By Peter Oborne
24 December 2019 – MIDDLEEASTEYE
Pilgrims flock to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas, but Palestinian Christians fear for the survival of their own community in the land of Jesus’s birth
One week before Christmas. I’m in Manger Square and watching pilgrims descend from buses and make their way to the Church of the Nativity, first built in the fourth century, on the spot where, according to Christian tradition, the infant Jesus was born.
Inside the church I join a party of Spanish pilgrims. We pause to sing carols by Jesus’s crib. There’s no doubting the sincerity or the devotion of those who make the pilgrimage to Bethlehem every year. For me, an Anglican Christian, it is a profoundly moving experience.
But how much do most of these pilgrims know about the small and embattled Palestinian Christian community which survives almost 2,000 years since the death of Jesus?
Located within the Israeli-occupied West Bank, modern Bethlehem is a hard place, with two refugee camps within the city’s limits and Israeli settlements constantly being developed round about.
The separation wall runs like a scar through the town. Every pilgrim must pass through it to reach Manger Square. Does it disturb them? Do they notice?
‘For most tourists, it’s as if history stopped in 70 AD. They visit the Holy Land where Jesus performed his miracles, but they ignore the reality’- Pastor Munther Isaac
Christianity here survived the persecution of its earliest converts under Roman rule. It flourished under the Byzantine empire, endured the early Islamic caliphates and enjoyed a revival under the Ottoman Empire before the territory of modern-day Palestine passed into British control in 1917.
Yet every Palestinian Christian I spoke to doubted whether there will soon be any significant Christian presence in the land where the founder of Christianity was born, preached his gospel and died.
With few exceptions they told me they were the last generation of Palestinian Christians.
A handful might be needed to look after the holy sites, above all the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which claims to be built upon both the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and the tomb from which he was resurrected, as well as the Church of the Nativity.
These holy places attract millions of pilgrims, incidentally making a fortune for the religious orders which control them. But these orders are based abroad and often staffed by foreign clergy, some of whom don’t speak Arabic.
Palestinian Christians distinguish between what they call the “dead stones”, the shrines and churches that have left the mark of nearly 2,000 years of continuous Christian worship on the landscape, and the “living stones”, the people who continue to practice the Christian faith in the birthplace of the religion. Here the facts are stark.
Their numbers are dwindling and today there are estimated to be just 40,000 Christians in the West Bank and only 11,000 in Jerusalem, according to figures published by the Latin Patriarchate Printing Press – barely one percent of the total population of the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
According to a survey of Palestinian Christians living in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the percentage of the population that identified as Christian fell from 7.4 percent in 1947, before the creation of the state of Israel, to just two percent in 2007.
According to information published this week by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there are 177,000 Christians living in Israel, or about two percent of the total population of the country.
To understand this mortal threat, I visited Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel itself over two trips, one last summer and the other during the run up to Christmas.
In Bethlehem, rather than pray at the Church of the Nativity, I joined 200 worshippers at the Lutheran Christmas Church.
The Lutherans laid on wonderful singing by a local choir. In a service conducted in Arabic, the pastor, Munther Isaac, dedicated his sermon to condemning the suspected murder of a woman near Bethlehem by her own relatives, telling the congregation: “Telling women that their place is in the home is the first step towards violence against them.”
‘Behind the lights and celebrations, we feel that Bethlehem is a big prison, surrounded by settlements and divided by a wall’
– Pastor Munther Isaac
Later he told me that “behind the lights and celebrations, we feel that Bethlehem is a big prison, surrounded by settlements and divided by a wall.”
He said that visitors only come to “visit old churches and stay in affordable hotels”. He asked: “Do they really care about the Palestinians?”
“For most tourists, it’s as if history stopped in 70 AD. They visit the Holy Land where Jesus performed his miracles, but they ignore the reality.
“I honestly feel that the burden of history is that we are the last Christian generation to stay in this land. I look at my congregation. We are 160 members. Many of them are aged 50 and above.
“We went through the church records. We discovered that we have thousands of members living outside Palestine.”
Palestinian security forces stand guard on the roof of the Church of the Nativity as Christians gather for Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. (AFP)
Harassment of spouses
Most leave to escape the discrimination at the hands of Israel which is the common fate of all Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike.
Others emigrate to get jobs that are not available in the West Bank. And then there are the more insidious pressures.
Elaine Zoughbi, a chorister, told me a typical story of harassment by the Israeli authorities.
Elaine, an American citizen, faces bureaucratic and legal obstacles which have made it progressively harder to live with her Palestinian husband and their four children.
The trouble began when Elaine flew into Ben Gurion airport from the United States to attend her son’s wedding. Despite having made the same trip countless times before, she was refused entry to Israel, had her passport removed, and was detained for 12 hours.
Finally, at almost midnight, she was put on a plane out of Israel. She asked for an explanation only to be told she was “married to a Palestinian”.
She has been married to her husband Zoughbi Zoughbi, a respected Christian leader, and lived with him in Bethlehem for almost 30 years.