference as to why the outside world ought to care about Christians in the Holy Land boiled down to two points: First, their survival is critical to Christian identity; second, it’s key to peace in the region.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made the first case.

“Christianity is an historical religion,” he said. “At its center is a set of events that occurred in a particular place and at a particular time. It is not open to Christians to say that Christianity is whatever they choose it to be. We are responsible to what happened in the Holy Land two millennia ago.

“It would be a form of Gnosticism if we were to say that the Christian presence in the land of Our Lord does not matter to us,” Williams argued, calling such disregard a way of “cutting ourselves loose from history.”

Beyond that, he said, the Christians of the Holy Land make another contribution: a reminder that at its origins, Christianity is an “exotic Eastern religion ... not bound up with Western culture.”

Observers insisted the presence of Christianity keeps alive the notion of the Holy Land as a pluralistic space -- and, conversely, the disappearance of Christianity would send the wrong signal.

The most compelling form of that argument came from Lubna Alzaroo, a Palestinian Muslim attending Bethlehem University, which is sponsored by the De La Salle Christian Brothers.

In the mid-1960s, Alzaroo said, her hometown of Hebron had a small Christian community, but today it has disappeared. She didn’t meet a Christian until she was 18, and that encounter came during a study program in the United States.

It’s no coincidence, she said, that Hebron is considered the most religiously conservative city in the Palestinian Territories, an incubator for radical and militant currents. “Part of the reason is the lack of pluralism,” she said. “The more isolated they become, the more they think their way is the only way.”

Given the link between the presence of Christianity and the plausibility of a democratic and tolerant Palestine, Alzaroo offered this dramatic warning: If Christianity were to disappear, she said, “it would have ramifications as catastrophic for the Palestinians as the Nakba in 1948.”

(Nakba is an Arabic term, meaning “disaster,” which Palestinians use to refer to their displacement following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.)

-- John L. Allen Jr.

Concrete ideas to help communities

LONDON -- Toward the end of the July meeting on Christians in the Holy Land, concrete ideas were flagged that could be of help to those communities. A sampling follows:

  • A targeted push in favor of easier access to Christian holy sites. As Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols put it, “The de facto separation of Bethlehem from Jerusalem seems to sum up the frustration and fear that people feel.”

  • Encouraging Catholic charities to focus on projects in the Holy Land, such as water supplies, medical care, housing and employment.

  • Encouraging pilgrimage and tourism, under a “new template” focusing not merely on seeing historical sites but also encountering living Christian communities.

  • Inviting Palestinian Christian students to spend a few months abroad, perhaps as part of an exchange program. They could be hosted by parishes, and also have the chance to meet with political leaders.

  • Conducting a church study of Christian messianic Zionism -- the view that the return of Jews to Israel is a prerequisite to the Second Coming -- and what it means for Christians living in Palestine.

  • Reaching out to the Palestinian Christian diaspora in the United States and Europe, promoting relationships with Christians who remain in the Palestinian Territories.

  • Promoting microfinance and job-training programs for Christians in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

  • Encouraging business firms in the West to “adopt” a Christian enterprise in the Holy Land, entering into partnership and ensuring access to markets.

  • Developing an ecumenical day of prayer for the Christians of the Holy Land, so that one day a year they know the entire Christian world is praying on their behalf.

  • Parishes in the West “adopting” a Christian parish, or an entire community, in the Holy Land. Rabbi Daniel Sperber suggested an analogy with the way Jews in the 19th century adopted fledging communities in Ottoman Palestine, solidifying the Jewish presence.

-- John L. Allen Jr.

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