When we hear of acts of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories, what automatically comes to mind is the usual religious Jewish-Muslim conflict. Unfortunately, many are unaware of indigenous Christians in the Holy Land who suffer persecution there at the hands of Islamists for their faith and undergo discrimination by Israelis for being Palestinian.
Historical Christian Presence
Since the inception of Christianity, i.e., from the birth of Jesus Christ, Christians have been living in present-day Israel/Palestinian territories. When Arab Muslims invaded the Holy Land in the 7th century, Christians became a minority, living under Islamic authority. As long as they paid the jizya—a tax for conquered non-Muslims—and did not evangelise to Muslims, they were allowed to practice their religion. This is because Muslims who leave their faith or converts to another religion are shunned by their family. In certain cases, they can even be killed since the Quran and some of the hadiths that quote the Prophet of Islam, call for this:
‘The Jews say: “Ezra is the son of Allah;” and the Christians say: “The Messiah is the son of Allah.” That is their statement from their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved [before them]. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded?’ — Sura 9, 30
‘Whoever changes his [Islamic] religion, then kill him.” — Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 84, hadith 57
‘The Messenger of Allah said, “If someone changes his religion, then strike off his head.”’ —al-Muwatta of Imam Malik [the earliest collection of hadith texts comprising the subjects of Islamic law] 36.18.15.
After the crusades, Franciscan friars remained in the Holy Land to maintain the churches and holy sites, though most Christians belonged to the Greek-Orthodox church, at least until the nineteenth century, when both Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic (Melkite) and Protestant (Lutheran/Anglican) missionaries arrived. While this changed the church landscape, the Greek Orthodox Church has remained the biggest denomination. There are now also various non-denominational Evangelical churches that have been established during the last decades.
A population census carried out by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in 2017 reported that there were approximately 47,000 Christians living in the Palestinian territories—the Occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip; 98 per cent of Palestine’s Christians live in the West Bank primarily in the cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, while just over one thousand live in the Gaza Strip. This is more than a 50 per cent drop from 1967, the year Israel occupied Gaza, when an estimated 2,300 Christians lived there.
Christians in the Gaza Strip today can be divided into three groups: the original inhabitants of Gaza, who have inhabited it since ancient times; those who immigrated to Gaza after Israel declared its independence in 1948; and those who used to live abroad and came in 1994 with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and are still there today.
The influence of radical Islamic ideology is rising, and historical churches, primarily Catholic and Orthodox, have to be diplomatic in their approach towards Muslims.
As described in a recent article by the Israeli-Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh titled ‘Palestinians: Why Are Attacks on Christians Being Ignored?’, Christians find themselves extremely concerned about their safety and future under the Palestinian National Authority (PNA or PA). While the mainstream media report on the continuous plight of Palestinian Muslims in their confrontation with the Israeli government, hardly anything is written about the literally hopeless fate of Palestinian Christians.
As Toameh reports, there have been numerous violent incidents in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, and the nearby towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour that have left our Christian brethren worried about their safety and future under the PA. Christians living in these communities have no recourses left as attacks on churches and Christian-owned businesses go unreported. The assailants are Muslims who make up the majority of the population in the Bethlehem area. In fact, some of the Palestinian Christians have been jailed for ‘promoting normalisation’ with Israel, as with Palestinian Evangelical Pastor Johnny Shahwan, founder and chair of the board of Beit Al-Liqa (House of Encounter) in Beit Jala.
Shahwan’s arrest came after he appeared in a picture alongside Rabbi Yehuda Glick, a former member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Beit Al-Liqa is a Christian community and training centre, which was denounced for hosting the rabbi together with a group of German tourists. After the photo of the pastor and the rabbi appeared on social media, unidentified gunmen fired shots at the centre. While apparently no one was injured, Shawn was held in Palestinian custody for more than a month ‘to protect him’ from Palestinians who threatened his life.
The PA does its best to ensure such events are not leaked to the media. It regularly exerts heavy pressure on Christians not to report the acts of violence and vandalism from which they frequently suffer, for it would be portrayed by the international community as a radical entity that persecutes religious minorities.
The latest reported attack on Christians occurred in late October, when dozens of Islamists targeted the Forefathers Orthodox Church in Beit Sahour. During the assailment, the attackers threw rocks at the church, injuring several Christians.
The residents of the Christian town called on the Palestinian Authority to arrest the attackers. Their plea went unheard as the they were told the attack on the church was an assault on the entire town.
As noted by Professor Justus Reid Weiner in his publication Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society, Article 4 of the Palestine’s Authority’s Draft Constitution declares that ‘in the State of Palestine… the religion of Islam will be the official religion’, and ‘the Sharia will be the primary source of legislation.’
Weiner explains that the Palestinian Authority’s promotion of sharia immediately placed Christians in a precarious position, as the sharia does not grant them equality before the law. Escalating hardship and lawlessness, combined with the inequity continues to make Palestinian Christians exceedingly vulnerable, and their life increasingly unbearable. While the intifada—a rebellion or uprising, or a resistance movement aimed at ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories to create an independent Palestinian state—and the economy are significant factors forcing Christians to flee the Palestinian Territories, religious persecution at the hands of increasingly intolerant Muslims is the primary catalyst.
Discrimination by Israelis
There is no doubt that there are ultra-conservative Israelis who do not want Christians in their land anymore than Muslims—it was in fact an Israeli nationalist who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, for seeking a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority.
Like Gaza’s Muslims, these Christians are cut off from the rest of the world, including the holy sites in the West Bank. Aside a longstanding Israeli law that forbids Christians from marrying Jews, Gaza’s Christians need to apply every year for permits from the Israeli military if they wish to take part in Christmas services in Bethlehem and Easter ceremonies in Jerusalem. Normally, the Israeli military grants just a few hundred permits, but on the condition that the Palestinian-Christians who apply are fifty-five years of age or older.
The Israeli human rights group, Gisha, described the Israeli army decision as ‘a further violation of Palestinians’ fundamental rights to freedom of movement, religious freedom and family life’, and, rightly, accused Israel of attempting to ‘deepen the separation’ between Gaza and the West Bank.
Christian institutions play a key role in keeping Palestinian society afloat as it struggles economically under Israeli occupation. Not only do they provide much needed jobs, but also many Palestinian hospitals are Christian, including Al Ahli hospital in the Gaza Strip. And yet, because of the Israeli blockade and bombardment, the hospital is going without fuel for its generators and it thus unable to ‘cope with the crushing flow if injured and traumatized victims.’
In fact, with the confiscation of Christians’ property, the Israeli government has managed to separate Palestinian Christians from one another, and from their holy sites. As a result of the discrimination by the Israeli authorities and because of the aforementioned Islamic oppression, the socio-cultural and spiritual connections that are the backbone of Palestinian Christians’ collective identity have been dramatically weakened.