Will the Holy Land become a theme park of Christian history with most of the Christians gone?
This bleak picture is projected by Christian leaders throughout the region where Jesus walked and taught almost two millennia ago.
"We, as Christians, have become an insignificant part of the population," says 57-year-old Canon Riah Abu El Assal, archdeacon of the Jerusalem diocese of the Evangelical Episcopal Church. In the middle of the century, Christians represented 25 percent of the Holy Land's population, he explains in the small, stone Christ Church, a short walk from the Nazareth site where tradition says the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to the Messiah. Now the Christian population is only around 2 percent.
In less than 30 years, Riah says, the number of Christians in the faith's geographical heart, Jerusalem, has dropped from 28,000 to 7,000. The tale of decline is repeated across the land of the Gospels' story. Jesus' birthplace, Bethlehem, today for the first time houses more Muslims than Christians. His boyhood home of Nazareth, 90 percent Christian not long ago, now is 65 percent Muslim. Ramallah, a town near the place where Mary and Joseph discovered the 12-year-old Jesus had been left by their traveling group in Jerusalem, once had an entirely Christian population; now it is nearly all Muslim.
The drain of Christians from the Holy Land, little noted by the church in the rest of the world, is part of a general exodus of Palestinian Arabs from a homeland they have found hostile and unpromising. Beginning with the war for independence in 1948, when the new State of Israel occupied vast areas of Palestinian land and began imposing harsh conditions on its Arab inhabitants, steady emigration has scattered the Holy Land's Christian families throughout the earth.
Some 2 million Palestinians—Muslim and Christian—remain in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel occupied following the 1967 Six-Day War with neighboring Arab countries. Another 4 million have left in one of the largest refugee movements in modern times. Departing Muslims have gone to refugee camps within the former Palestine as well as to other Arab countries. Christians have usually settled in Europe, Australia, and North and South America.
Their departure has not been undertaken lightly. Palestinians commonly trace family ties to their land back hundreds of years. Christians often claim roots in the country dating from the time of the apostles.
"We frequently get asked, 'When did you convert?' says Jonathan Kuttab, 42, a Christian attorney and human-rights activist in Jerusalem. "We're Christians from the day of Pentecost. We have lived in this society, we have held the witness, the testimony, all these years."
"They leave because of lack of security, lack of future, lack of jobs, lack of housing, lack of education," says Emil Salayta, 30, principal of the Latin Catholic school in the West Bank village of Bir Zeit. "People are afraid, and they want a better life for their children."
Until the recent and often surprising successes of peace negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Israelis faced constant threat of attack, while Palestinian Arabs in the occupied territories endured a continued military presence in spite of a United Nations resolution calling on Israel to withdraw. With the 1987 start of uprisings known as the intifada—from the Arabic word for "shake loose"—Israeli pressures turned especially intense.
UNDER ISRAELI RULE
To suppress activities ranging from stone throwing to terrorist attacks, Israeli military authorities imposed rule by force. As a consequence, Palestinian Arabs, guilty and innocent alike, saw their homes demolished and lands expropriated, their family members beaten, shot, or jailed without trial. Frequent curfews restricted them from travel to their jobs or confined them to their houses for days at a time. Their schools and universities were forcibly closed for up to four years. Christians, as Palestinians, endured the same social and political difficulties as Muslim Arabs.
"The occupation has deprived people of their God-given rights," says 57-year-old Audeh Rantisi, the founder and director of the Evangelical Home for Boys in Ramallah who, at age 11, was driven from his home in Lyddah along with 100,000 others. "We have been treated as less than human beings, like animals in a cage."
In recent months, the peace accord returning the West Bank city of Jericho and the Gaza Strip to limited Palestinian control has gained a mixed reception. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert sums up the range of attitudes: "In the current climate … hope and opportunity are shadowed by fear and suspicion."
"I think what is going on now is not peace," says Rantisi in Ramallah. "True peace is based on justice, peace of mind, peace with neighbors. … Our problem is not with Judaism, but with Zionism, which takes our homes and farms."
"We wish that the peace would have been more joyful, more generous on both sides, but we have to deal with the reality," says Elias Chacour, a Melkite Catholic priest and founder of the Prophet Elias Community College at the town of Ibillin in Galilee. Known around the world for his efforts toward reconciliation between Arabs and Jews, Chacour says, "Better to have Gaza and Jericho and the feeling of hope for the future than to have absolutely nothing."
"We're excited about the whole process," Riah says in Nazareth. "Dialogue implies recognition." Riah believes Palestinian independence will impose itself and people will come to terms with it, whether they live in Israel or in Washington, D.C. "I'd love to see the day when a Palestine-Israeli federation comes about, like a new Switzerland. Ten years is realistic, I think." Meanwhile, he says, "with the peace accord, we hope and pray that many will change their minds [about leaving] and it will encourage people to come back."
NO TIME FOR WAITING
Christian leaders are not waiting, however, for peace negotiations to solve the region's problems.
"In the Diaspora, we estimate to have at least 350,000 Palestinian Christians," Chacour says in Ibillin. "We do not want to see their number increasing . … I'm convinced that the best answer to emigration is to create educational institutions on a very high academic standard to attract our youngsters."
"We are a force encouraging Christians to stay," says Bishara Awad, 54, president of Bethlehem Bible College, which he rounded in 1979 to provide a two-year course of study for youth of all denominations who otherwise might go abroad. "Ninety-five percent of our graduates are still in the country."
"As a priest, I am working to build a new era for Christianity throughout my community, even if it is a small community," says Salayta of Bir Zeit village. "To prepare a better future, I have to give a special education, very strong, so that our people will be prepared and needed for a role in the country, rather than feeling alienated and having to look for another place to live."
Meanwhile, most Palestinians, including Christian leaders, feel a profound need for international political support based on principles of basic human rights and justice.
"I think much depends on the Western world, which so far has been directly involved in a one-sided way, always for Israel against the Palestinians," Chacour, 54, says. He speculates that feelings of guilt over the Holocaust led to unconditional support of a homeland for Jews, regardless of its cost to Palestinians of other faiths.
Considering that Jews, Christians, and Muslims dwelled together in the Holy Land for more than 1,500 years, many people believe reconciliation is eventually possible.
"This is where forgiveness comes in," Kuttab says. "There's a danger of people expecting and accepting eternal strife and hatred because they have not learned the lesson of forgiveness. I hope and pray to God we will never become so embittered that we cannot forgive."
Christian leaders also quietly hope for assistance from churches in the world beyond for their work in education and community development.
"It's a tradition, you know," Salayta says. "Saint Paul was saying he was collecting money for the church of Jerusalem. It's a kind of sharing among brothers in faith."
"The Palestinian church is a suffering church at this time," Awad says. "We have a deep sense of rejection by Western Christianity—that the Christian world, which has been supporting Israel whether right or wrong, doesn't care." Christians are in the middle, he says, squeezed between the large Muslim community and the large Jewish community.
"This is why we are calling the Christians on the outside to come to the aid of this community," Awad says. "If we remain always the forgotten faithful, this will be a land of dead stories, and our churches will become like museums."
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