There are two billion Christians worldwide – and some of them are Palestinian Arabs. About 32,000 Christian Arabs live in the West Bank and Gaza, which – when compared to their Muslim neighbors – is a minute percentage. Their numbers have decreased dramatically since 1948. Another 138,000 are estimated to live in Israel proper.
In 1995, there were fewer Christian Arabs in Israel and the Territories than under the British Mandate. At a conservative population growth of 2% per annum, there should be 420,000; instead the true figure is approximately a third of that, indicating a leakage of nearly 70% through flight and emigration.
There are twice as many Christians from Ramallah who live in Dearborn, Michigan as in Ramallah itself.
Three times as many Bethlehemite Christians live in the “Palestinian Diaspora” as in the city itself.
The emigration of Christians started during World War I when the Ottomans discriminated against them and suspected them of sympathizing with their co-religionists in Europe. Many left for Latin America where they are still – and ironically – called “turcos.”
In 1948, 35% of the total Christian population fled or was expelled during the War of Independence. Today the average Christian is aged 31 compared to 18 for the general Palestinian-Arab population. There are few men and many women – and since intermarriage with Muslims is frowned upon, if you haven’t found a husband by the time you have reached the lofty age of 30, then it’s all over.
Significantly, Suha Arafat converted to Islam – at least publicly – out of recognition that political necessity dictated that the first lady of Palestine could never be a Christian.
But if you thought that the Jews were plagued by schism and religious territorialism, Christians are well on the way to mounting a challenge in this contest for theological atomization. The largest number of Christians follow the Orthodox Eastern rite and practice a number of geographical variations – Greek, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Russian. Then come the Uniate Catholics – the Maronites and the Melkites.
And bringing up the rear are a host of minor denominations – Lutherans and Anglicans, Baptists and Evangelicals.
As Charles Sennott, former Middle East bureau chief for The Boston Globe demonstrates, Christian Palestinians are a minority within a minority. Many wish to keep a low profile so as not to antagonize the Muslim majority.
Indeed, Sennott had difficulty in persuading Christians to talk about themselves.
For many Muslims, Christianity is perceived as a Western faith and therefore, by implication, pro-Israel.
The zealotry of the Christian Right in the United States, in attempting to be more Zionist-than-thou, further made Arab Christians suspect in Muslim eyes. And historically, Christians, like Jews, were expected to occupy the inferior status of dhimmi in Islamic society.
Occasional sermons labeling Christians as infidels, the burning of a Christian-owned hotel, and attacks on the home of a Christian businessman remind the Christian minority that they are indeed different.
Sennott argues that Christian’s played a disproportionate role in fostering pan-Arabism (Arab nationalism) as opposed to the pan-Islamism championed in earlier times by the Ottomans and today by movements like Hamas. Both the Popular Front’s George Habash and the Democratic Front’s Naif Hawatmeh are Christian Palestinians – albeit lapsed ones.
The secularized Hanan Ashrawi dismisses her Christian background in one paragraph in her autobiography. In conversation with Sennott, Ashrawi’s background is a sensitive issue. With Islam ascendent it does not sit well with her Palestinian nationalism. Despite her robotic emphasis on “the struggle of Palestinian people” and the deflection of all blame onto “the Israeli occupation” when speaking to the Western media, Ashrawi makes a private distinction between public reality and public relations.
Before the current intifada, in conversation with Sennott, she had sharply attacked Hamas and its influence in shaping the Palestinian Authority’s legal system, especially the use of Koranic law and the adoption of Islam as the national religion.
Nevertheless, for reasons of mutual interest, local Christian leaders maintain excellent relations with the Palestinian Authority.
Unlike the “popular committees” of the intifada of the 1980s, the current violence suggests a predominance of Islamists to the exclusion of Christians. Ashrawi notwithstanding, the Christian secularized intelligentsia does not play much of a role in the Palestinian Authority.
As Sennott explains: “They were not going to pick up stones and they didn’t tend to carry guns. In this crisis atmosphere, there was no room for criticism of Arafat, or the Palestinian Authority, or corruption, or human rights violations, or the lack of freedom of speech.”
Not that the PLO doesn’t seek to exploit Christians for public relations purposes. Sennott reports allegations that, during non-violent anti-Israel demonstrations held in Christian areas, to foster confrontation Fatah has sent in youths to attack IDF soldiers with rocks.
Sennott writes at length about the American evangelicals’ support for Israel and their pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Some US Christians tend to identify with the Israeli secular Right rather than the Orthodox Right, as Sennott suggests.
This is because these Christian supporters define Israel in terms of the biblical borders of the Land of Israel. Yet Sennott does not mention that the US Christian Right differentiates between the Jews of Israel – who are an instrument in bringing about the second coming – and American Jewry who are seen as political and social liberals and legitimate targets of conversionist efforts.
Evangelicals have indeed raised millions to assist the aliya of Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. But it is more difficult to discern the funding of Jewish settlers on the West Bank and Gaza that Sennott suggests.
If Sennott has detailed evidence of such assistance, then he should publish it.
Sennott has written a very good account of the dilemmas and difficulties of being a Christian Arab in the Holy Land in the 21st century. His rendition of events during the past years is fair and balanced, somewhat unpalatable as opposed to biased.
Apart from odd errors such as Menachem Begin and the Irgun attempting to conquer Haifa rather than Jaffa in 1948, this book is highly informative. Unlike most current reportage of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is both intelligent and instructive.