According to Palestinian Christian leaders, Israeli military authorities have tried repeatedly to “foster an atmosphere of mistrust between the two communities”, for the purpose of eroding Palestinian national unity and crushing Palestinian aspirations for freedom and liberation.
Christians, though a minority, have always been an integral part of the Palestinian social, cultural and political fabric.
As Talal Sidr, a Hebron community leader and a religious affairs adviser to President Yasir Arafat, points out, the Christian community in Palestine predates Islam by several centuries.
“They were here first, this is a historical fact. They belong here as much as we do,” says Sidr.
United in conflict
Sidr reminds people that Palestinian Christians, like many Christians of the Near East, fought the “Franks” or Crusaders alongside their Muslim countrymen.
Muslims and Christians have both
In modern times, especially since the Nakba or catastrophe in 1948, when the bulk of the Palestinian people were uprooted from their ancestral homeland in what is now Israel, Christians as well as Muslims suffered the agony of homelessness and exile.
Moreover, like other Palestinians, Christians have actively joined the national struggle against the Israeli occupation, with some occupying leading positions in the various factions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Christian figures as George Habash, Nayif Hawatmah, Edward Said, to mention a few, have loomed large in the web of Palestinian National struggle.
Today, Christian Palestinian figures such as Dr Hanan Ashrawi continue to speak eloquently in defence of the Palestinian national cause.
Moreover, Christian religious leaders such Archimandrite Ata Allah Hanna, spokesman of the Orthodox Patriarchy in Jerusalem, use every opportunity to condemn and expose the Israeli oppression, often inviting Israel’s anger, pressure and occasionally threats of expulsion.
Unlike other countries in the region, such as Lebanon, Palestinian Christians and Muslims have always acted as “one community rather than two sects”, according to Professor Hanna Issa, an expert on international law.
Issa, a Christian, says it is a taboo even to ask Palestinians if they are Muslim or Christian.
“We are one people; it is a timeless fraternity that proved itself throughout history”
“If you go to a Palestinian village where Muslims and Christians live and ask people in the street what religion they adhere to, they will look strangely at you.”
Issa does not like to ascribe the term “national unity” to Christian-Muslim relations in the West Bank.
“We’re one people; it’s a timeless fraternity that has proved itself throughout history.”
Issa does not seem to be exaggerating. In Bethlehem, the traditional birth place of Jesus, it would be difficult to distinguish between Muslims and Christians by appearance.
Moreover, many Muslims share with Christians their Christmas holiday and many Christians celebrate with Muslims the joy of occasions such Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
Symbolically, the Mosque of Umar ibn al-Khattab (named after the second caliph or successor of the Prophet Muhammad) stands on the western side of the Manger Square, embracing the Church of the Nativity in a solemn harmony unseen and unfelt in many other lands.
“Here the mutual respect is neither superficial nor artificial. It comes from the heart and is the result of deep conviction,” says Hanna al-Bandak, a Christian shopkeeper.
In the villages of Beit Arik near Ram Allah, this harmony takes on a cordial partnership.
According to Hanna Issa, when the Muslim community at the village sought to build a larger mosque to accommodate the growing number of worshipers, Christians at the village insisted on “paying our share of the costs”.
Eventually, the two communities shared equally the costs of the new mosque, a testimony and example of inter-religious harmony.
But against this rosy picture of Christian-Muslim harmony stands a community dwindling because of steady emigration to South and Central America, Australia and, increasingly, Sweden.
Worsening living conditions have
According to Bernard Sabella, Professor of Sociology at Bethlehem University, Christians in Palestine now make up less than 2% of the population. In 1893, Christians made up 13% of Palestinians.
Sabella says the trend toward emigration among indigenous Christians poses special challenges at a time when their skills, knowledge and perspective are needed in the efforts of state and institution building.
He calls on the Churches of Palestine to formulate a common strategy “to ensure that Palestinian Christians will not end up forming expatriate communities in such distant lands as Australia, Chile, USA, and Canada”.
“It is indeed sad when there are more Palestinian Christians from Jerusalem celebrating Easter in Sydney than in Jerusalem. This break-up spells the possible end of community life as it has been known and experienced in the Holy Land for countless generations.”
‘No Muslim harassment’
According to Bishara Awad, dean of the Bible College in Bethlehem, Israeli persecution is “first and foremost” to blame for Christian (and Muslim) emigration.
“I have not seen any attack on our churches or institutions. We are like brothers here”
“We, Muslims and Christians alike, have been on the receiving end of oppression since 1967. The occupation is the root cause of economic deterioration. Some people can’t live under constant pressure for a long time; so they emigrate when they are no longer able or willing to withstand oppression.”
Awad denies Israeli allegations that many Christians leave because of harassment by Muslims.
“I haven’t seen any attack on our churches or institutions. We’re like brothers here. We share and attend each other’s social occasions. We’re one people,” he told Aljazeera.net.
Awad, whose five brothers emigrated, believes the key to stemming the tide of Christian emigration to the holy land lies in education. He cites recent statistics showing that young people with a university degree were less likely to emigrate.
“We noticed only 20% of college graduates showed an inclination to emigrate while as many as 80% of people with a high school diploma or below showed a desire to emigrate.”
Awad points out the Bethlehem and Beir Zeit Universities were playing a significant role in reducing Christian emigration.
“Most educated people don’t leave.”