Each Christmas, the world media seize on the subject of Palestinian Christians and the difficulties they face. Usually taking the little town of Bethlehem as an example, reporters generally raise the question of the "Christian exodus from the Holy Land". And almost always, Israel is blamed.
There are two main schools of thought on the exile of ethnic Christian Arabs from Judea-Samaria. One holds that they are leaving the "Holy Land" because of harsh Israeli occupation since 1967. The other argument is that life under Muslims in the territories has become intolerable, and that their departure is due mostly to fear of Muslim fundamentalism.
Worsening economic conditions in the disputed territories is given as yet another reason, one few would dispute. Many Christian Arab families are relatively wealthy, and thus can afford to send their children abroad to settle.
There's no denying that large numbers of Christian Arabs have left the territories in the last several decades. In 1992, it was reported that some 40 per cent of ethnic Christian Arabs in Judea-Samaria (about 18,000) had left the region since 1967. In the town of Bethlehem, the proportion of the population which is Christian has dropped from 80 per cent before 1948, to less than 33 per cent today.
These kind of statistics are usually quoted to support claims that Israeli occupation has made life unbearable. The implication: Jews are anti-Christian. The aim of this viewpoint: To win world "Christian" support for the Palestinians.
But a little-reported fact is that the number of Christian Arabs living inside Israel-proper has risen steadily since 1967. "In Green Line Israel, the number of Christian Arabs has trebled since the establishment of the state," The Jerusalem Post reported on November 18, 1994.
Population figures for Israeli citizens, released by the Central Bureau of Statistics every year, display this trend in recent years (since the Oslo Accords, when one might have thought Palestinians living inside Israel-proper would have chosen life under a Palestinian regime rather than continued Israeli rule): At the beginning of the Jewish new year 5756 (late 1995), Christians made up 2,9 per cent (160,000) of Israel's total population of 5,57 million. A year later, the percentage stood steady at 2,9 per cent (165,000) of a total of 5,7 million. And at the start of the Jewish new year 5758, 3,2 per cent (188,000) of Israel's 5,863 million citizens were Christians.
Another under-reported fact is that hundreds of Palestinian Christians have applied for Israeli citizenship since the Oslo Accords were signed.
The mass uprising against Israeli administration of the disputed territories (the 1987-1993 intifada) appears to have been a significant factor in the decision by many Christian Arabs to leave the Middle East. Besides mob violence, the intifada was characterised by general strikes enforced by activists from the various nationalist and Islamic movements, and closures of educational institutions. Both jobs and schooling were thus severely affected, prompting many Christian Arabs to choose the emigration option. In July 1990, Palestinian researchers and church leaders held a conference to discuss the alarming rate of Arab - and specifically Christian Arab - emigration from Jerusalem and the disputed areas.
Research conducted by scholars at the Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research in Bethlehem, and by Dr Bernard Sabella, a sociologist at Bethlehem University, provided a glimpse into the dimensions of Christian Arab emigration from the territories.
According to Sabella's research, more than 2,000 of a total of some 45,000 Christians in Judea-Samaria had emigrated annually in the preceding three years. The departure rate, he said, had nearly doubled since the start of the intifada. Sabella told Arab language newspapers at the time that another 3,000 Christian families were then planning to leave. Most of those considering emigrating were young, married and well-educated (The Jerusalem Post, July 13, 1990).
Christians in the "struggle"
It cannot be denied that Israeli administration has been behind some Christians' decisions to leave. Even before the rebirth of the state of Israel, some Christian Arabs supported Muslims in opposing the Zionists. In The PLO, Julian Becker writes of that period: "Christians too were a dhimmi people [non-Muslim subject peoples, discriminated against on various levels], but they joined with the Muslims in opposing Zionism. The Jerusalem notables formed a Muslim-Christian Association for that very purpose, while similar organisations sprang up in Jaffa and other centres." (New York: St Martin's Press, 1984)
In the decades since, many Christian Arabs have thrown in their lot with their Muslim compatriots, becoming activists or terrorists in anti-Israeli movements. They include the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, George Habash, and the leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Naif Hawatmeh. Both "rejectionist" organisations, based in Syria, oppose the Oslo Accords to this day.
The mainstream PLO/Fatah also has its share of ethnic Christians. Several clerics have also sympathised openly with the PLO (One Catholic priest, Hilarion Capucci, was jailed in Israel in the 1970s for smuggling weapons for PLO terrorists.) In recent months, Israel has protested the Vatican's appointment of Pierre Mualem as Greek Catholic archbishop in the diocese of Akko, on the grounds of his alleged close ties to Capucci, to Syrian intelligence, and to PLO hard-liners who oppose the Oslo Accords (also see page 4). Yet despite these examples, Christians (and particularly the tiny evangelical minority within the "Christian" minority) have reportedly found more to fear from the growing Muslim extremism in the disputed territories, especially with the growth of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Digest has published interviews with Christian Arabs bearing out this view, and reported widely on persecution experienced by Christians who have converted from Islam.
Christians in the self-rule areas, facing Islamic activists on one hand and a Palestinian regime not known for its democratic practices on the other, would be forgiven for feeling unwelcome and uneasy.
Part two in the February 1999 Digest