Who Are the Palestinian Christians?
Palestinian Christians have deep roots in the
Holy Land, The great majority, estimated at four hundred thousand
worldwide or roughly 6.5 percent of all Palestinians, are of indigenous
stock, whose mother tongue is Arabic and whose history takes them back,
or at least some of them, to the early Church. At present, fifty
thousand Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip make up only 2.2 percent
of the total population which in the mid-nineties was estimated to be 2,238,000.
Palestinian Christians in Israel were estimated, for the same year, to
be one hundred and twenty-five thousand, or fourteen percent of all Palestinians
in Israel. Christians in Palestine and Israel make up one hundred
and seventy-five thousand or 2.3 percent of the entire Palestinian and
Jewish population of the Holy Land.
A majority of fifty-six percent of Palestinian
Christians are found outside of their country. This situation of
emigration has resulted from the exodus of seven hundred and twenty-six
thousand Palestinian refugees during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Fifty
to sixty thousand Palestinian Christians, comprising thirty-five percent
of all Christians in pre-1948 mandatory Palestine, were among the refugees.
In 1996, these refugees and their descendants are spread over the entire
Middle East but primarily in the sixty refugee camps dotting the topography
of the West Bank (nineteen refugee camps); Gaza Strip (eight refugee camps);
Jordan (ten refugee camps); Syria (ten refugee camps) and Lebanon (thirteen
As for Palestinian Christians, refugees and
non-refugees, they are found mostly in urban areas of the Middle East,
but many have opted to leave for faraway lands such as the USA, Central
and South America, Australia, and Canada. The dispersal of Palestinians
since 1948 has spared not one family or group. The demographics of
Palestinian Christians is as much shaped by the politics of the Arab-Israeli
conflict as is the demographics of Palestinians in general. Palestinian
Christians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip belong
to fifteen different denominations. The largest of these denominations
are the Greek Orthodox (fifty-one percent) and the Roman Catholics (thirty-two
percent). Some smaller denominations, such as the Copts who are originally
from Egypt, do not number more than a score of families. Yet, besides
educational and other institutions, each denomination or community maintains
a rich tradition of rites and rituals, which speak of its long presence
in and attachment to the Holy Land.
Foreign Missionary Schools and Their Impact
A history of foreign (mostly European) missionary
sponsorship of schools, which began in the middle of the nineteenth century
and originally intended to serve the local Christian population, has left
a clear impact on the community and its outlook. The advantage that
the Palestinian Christian had in earlier access to such education was reflected
later in the development of a socioeconomic, occupational, and employment
profile that made them adopt (rather earlier than other Palestinians) the
style of life associated with that of the middle class, including its preferences,
and, unfortunately, its limitations. It is argued that the European
educational institutions, by exposing Palestinian Christians to foreign
languages and cultures, accelerated among them the notion of relative deprivation,
which was felt first towards the turn of the century, when Christians from
the Bethlehem and Ramallah areas, comparing the backwardness of the Ottoman
Empire to the progress being made in Europe and America, began to emigrate
to North, Central, and South America.
The Impact of the 1948 and 1967 Wars
Europeans, missionaries and others, cannot be
blamed for all the ills of the Middle East even though some Europeans can
be blamed for the most of ills that afflicted the Holy Land in the twentieth
century. Palestinian Christians, as an integral part of society,
suffered the consequences of the intensive Arab-Jewish communal conflict
in the first half of the twentieth century. When the communal conflict
came to a head in the martial confrontation of 1948, the Arab Palestinian
society was forced to re-organize itself. Many Palestinian refugees,
including Christians, established themselves in the newly emerging capital
of Jordan, Amman, as traders, professionals, and businessmen. Others
opted to leave for North American and the Arab Gulf countries. Those
who went to the Arab Gulf countries eventually came back to retire in their
hometowns such as Beit-Sahour, the town best known for the Shepherds' Field.
Others, who opted to go to North America and further destinations, established
themselves and their families there and became diaspora communities with
the usual sentimental attachments to the homeland and fading memories of
The 1967 War heralded drastic changes for the
entire Palestinian society in the West Bank and Gaza. Economic, social,
organizational, and political changes took place amidst mounting tensions
between the Palestinians on the one hand and Israeli military authorities
and Jewish settlers on the other. With these changes and with the
precarious population balance between Palestinians and Jews, there was
a growing realization among some Israelis and Palestinians of the need
to work towards a political solution which would end the occupation and
secure the basic rights of Palestinians. Christians, tending towards
the mainstream and secular political organization, took part in the efforts
of their society to end the occupation and to establish the Palestinian
national rights. At the same time, Christians, with their middle
class background and occupational preferences, became increasingly sensitive
to the instability and uncertainty which accompanied the long Israeli military
rule. Palestinian Christians, judging from the rate of emigration
among them (it was double the national rate between 1967 and l993), became
especially susceptible to the practices of Israeli occupation authorities,
when more than twelve thousand of them left East Jerusalem, the West Bank,
and Gaza Strip to go abroad.
The Intifada and the Oslo Accords
The intense political relationships between Israelis
and Palestinians came to a head-on clash with the outburst of the Intifada
in December of 1987. Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip actively
participated in it; some were killed, others were imprisoned and still
others had to hide from Israeli pursuit. Christian communities reacted
collectively as they pressed, like other Palestinians, for an end of the
occupation and for a new relationship with the Israelis, a relationship
based on mutual respect and recognition of rights. The Intifada itself,
as perceived by Palestinians and their leaders, was a call to make peace
with Israel, the peace based on the presence of two peoples in the land.
In addition to this, the Intifada made Palestinians proud that they could
confront Israelis as equals.
The Intifada and its success were key factors
in making possible the negotiations leading to the Oslo accords.
With these accords, the stage was set for political transformation and
the excitement which accompanied it. Palestinian Christians, like
other Palestinians, have shaped events and have been equally affected by
them. The time of transition and transformation now called for an
optimistic stand, a departure from the past, and a break with it.
But was the time of transformation and transition read alike by Palestinians
in different walks of life? How would expectations of a new order
and of the future in general be affected by various economic and social
indicators? Would Christians with their educational, occupational,
and income profile react in the same way as other Palestinians?
Excellent Christian-Muslim Relations
In order to better understand and contextualize
the Palestinian Christian response, it is necessary to reaffirm the traditionally
excellent relations between Christians and their Muslim neighbors.
This tradition of good Christian-Muslim relations has evolved through centuries
of co-existence and exchange both in the cities of Jerusalem, Nazareth,
Bethlehem, and Ramallah and in the rural areas of Zababdeh, Bir-Zeit, and
other towns and villages where Muslims and Christians live side by side
and interact in the daily pursuit of their occupations and concerns.
A number of factors have historically contributed to this tradition of
excellent Muslim-Christian relations.
In the first place is the modern history of
Palestine. The Arab-Israeli conflict affects the entire population
with the equal experience of dispersal and loss of homeland.
In the second place is the contribution which
Christian institutions, mostly Western, have made since the nineteenth
century to the education, health, and other needs of the population, irrespective
In the third place is the presence of the holy
places and the recognition by Islam of the centrality of Jerusalem, Bethlehem,
and Nazareth for Christianity. This recognition is best crystallized
in Caliph Omar's al-Uhda al-'Umariyya. This document was his guarantee
of the safety of Christians and their holy places in A. D. 638, when Islam
entered the country.
In the fourth place is the urban nature of the
Christian population and its living in religiously mixed Christian-Muslim
neighborhoods, emphasizing thus openness and neighborly relations.
In those instances where Christians lived in villages and rural areas,
relations were always characterized by friendly co-operation and communal
In the fifth place is Christians taking equal
pride in their national and religious roots. Being a good Christian
has never detracted from being a good Palestinian nationalist and vice-versa.
Finally is the Ottoman Millet system which recognized
the autonomy of the Christian communities to run their own internal affairs,
especially those related to religious and personal matters.
A Tradition of Emigration
Since the late nineteenth and early twentieth
century, the Palestinian Christians have experienced a relatively long
tradition of emigration. Early emigration was motivated by worsening
political and economic conditions in the Ottoman Empire. A feeling
of uneasiness with the atmosphere of backwardness in all spheres of life
was strengthened by the fear of conscription of young men to the Ottoman
army. Families pulled in their resources to enable younger male members
to travel to Central, South, and North America in order to make a new living.
Once these men were established in their new homes, they invited other
members of their families to join them.
The factors that affected emigration trends
at the turn of the century among the Middle Eastern Christians, including
Christians of the Holy Land, can be grouped under the following three interconnected
In the first place were the prevailing bad socioeconomic
and political conditions which acted as constraints on the prospects of
advancement for communities, families, and individuals.
In the second place were educational and vocational
advancement of Christian Palestinians as a result of missionary and educational
activities in the region. These characteristics, blended with an entrepreneurial
spirit of Christian villagers (such as those in Bethlehem and Beit Jala),
reinforced the tendency to leave.
In the third place was a pull of distant
"Christian" lands which was too strong to resist. It was supposed
that in those lands fortunes could be made and, at the same time, the community
could be preserved through the transfer of indigenous Churches to the diaspora.
Emigration was thus made a viable alternative to a stagnant and backward
society which offered no hope for a better future.
Palestinian Christians in a Migrant Community
At the end of the twentieth century, with the
political and economic conditions prevailing under the Israeli occupation
of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Christian community fits
well the definition of a migrant community: "A community with high
educational achievement and a relatively good standard of living but with
no real prospects for economic security or advancement will most probably
become a migrant community.” An emigration survey undertaken
by the author in 1993 on 964 Palestinian households, Christian and
Muslim alike, in the central area of the West Bank upholds the relationship
between high level of education and standards of living and intention to
emigrate. Among the 239 Christian households interviewed, intention
to emigrate was double that exhibited by the Muslim households.
The Christian sample in the 1993 survey had
slightly more years of education and, on average, better income than the
rest of the population. In addition, almost all of those among Christians
who intended to leave had immediate members of their families abroad.
The bad economic and political situation were prime reasons for their desire
to leave. Eighty-eight percent of those wanting to leave specified
the bad economic situation, while sixty-one percent blamed the bad
Conditions that will help stop or discourage
emigration are primarily the improvement of the political situation (mentioned
by forty-seven percent of all respondents) and the improvement of the economic
situation (mentioned by forty percent).
Peace and Its Importance to Stop Emigration
Another indicator of the importance of the political
situation is the response received to a question of whether respondents
intent on emigration will still leave if peace were to take place.
Forty-nine percent of those intending to leave would not, if peace were
to take place. Among Muslims, thirty-eight percent said they would
not leave, while among Christians the percentage of those who would not
leave with peace came close to two-thirds and stood at sixty-five percent.
Therefore, if situation improves, emigration among Palestinians will be
reduced drastically. The political factor plays an important role
in encouraging Palestinians to emigrate or to stay in their country.
Why Do Christians Leave?
Why do Christians leave at a higher rate than
the rest of the population? The answer is not simple because it involves
interrelated factors and their mutual effects on one another. In
the first place are socioeconomic characteristics of the Palestinian Christians
which make them more likely candidates for emigration. In the second
place is the fact that emigration is not a new phenomenon for the Palestinian
Christians and that there has been a relatively long tradition of emigration,
particularly to distant "Christian" lands. In the third place, Christians
are more sensitive than the general population to bad economic and political
conditions, particularly if they perceive that the prospects for advancement
are not forthcoming. Regardless of how one explains this sensitivity,
it has to do with the Christian demographic, economic, educational,
and occupational profile.
Some conclusions from the 1993 survey shed light
upon factors which render Palestinian Christians more prone than the rest
of the population to take the difficult decision to leave.
There is clearly a relationship between the
higher rates of departures and the overall bad or worsening economic and
political situation during particular years.
The process of emigration for whole families
begins when one of the children goes abroad to study, marry, and/or work
and eventually pulls the whole family abroad.
Those religious communities with higher percentage
of household members abroad are more likely to have their members exhibit
intention to emigrate than those communities with lower percentages.
A closer look at the religious communities with high percentage of immediate
family members abroad reveals the following percentages in descending order:
Armenian Orthodox (sixty-one percent); Syrian Orthodox (fifty percent);
Greek Orthodox (thirty-two percent); Latin Catholics (twenty-eight percent);
Muslims (twenty-three percent); Greek Catholics (fifteen percent); and
Protestants (eight percent).
When intention to emigrate is examined, the
Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Syrian Orthodox exhibit the highest
percentage of those wanting to leave. The Protestants have
the lowest percentage, while the Latin Catholics and Greek Catholics are
placed in the middle.
The Decline of Jerusalem's Christians: Sad Example
of Dwindling Numbers
Jerusalem, the city of the "Mother Church," provides
a dramatic example of the effects of the dwindling numbers of its Christians.
While Jerusalem's Christians are blessed with probably the highest "church
per capita" in the world with one church for every 177 Christians, the
decline in the number of Jerusalem Christians continues. Emigration
is responsible for this decline since the political conditions, especially
after 1967, have pushed many Palestinians out of their homeland.
The extent of the Christian decline is best understood by the fact that
in 1944 there were 29,350 Christians living in the city. Today, Jerusalem's
Christian population is only around ten thousand people. There
is concern by some, both Church officials and experts, that if preventative
and curative steps are not undertaken, the dwindling of Christian numbers
will continue unabated, eventually causing the disappearance of community
life in some of Jerusalem's churches.
Rites, Rituals, and Celebrations: the Community
The rites, rituals, and traditions of Palestinian
Christians are factors which still pull the community together and reinforce
its raison d'etre. They are also a strong signal of identification
with Palestinian society; its ordeals and expectations. In
spite of the somber shadows with which the occupation of the Holy Land
cast upon Christmas, Palestinian Christian parents still endeavor to celebrate
Christmas with a semblance of joy within the family. Trees are decorated
a couple of days before Christmas and they are kept standing, in
most homes, through the Greek Orthodox Christmas (on January 7) and the
Armenian Christmas (on January 19). Families, especially children,
take great pride in the replication of the scene of Nativity under the
Christmas tree and, as elsewhere, await Santa's visit with impatience.
At the same time, Christmas remains the hallmark
of Bethlehem just like Passion Week is that of Jerusalem. Great
Lent begins after a carnival weekend, when those intent on fasting
have the last chance, until Easter Sunday, to satisfy their culinary buds
with rich dishes and sweets. Lent is kept by many families,
With the arrival of the first Easter pilgrims,
especially those from Cyprus and, in years past, from Egypt and other neighboring
countries, the atmosphere of Easter begins to assert itself. Stands
that sell souvenir items are found on every street corner and in front
of souvenir shops in the Christian Quarter and in alleys leading to the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Candles of all size and designs are
offered for sale and local children who are on Easter vacation from school
employ their freshly learned foreign words and phrases to entice
pilgrims to buy souvenir items.
Christians, Political Developments and the Future of
Where do Palestinian Christians stand with respect
to the political developments taking place in the region? What do
they expect specifically for the future of Jerusalem, given their history,
communal identification, and excellent relationships with their Muslim
Many Palestinian Christians support the political
developments now taking place in the region. These developments provide
hope that an era of peace and prosperity is finally beginning to take shape
in our troubled land and region. The peace process is particularly
important for Christians, since there are indications that with the coming
of peace, lower numbers of Christians will think of emigration. At
the same time, the disappointment felt by Palestinians on the election
and performance of the Likud right-wing Israeli government and the inability
of Mr. Netanyahou, Prime Minister of Israel, to really lead his people
to peace is a great letdown to many Palestinians, including Palestinian
The Issue of Jerusalem: the Christian Community
and Its Leaders
If Palestinian Christians favor a just and comprehensive
peace, where do they stand on the issue of Jerusalem and its future?
We can detect two overall responses from the Christian community and its
leaders on this issue. On the one hand, the Christians of Jerusalem
are concerned over daily hardships and constraints which the occupation
places on them. On the other hand, the Church leadership, while sensitive
to the constraints felt by its faithful, is conscious of the need to highlight
the Christian presence in the Holy City irrespective of the restraints
and pretensions of temporal governing arrangements. At the same time,
this highlighting, as will be illustrated later, is done with due respect
to other religions and their faithful who equally view Jerusalem as their
For Jerusalem Christians, Jerusalem is "Al-Quds,"
the holy, and the presence of their community in the city is confirmation
of the continuity of Christ's new beginning. This is the mother of
all Churches and there are links between Palestinian Christian communities
and the early Church. As Palestinians, they see that the fairest
political solution for Jerusalem lies in its becoming the capital of two
states. Municipal arrangements should be made in order for the different
populations to govern themselves and administer their affairs without interference
of the other side on the one hand, and maintaining the oneness of Jerusalem
on the other. Thus, Palestinian Christians in the city are no different
in their overall orientation towards the future of the city than their
A majority of Christians do not envision a real
peace without finding a compromise solution for Jerusalem whereby the two
national groups, Palestinians and Israelis, and the three religious groups,
Jews, Muslims, and Christian, will all feel comfortable and at ease in
the city. This comfort and ease cannot transpire without a solution
that will satisfy both the national and religious aspirations of each and
every community in the city. It is only then that the city will truly
become a city of peace.
Other Challenges to Palestinian Christians
In spite of properties, buildings, and real estate
which the various groups have in Jerusalem and in the Holy Land, Christian
communities have not been able to become self-sufficient. Dependency
on partner Churches elsewhere is a characteristic that is almost universal
among the Holy Land Churches. If this partner hip weakens,
there is doubt that local Churches can make it on their own. Since
emigration weakens the Church, there is a need to address this issue and
to find remedies. Emigration, however, is a reflection of political
and economic factors on which the Church, given the circumstances, does
not have great power to influence. The Churches, it must be admitted,
have continuously witnessed to Palestinian society through education, health,
social, and other institutions, and enterprises. Some Churches are
doing the best they can, considering their limited resources. Other
Churches, however, have yet to come to grips with the difficult realities
of their community and with the need to revitalize it.
Obligation of Palestinian Christians
We, as Palestinian Christians, also have an important
role to play and, I am afraid, we have not done so to date. We need
to be faithful to Christ's teachings, especially at times when tensions
and pressures seem to be impossible to overcome. Unfortunately, we
are only human and with mounting pressures, we often choose the easy way
out: USA, Canada, Australia.... In the final analysis, however,
emigration is really not the easy way out but the most difficult and the
most costly to the integrity of our community and our Church in the Holy
Land. We have an obligation to ourselves and to our children to stay
put and to overcome difficulties, together with all the inhabitants of
this land. We are today still in the midst of political conflict
but we can see some concrete signs of change towards peace-making.
We are called upon to be witnesses to hope and to take an active part in
bringing about positive change.
In spite of all our shortcomings, as Churches
and as faithful, we are a proud and hard-working group of people.
We recognize that the political situation and the long history of Israeli
occupation since 1967 have left their marks on our communities and their
dwindling numbers. At the same time, the instability of our
region is an important fact which encourages emigration. The challenge
is clearly to be able to live in a secure and comfortable environment.
Communion with Churches all over the world reinforces our determination
to accept the challenge and to overcome the difficulties. It also
helps us witness to our own society and its transformation towards a national
A Message of Hope
A Memorandum issued by twelve heads of Churches
and Christian communities in the Holy Land in November of 1994 called on
all parties involved "...to go beyond all exclusive visions
or actions, and without discrimination, to consider the religious
and national aspirations of others. in order to give back to Jerusalem
its true universal character and to make of the city a holy place of reconciliation
Christians, according to the memorandum, "believe
the Jerusalem of the Prophets to be the foreseen place of the salvation,
in and through Jesus Christ." As to the continuing presence of a
Christian community, the heads of Churches emphasize that "Jerusalem is
the place of roots, everl iving and nourishing," and that "the local
Church with its faithful has always been actively present in Jerusalem
and witness to the life and preaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus
Christ upon the same holy places, and its faithful have been receiving
other brothers and sisters in the faith, as pilgrims, resident or in transit,
inviting them to be re-immersed into the refreshing, ever-living ecclesiastical
It is this spirit, applicable not simply to
Jerusalem but to the entire Holy Land, that should motivate all of us to
work for the peace of Jerusalem and for that of the Holy Land in its entirety.
Palestinians, Muslims, and Christians alike
have paid a heavy price for the creation of Israel. We still suffer
greatly from the wounds of the century-old conflict. Some of us are
not ready yet to explore reconciliation, others have taken the first steps,
still others have gone further.
The future, however, cannot be molded without
the hope which emanates from religious traditions that believe in the One
God. These traditions should become a mainstay that would encourage
all of us, in this Holy Land, to search for answers to very difficult questions
such as the future of Jerusalem, which is holy for the three monotheistic
religions and is claimed politically by Israelis and Palestinians.
Hope, based on religious heritage, should also help us find ways to accept
each other with justice, compassion, and willingness to reconcile, regardless
of how long and hard the process may be.
Some may think that speaking of hope would lead
us nowhere. But of hope we should continue to speak, not simply because
it is in the essence of Christian witness, but because the alternative
to hope is utter despair. Despair spells continuation of conflict,
war, and disruption of the lives of generations to come. We, as Palestinian
Christians and as an integral part of our people, its history, present
ordeals, and future expectations, should particularly be speaking of hope
because with it we can stop emigration, strengthen our communities, and
contribute to a different future of this Holy Land. With hope, we
can be at peace with ourselves and with our neighbors.
Doctor Bernard Sabella
(part of the article from Out of Jerusalem,
a book published in 1997 by the Palestinian General
Delegation to the United Kingdom)