Jerusalem - Palestinian Christians are hoping that Pope Francis, on a trip to the Holy Land this weekend, will address their grievances at a time of political stalemate and heightened economic woes. Most do not expect the Pontiff's trip to change the political reality, but some - at least - believe his call for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will boost waning morale.
"We are living in a difficult situation politically with nothing going on except settlements and with no near perspective of peace," said Father Jamal Khader, the Palestinian spokesperson for the pope's visit. "That is why we need the visit of the pope: to strengthen and encourage us."
About 50,000 Palestinian Christians live in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. In Israel, their numbers are closer to 130,000.
"Jerusalem's Palestinian Christians were 30,000 before the establishment of Israel, while today they are only 8,000," said Yousef Daher of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Center. "It's not emigration [that's] the result of this lack of numbers. This is not the issue. The issue is driving Christians out, barring them from worship."
A recent poll showed that a vast majority of Palestinian Christians identified the "[Israeli] occupation" as the greatest challenge to their community. Economic factors, the stalled peace process, and mushrooming Israeli settlements in the West Bank were also high on the list.
"Almost two-thirds said they would [leave] if they had the opportunity due to economic difficulties and the political stalemate," said Bernard Sabella, an expert on local Christian affairs.
THE STREAM: Israel draws distinctions between its Arab minorities
The Christians who have stayed find themselves struggling with political controversy and a sense of insecurity.
Earlier this year, Israeli lawmakers buried a small but significant change in a seemingly anodyne law that changed the makeup of the country's equal employment commission. Instead of having simply Jewish and Palestinian members, the panel was enlarged, with seats earmarked for Muslims, Christians, Druze - a level of distinction not used for Jewish members.
The Knesset approved the bill, over the objections of the commission's chair. "The goal is to give the Christians a set of benefits," said Likud member Yariv Levin, the bill's sponsor, in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv. "They are not Muslims, not Arabs, only Christians… they are natural allies for us, a balance against the Muslims."
Controversy flared up again last month, when the army announced that it would send draft notices to Christians. Israeli Jews are required to serve, as are Druze and Circassian men, but Palestinians are exempt, and few enlist. "If you accept yourself as a Palestinian, you don't go into an army which maintains occupation or kills Palestinians," said Michel Sabbah, the former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
The notices are voluntary, and the numbers involved are small: The army believes only a few dozen men will actually enlist.
So the plan has served mainly to stir controversy. A few high-profile religious figures endorsed the idea, including Greek Orthodox priest Father Gabriel Naddaf, who received widespread praise from Israeli politicians and media. He was dismissed from the church earlier this month amid public backlash.
It's hard to talk about discrimination against Christians, because they are regarded as part of the Arab population ... in education, in housing, in employment, it's overall discrimination against Arabs, Christian or Muslim or Druze. You cannot come and divide between [them].
"[It's] a good opportunity to try the old Zionist policy of divide-and-rule," said Basel Ghattas, a Palestinian member of the Knesset and a Christian himself. "They've created an argument within the Christian community. There is a huge debate, a huge crisis."
Veterans can receive preferential treatment when applying for jobs, and some benefits, including a new break on home taxes, are also conditioned on military status. But those benefits have not done much to improve the overall status of minority groups: The Druze, who have served in the army since the 1950s, still have some of the lowest levels of education and employment in Israel, and their villages are woefully underfunded.
"It's hard to talk about discrimination against Christians, because they are regarded as part of the Arab population," said Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer from Adalah, a legal centre for Palestinian rights in Israel. "In education, in housing, in employment, it's overall discrimination against Arabs, Christian or Muslim or Druze. You cannot come and divide between [them]."
The unemployment rate for Palestinian citizens of Israel is twice that of Jewish Israelis; more than half of Palestinian families live below the poverty line.
Palestinians in Jerusalem face particular hardships: Almost 80 percent live in poverty, mainly due to difficulties in finding jobs, and because of repercussions of Israel's separation wall, which cuts East Jerusalem from its Arab hinterland in the West Bank.
Living conditions are also difficult because building permits are rarely issued to East Jerusalemites. "Palestinians live on only about 13 percent of East Jerusalem lands, while settlements have been expanding, with endless possibilities for growth," said Hind Khoury, a Palestinian former minister for Jerusalem affairs.
Palestinians living in the city are considered residents, not citizens, and those with non-resident spouses must submit a request for family unification. Since 2003, an Israeli law has prohibited Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip from uniting with their spouses in Jerusalem or Israel.
"About 1,000 families live illegally in the city because one of the parents is from the West Bank," Khoury said. "The children also are denied ID cards, and therefore access to schools, health care, insurance services."
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Harder to quantify is the religious discrimination experienced by Christians and other minority groups, a problem that has worsened as Israeli politics lurch further to the right.
Last month, a group of Palestinians held a baptism in an abandoned church in Bassa, a village in the far north that was destroyed in 1948. They were interrupted by residents of Shlomi, the Israeli town built on the ruins, who honked car horns and smashed the camera of a photographer who was documenting the ceremony.
The residents of another demolished Christian village, Iqrit, sent a letter to the pope last month asking him to "intensify his sacred efforts" and pressure the Israeli government to allow them to return home. They were expelled in 1948, and the government has barred them from rebuilding the village, despite numerous court orders allowing them back.
Elsewhere in Israel, a recent spate of hate crimes has targeted church clerics and property. "Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel" was daubed earlier this month on the exterior of an office belonging to the Notre Dame Center in East Jerusalem. "King David for the Jews, Jesus is garbage," read the slogan painted on another church in the city.
"The right-wing Israeli government is creating even more extreme right-wing young people," Ghattas said. "Every single policy, every single budget, every single act… it's all aimed to perpetuate Israel as a state for the Jews, and as much as possible, to alienate and discriminate and marginalise the Arab citizens of the country."
Israeli authorities, who say they are bracing for more such attacks in the lead-up to the pope's visit, have launched "Operation White Robe," dispatching more than 8,000 police officers for the Pontiff's security.
But with a cordon and a stringent permit system, Palestinian Christians are worried they will not even be able to see the pontiff, let alone celebrate his presence freely. They fear a repeat of the events of Easter Sunday, when many were denied permits to Jerusalem. Some of those who managed to make it were forbidden from entering the Old City to attend mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is believed to have been buried.
While Israel insists these security measures are to ensure the pilgrims' safety, many Christians feel they hinder their religious freedom. "We need to make sure that rights of worship to all the faithful are respected," Khoury said. "It cannot be that Jerusalem is open to some and closed to others. Peace won't happen if Jerusalem remains an isolated city."
Source: Al Jazeera