Why Christians Are Fleeing the Holy Lands

I gaze out over southern Jerusalem as the Catholic priest places the wafer on my tongue. Behind me Beit Jala covers the top of this steep hillside leading down to the Cremisan Valley. We stand among the old olive trees on the slope, six hundred feet below the town.

The sun is about to set behind the hill on this late afternoon in October, 2012. We have driven here from Bethlehem in the West Bank, ten minutes to the west. The Catholic priest stands beside a small table covered by a white tablecloth in this no-man’s-land between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. He has taken a small round piece of unleavened bread out of a gold cup and dipped it in sweet wine.

My host, an influential man in Bethlehem, has invited me to receive Communion even though I am not a Catholic. I’m not even a believer, nor have I been baptized. Of course I know the liturgy, but I’m a stranger in an unfamiliar world, in a brotherhood where I don’t belong. I follow my host out of courtesy, but I feel like an anthropologist who for the sake of research blends into a local tribe and takes part in their cultural rituals.

Only once before have I received Communion. That happened about ten years prior in a small church in the flatlands of Nebraska. The church was half full of well-off, aged, sullen Scandinavian immigrant farmers with rough, large hands and leathery faces. Their children and grandchildren had long since moved away to cities. There, too, was a dying culture. I might as well have been on another planet. Back then I felt like a blasphemer on the road to perdition, as if the church would collapse around me if I received the wafer.

A circle of thirty people have gathered here on the hillside, half of them elderly, the other half young Western Christians in the country to aid the Palestinian cause. It seems as though these two categories of people — those too old to seek asylum and the young idealists—are the only Christians here. More Palestinian Christians now live outside Palestine than within. Many more.

About seven thousand Christians reside in Beit Jala, the Palestinian town behind us. About one hundred thousand immigrants or descendants of the town’s residents today live in Central and South America and in the United States. In Latin America alone, Christian Palestinians make up approximately 85 percent of all Palestinian immigrants.

I’m not standing here with my tongue sticking out because I want to describe one more battle in the endless conflict over land and justice between two nations, even though this idyllic valley was a battlefield a little over ten years ago. Back then, Palestinian militias fired across the valley at Israeli civilians in the southernmost quarter of Israeli Jerusalem, and the Israeli military answered with heavy artillery that destroyed entire buildings.

I’m here because of the Christian Palestinians assembled on the slope. I want to write about them while they still live here. Palestinian militias from outside, not Christians, shot from the houses and yards of this primarily Christian town. At that time some of the citizens of Beit Jala sent a message to Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, pleading with him to stop the militias.

Other townsfolk simply emigrated, following the hundreds of thousands of other Christian Palestinians throughout the years. The numbers speak for themselves. In 1922, 10 percent of the population in what was then officially known as Palestine were Christians. Today, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there are forty thousand Christians in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) out of a Palestinian population of two million. Two percent. And that percentage is dwindling.

Because of this, a sense of panic has been steadily growing among Christian Palestinians. Many of them talk about how the old churches — for example, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem — soon will be mere tourist attractions, ruins of a two-thousand-year-old vanished civilization kept open for visitors, their congregations on the brink of extinction.

One of the reasons for this is easy to understand. Christians have emigrated to countries where they can live under better conditions. Integration has gradually become easier for new Palestinian Christian immigrants in places such as those South American cities where their numbers have increased.

But the why cannot be ascribed to a single reason. Significant events include the Ottoman Empire’s attempt to recruit non-Muslims for its army in 1909; the establishment of Israel and the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948; the Six Day War and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967; the Palestinian rebellion, the First Intifada, from 1987 to 1993; the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005. Each uprising or war has proven more damaging to Christians than to Muslims or Jews.

In addition, the Christians who have stayed behind make up a dwindling part of the population. The birth rate among Muslims has been much higher than that of Christians. No population in the world has grown as rapidly as that of the Palestinians—30 percent from 1998 to 2008. The average age on the West Bank is twenty-one.

What is causing the Christians to leave this land where they have lived for two thousand years? That question concerns not only the Palestinian Territories, but several Muslim countries as well. Our Western habit of referring to this region as Muslim has always been considered an insult by the Christians living there. Christianity was Middle Eastern not only before it spread throughout the rest of the world, but several centuries before Islam even existed. Various colonial powers have ruled this region, and the Christians have always found ways to adapt. That’s no longer the case.

Christians are leaving the West Bank in droves. Leaving the land that has been Christian since Jesus was taken down from the cross. The old Western prejudice about the region being Muslim is perhaps about to become true.

After receiving Communion in the Cremisan Valley, my host takes me to the man who is perhaps Bethlehem’s internationally best-known clergyman. He lives and works in the narrow alleyways of old Bethlehem. His full name is Mitri Bishara Mitri Konstantin Al-Raheb — Mitri Raheb for short. In the winter of 2012 he visited Germany to receive the prestigious German Media Prize for his humanitarian efforts. The prize was presented by the former German president, Roman Herzog. In May of the same year Raheb participated in a hearing in the Danish Parliament. He has the ear of Europe. He has been featured on the CBS news program 60 Minutes, and he’s received attention from other major American media outlets.

Christians haven’t always been a minority in Bethlehem. In 1920 the small town had three thousand Christian citizens, a majority, but this changed dramatically during the war in 1948. The stream of refugees from Israel, most of whom were Muslim, settled in the area. Today the population of Bethlehem is twenty-five thousand, but only seven thousand of them are Christians.

Thus Christians are now a minority in the town said to be Jesus’s birthplace. The Christian birth rate of about twenty-two per one thousand since 1960 should have resulted in a population of approximately twenty thousand Christians, but most of them have left Bethlehem. Four thousand Christians left the Bethlehem area during the Second Intifada alone.

I walk up to the first floor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, built and established by Pastor Raheb. It looks empty, exquisite, renovated. He has also founded a health clinic and a college for “tomorrow’s leaders,” as he puts it, which look every bit as fashionable and lavish. He definitely has a talent for fund-raising.

Mitri Raheb’s demeanor is slightly aloof, sophisticated, cool, perhaps the result of many years of theological study in Germany. He seems mildly irritated at being disturbed; obviously he is a busy man.

Before I say a word, Raheb hands a newly published report across the desk. The report, prepared by his own Diyar Consortium, concerns the Palestinian Christians. He leafs through the pages to a diagram which shows “Reasons for Emigration.”

“Only point three percent of those questioned say that they have emigrated because of ‘religious extremism’,” he says.

This is a startling result. Later I take time to study the diagram. The three most important reasons are “Political Instability” (19.7 percent), “Worsening Economy” (26.4 percent), and “Lack of Freedom and Security” (32.6 percent). The last number can be attributed to pressure from both Israelis and militant Islamists.

But the Lutheran pastor’s most surprising piece of information, which he has traveled extensively to disseminate, is that Christians in the Arab world are neither a “minority” nor “persecuted.” I want to hear more about this, as it directly contradicts the many reports on the situation of Christians in the Middle East.

“I am not persecuted because of my faith,” he explains. “The Israelis are after us because we are Palestinians, not because we are Christians.”

He points out that Christians in the West Bank can do whatever they please. They can build sports facilities, health clinics, and other amenities. Christians can do the same in Jordan and Syria—“At least until recently,” he adds. No discrimination is taking place because of their religion.

“The situation is different in Egypt,” he says. “Should you wish to build a church there, you must apply for permission fifty years in advance. It’s not difficult to build churches in Israel. The problem is houses—Israeli settlers may build them, Palestinians may not. In this way, the Israelis resemble the Egyptians.”

I ask him what he means when he claims that Christians aren’t a minority in the Middle East. It’s obvious to everyone that the percentage of Christians in the population is shrinking. If, for example, the number of Christians grew according to their birthrate, three times as many would be living in the West Bank and Gaza. One line on the graph, the Muslim line, shoots straight up, while the Christian line is flat because of massive emigration. In a few years it will be pointing downward.

“In Europe, a minority is considered to be an ethnic group from the outside. But Christians and Muslims in the Middle East are from the same culture. In fact, Christians are the original people of the region. Most Muslims here are Christians who over the years have converted. I don’t care for the term minority, because it can give Christians a minority complex.”

I ask Raheb, who has moved his chair away from his computer, if he feels that the Western world cares about the Palestinian Christians’ situation. “I believe the West is completely indifferent,” he says. “European opinion-makers use us for their own ends. We feed their hate of Muslims.”

Mitri Raheb is but one of a number of people I will meet, often among the local clergy or the Western emissaries promoting interfaith dialogue, who look disappointed when asked about Christians’ relationships with their Muslim neighbors. We are brothers, many of them say. The problem is Israel.

The difference between Israel and the Palestinian Territories is striking. When you cross the border into the hills of Bethlehem and find yourself among the refugee camps, the tourist traps, the peace centers, and the wealthy districts, you leave the Israeli island and enter the Arab world. Immediately I sense a different mentality, a greater friendliness and hospitality and also pride, a lifestyle both richer and much poorer. I also sense a submissive attitude. It stems partly from the very long war with the Israelis that has brought Palestinians nothing but defeat and misery, and partly because everything from love to politics in Palestinian society is more or less under strict administrative control. Civil rights are lacking in Arab societies, here included, though Palestinians are restricted far less than many others.

It always strikes me when I enter the Palestinian Territories how I can almost taste the anger behind the male self-irony, which stems from decades of futile effort. It’s indistinguishable from bitterness. Every day Palestinians see the barrier that Israel began building in 2005 to prevent terrorists from crossing the border; every day they are reminded of how thoroughly they have been humiliated. In towns such as Bethlehem, the wall crowds their backyards. They are never allowed to forget what they are fighting against. In this way, Israel is a part of the reason for the mass emigration. For example, Israeli soldiers almost killed Mitri Raheb and his family.

On April 2, 2002, Israel reoccupied Bethlehem while searching for a group of terrorists behind a suicide attack in Jerusalem. A woman from the Dheisheh refugee camp, near Bethlehem, had carried out the attack a few days earlier. This was during the Second Intifada’s first horrible years, which followed the optimism of the 1990s. The peace process that began with the Oslo Accords seemed to have tapped into some law of nature that would end a century of conflict. Palestinians achieved a certain degree of autonomy in their larger cities, Bethlehem included.

By the autumn of 2000, the idyll had been replaced by savage suicide attacks and an extensive, crushing Israeli attempt to stop them. Shortly before Mitri Raheb and his family experienced the consequences of Israeli antiterrorism measures, a Hamas supporter murdered twenty-eight guests at a Passover Seder in Netanya, an Israeli coastal city.

In March 2002 alone, one hundred Israeli civilians were killed. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon set into motion a reoccupation of most of the West Bank. All the powers that the Oslo Accords had given the Palestinian Authority were revoked. Arafat’s office in Ramallah was surrounded. The next target was Bethlehem.

Enormous tanks rolled into the old town where Raheb and his wife and two daughters live. Their home near the Lutheran Center stood directly between the Israeli tanks and the Palestinian snipers. For thirteen hours the family lay on the floor, crawling in and out of rooms as the combatants sought out new cover from which to shoot.

A boy in one neighboring house was shot in the head, and his elderly mother bled to death in his brother’s arms; it was impossible for help to reach them. A tank shot a grenade into the bedroom of their other neighbor. For several hours the media circulated the false rumor that a monk—raheb in Arabic—had been killed in his church. Everyone believed it was Mitri who had been killed. Calls offering condolences showered the Raheb family.

It was the worst day of his life. He was convinced that he and his family’s final hour had come. Finally he walked outside his house and checked his newly-renovated center; it had been destroyed.

A few days later, he says, when twelve Israeli soldiers returned to the center, he decided to put on his clerical collar and step outside to speak with them. He peeked into his office, which fifteen soldiers had ravaged. He told them they could have behaved decently and rang the bell, that he would have invited them inside. That enraged them even further. They held him prisoner for several hours.

Only after pressure from international sources did the soldiers release him and leave the center, vandalized by three hundred soldiers over previous days. Mitri Raheb rebuilt it.

It’s not difficult to understand why Palestinian Christians believe the Israelis are the greatest threat to Bethlehem. Among the many stories Raheb tells is one about how Israeli soldiers at one of Bethlehem’s checkpoints prevented his father-in-law from passing through to get to an Israeli hospital in Jerusalem. He’d had a heart attack and was close to death. When they finally reached the hospital, it was too late to save the elderly man.

Experiences such as this affect people, and most Palestinians have similar stories to tell. This also might explain why Palestinian Christians are suspicious of Western observers, who they feel want to drive a wedge between themselves and Palestinian Muslims. All Palestinians, no matter their faith, share the experience of Israeli brutality. Christians such as Raheb believe that the West ignores the responsibility of Israel concerning internal Palestinian conflicts.

After reading his books, I have no doubt that the pastor is fervently contemptuous of Israel. He writes: “The Israelis hated their former persecutors but deep down were also impressed with them, wanting to become as powerful. The sense of insecurity of European Jews was transformed into a security syndrome. Security became the golden calf of the Jewish state. As Palestinian people, we are paying the price of this Israeli obsession.”

This makes me believe that his anger has evolved into hatred. But Raheb considers the West to be hypocritical, appeasing Israel and offering it warm friendship. I recall watching thousands of American Christians march along King David Street in Jerusalem a few days earlier. They carried signs that declared their eternal devotion to the Jewish nation. It’s true that right-wing American Christians are Israel’s closest friends. These Americans seldom have much to say about their fellow Christians on the other side of the Wall between Israel and the territories.

Raheb’s family has lived in Bethlehem for centuries; one of his many names comes from Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the state religion in the Roman Empire, and whose mother, Helena, visited Palestine in 324 and established the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

In his memoirs from 1995, Raheb recounts the strained relationship between the Middle Eastern and Western Churches. He believes that Europeans and Americans think the Church was first divided at the Reformation. But in fact the first division happened as early as the fifth and sixth centuries, when the Eastern and Western Roman Empire split. The Eastern Roman Empire was never united; it consisted of the Greek Orthodox Church (which most Palestinian Christians belong to), the Armenian, the Syrian Orthodox, the Assyrian, and the Coptic Churches, and other smaller religious communities.

That is one of the reasons why the Church in the Middle East seems so weak; there’s no one who can speak up for it. When I studied in Jerusalem from 1996 to 1998, I had the impression that Christians felt like a kitten caught between two ferocious Rottweilers in the conflict between Israelis and Muslims.

The Church in Arab countries is split, scattered. The various religious communities have very little sympathy for one another; this is obvious when visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or the Church of the Nativity, which are divided into sections occupied by individual religious communities.

Once I met the man whose family for several generations has kept the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He was a Muslim. The mutual animosity between the Christian communities was so entrenched that none of them trusted another Christian with such an important object. A lack of solidarity has always weakened Christianity in the Arab countries.

The differences between Western and Eastern Christianity are significant. In his book, Raheb explains that the Western Church is characterized by power. Throughout history it has allied itself with kings and princes in Europe and has created magnificent, gilded structures ornamented by the greatest of artists and architects—St. Peter’s Basilica and the European cathedrals are examples.

The Eastern Church has for the past 1,400 years almost never been in a position of power in any country. After Muslim armies conquered the region in the seventh century, Christians have been the subjugated, not the subjugators as in the West. According to Raheb, the Church is powerless and therefore closer to the message found in the New Testament. The individual churches here are small and inconspicuous, and if not, then they are characterized by major liturgical confusion, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity.

It’s easy for me to be sympathetic toward the Church that Raheb depicts in his books. He explains that while the Western Church fought against the new scientific ideas of the Enlightenment, the Eastern Church stood for modernity in an Islamic world unable to follow along with the times. The Western Church resisted everything the Renaissance and Enlightenment brought to the world. In the Middle East, the Church stood firmly on the side of progress.

As I leave the center, I think about his assessment of Western Christians. I walk into a well-known tourist shop in Bethlehem. In the middle of the enormous room, among the copper pitchers and a large mother-of-pearl depiction of Jerusalem, I notice the classic portrait of Christ where he opens his robe to reveal a flaming heart. His hair and beard are light in color, his skin is pale; Jesus resembles a Northern European man, not the dark-haired, brown-eyed figure he surely was. Tourists visit Bethlehem not to discover the origins of Christianity, but to reaffirm the image they bring with them.

Bethlehem’s famous Manger Square is a short distance away. On my way there I mull over Raheb’s accusation that the only reason Europeans take an interest in Middle Eastern Christians is to feed their hatred of Muslims. I’ve heard that accusation before. It’s true that Europeans hostile toward Islam will be pleased to read about how Muslims torment Christians in the Arab world. It’s also true that Israelis will be relieved that they are not the only ones giving Christians cause to consider their future. On one of the days I’m with Raheb, someone sprays Hebrew graffiti on another Christian property, this time the Franciscan monastery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Israeli settlers signed the graffiti; in 2012 alone, this type of vandalism against churches and monasteries happened several times. Israelis harass Christians as well as Muslims in this region.

But such harassment is well-documented and condemned. It’s a different story when Muslims are the perpetrators; for some reason it’s as if an ideological fog covers these instances of provocation, a fog created in part by Christians themselves. During all the years I’ve reported on this situation, I’ve sensed clearly the suspicion surrounding this type of reporting. What is my agenda?

Choosing not to describe Muslim discrimination and hatred toward Christians, just because opinion-makers one doesn’t care for will be overjoyed about what you write, is to me an unacceptable argument. It would be protecting the discriminators, not the victims.

I reach Manger Square and order dinner at a restaurant. The square, located in front of the Church of the Nativity, is calm and peaceful today; it’s obvious that tourists are returning to the town, as many people have claimed. There is an understandable willingness to forget what happened not so long ago, partly because the West Bank economy in the past five years has improved. Things seem to be going better for Christians, too, even though the demographic shrinkage continues.

Ten years ago, Israeli tanks rumbled around the square after having knocked aside cars, trash cans, and small roadblocks the Palestinians had constructed. While the Raheb family dodged bullets not far away, an international political drama played out on the square. It revealed to me the miserable state of the Palestinian Christians. The Israelis had come to destroy a Palestinian militia based on the edge of Bethlehem; they had been firing on Israeli civilians and soldiers from Beit Jala, the town on the hilltop where earlier that day I had taken Communion. Back in 2002, many of the town’s citizens were enraged at the militia, and several Christians said they were caught in the middle of a tribal war between Jews and Muslims.

Bethlehem, the city of Christians, became the battleground for a war that many people here felt wasn’t theirs. Christians never strapped on suicide belts. Nor did they attempt to assassinate Israeli civilians. Many militant Palestinians openly speculated about which side the Christians were on. Public accusations of fifth column activity were made. And militant groups knew how to use the symbolic significance of Christianity.

Hussein Abayat was the leader of a Palestinian militia based near Bethlehem. It fought a war of attrition against the Israeli army in the first years of the intifada. According to Charles M. Sennott, a longtime Middle East correspondent for The Boston Globe, “the Israelis were more conscious of the negative public opinion in the Western world when neighborhoods with Christian churches were in the Israeli troops’ crosshairs. This strategy, he [Abayat] believed, forced the Israelis to be more constrained in their fighting.”

Hussein Abayat was killed in October 2000. The leadership of the militia was taken over by Ibrahim Abayat, Hussein’s cousin, who continued to exploit Bethlehem as part of their strategy of using primitive methods to fight the high-tech Israeli army. On the morning of April 2, 2002, when Israeli tanks rolled into Bethlehem, the Abayat militia sought refuge in the Church of the Nativity and took two hundred hostages, including terrified civilians, Palestinian police officers, fighters from other militias, nuns, monks, and priests.

The hostage takers began barricading the entrance with pews. They ignored the priests, who said they would give the militia protection if they agreed to lay down their weapons. Historians believe this was the first time in the nearly seventeen hundred-year history of the church that one of the region’s countless wars had in fact moved inside its walls.

Israeli soldiers and tanks surrounded the church and began a siege, with the enormous eye of the media following along as Israeli and Palestinian leaders accused each other of damaging a holy site. Israeli soldiers vandalized the area in the vicinity of the church and set up loudspeakers that broadcast loud music and animal screams to frustrate the fighters inside the church. Two cranes with guns operated by remote control were steered over the church and into the courtyard. Eight people were killed, including a handicapped bell ringer from the Armenian monastery. Twenty-two people were injured.

According to Sennott, several of the Christian civilians inside the church later related what Mohammed Madani, the Muslim governor of Bethlehem, told the hostages who had asked permission to leave the church: They were very welcome to do so, but they must understand that from then on they would be considered “collaborators.” Given the malicious mood among the Palestinians in those days, it was a death sentence. The hostages’ dilemma was to either die in the church as a living shield for the armed militia, or die outside the church as traitors. The choice was theirs. Since then I have thought of this as the darkest example of what Christians throughout the entire Arab world were and still are faced with.

Thirty-eight days later, on May 10, 2002, a settlement was finally reached. The Israelis retreated, thirteen Palestinian fighters were sent to various European cities, and twenty others were taken to Gaza. The first people to enter the church were met with the stink of urine, feces, sweat, and garbage. Windows had been broken, parts of the Franciscan chapel had been burned, yellow traces of phosphorus grenades marred the walls.

Mitri Raheb also wrote about the siege of the Church of the Nativity, but he appeared to be unmoved. He condemned the Israeli army but refused to criticize the fighters who sought refuge inside the church. On the contrary, he seemed sympathetic to why these fighters sought refuge in a church. Had they fled to a mosque, it would have been destroyed, Raheb quotes a Christian as saying.

The Western world also reacted in somewhat muted terms. I can’t recall any significant protests in the streets or indignant declarations from leaders in the United States or Europe. It was as if a war in the cradle of Christian civilization, the symbol of something as fundamental as Year 1 in our reckoning of time, was to be expected.

In those years, many Bethlehem Christians packed up and caught the first flight out.

I pay my bill at the restaurant on Manger Square and return to my hotel in Jerusalem.

This selection has been excerpted from Klaus Wivel’s “The Last Supper: The Plight of Christians in Arab Lands,” which has just been published by New Vessel Press. Copyright 2016 New Vessel Press.

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