Christian-Muslim relations in Palestine

Silvia Nicolaou-Garcia E-mail Print

Briefing Paper – June 2010

An overview of the
Christian presence in Palestine

The estimated number of
Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem is
51,710, making the percentage of the Palestinian Christians in the
Occupied Territories two percent of the Palestinian population.i There is, in contrast, a
higher percentage of Christians in Israel. The percentage of the Arab
Christians in Israel – including Israeli Occupied Jerusalem – is 1.66,
according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. Bethlehem, which
traces its roots to the very origin of the Christian faith, is the home
to the highest percentage of Christians in Palestine (43.4%), followed
by Ramallah (24.7%), then Jerusalem (17.9%).

Christianity has a
long standing history in Palestine, and Palestinian Christians belong to
several traditional communities of faith. The first are the traditions
of the Eastern Orthodox churches, the second is made up of the Syrian,
Coptic and Armenian Orthodox churches, and a third category consists of
those churches belonging to the Catholic family of churches. There are
also a small but increasing number of evangelical churches, including
the Lutheran and Episcopal churches.

Over the past century, the
percentage of Christian Palestinians has been in decline. The influx of
Jewish immigrants since the late 1880s, the Nakba of 1948 and the
expulsions of 1967 played a big role in diminishing the presence of
Palestinian Christians. During the Deir Yassin Massacre of 1948, over a
quarter of a million Palestinians, many of them Christian, were
displaced or disappeared. Many of the 531 villages that were levelled in
1948 had a mix of Christian and Muslim inhabitants. To this day,
millions of Palestinians have been expelled from their lands, and
rendered homeless and as refugees. Of the remaining Palestinian
Christians, most of them have emigrated at an increasing rate from 1990
onwards, because of lack of freedom and security and due to the
deteriorating economic situation.

A relationship of trust
in the face of Israeli adversity

Various Christian Zionist
propaganda sources claim that the main problem for Palestinian
Christians is their Muslim neighbours.ii
The decline of Christian presence in Palestine is portrayed as the
fault of Muslims and not of the illegal Israeli occupation.iii Christian Zionist
tours to the Holy Land contribute towards the spread of this myth and
frame the conflict in an anti-Muslim way in order to distract attention
from Israel’s continued violations of international law.

though the relationship between Palestinian Christians and Muslims is
not always a rosy one, the above claims are far from true. Palestinian
Christians are an indigenous, integral part of the Arab Palestinian
culture and civilization in the political, historical and religious
spheres. At the political level, Palestinian Christians have been fellow
citizens in the common struggle against foreign or colonial invasion,
regardless of its religious or ethnic identity. Many seats in the
current Palestinian Legislative Council are held by Palestinian
Christians. This amounts to more or less 8% of the seats, whereas
Christians only make up 2% of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.
Similarly, the Samaritans, who number three hundred and twenty persons,
have one seat in the Council. Christian holidays like Christmas and
Easter are observed, and Christians continue to be an integral part of
the Arab Palestinian culture and civilization.  A relationship of
peaceful coexistance is also found on the personal level. People from
both religions visit each other during religious festivals, and in
Jerusalem schools run by Christian churches have a majority Muslim
student population.

Palestinian Christians, like their Muslim
counterparts, have experienced a long history of dispossession and have
not been immune to Israeli policies of occupation and discrimination.
Not only do they have to deal with the day to day hardships that come
with occupation, but they are also dismayed by the fact that many of
their fellow Christians in Europe and North America unquestionably
support the Israeli regime. Western Christians (in particular American
and Britain) have, for a variety of reasons, tended to show greater
sympathy towards the state of Israel than towards the worsening
condition of the Palestinian people. This alliance can be traced back as
far as 1917, when the United Kingdom issued the Balfour Declaration and
established Palestine as a "national home for the Jewish people".
More recently the Nixon administration in 1973 provided Israel with a
full replacement of all its tanks, planes and ammunition during the
October War against Egypt and Syria.

However, Western Christian
alliances with Israel go beyond a political alliance. Throughout the
20th Century there has been a significant influence of Christian
theological attitudes toward Israel which has been devastating on the
indigenous Palestinian Christian community. The rise of Evangelicalism
and Christian fundamentalism has fermented the unquestionable support
for the state of Israel. As was highlighted by the Pope earlier this
month during his visit to Cyprus, "the Israeli occupation of
Palestinian Territories is creating difficulties in everyday
life….moreover; certain Christian fundamentalist theologies use Sacred
Scripture to justify Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
" A 46-page
text published by the Vatican: The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and
stresses how this fundamentalist theology is making the
situation for Christian Arabs even more sensitive.iv

Christian Zionist
support for Israel is also manifested in the shape of pilgrimages to the
Holy Land, encouraged particularly by the Israeli Government Tourist
Office.v This
support has an objectionable consequence on the indigenous Palestinian
Christian communities. Many of the Western pilgrims appear not only
ignorant of recent Middle Eastern history, but surprised to find an Arab
Christian presence at all. Like their Muslim neighbours, they are
subject to daily experiences of humiliation at checkpoints and
roadblocks and prevented from making pilgrimage to their Holy places of
worship. Palestinian Christians are routinely prohibited from travelling
to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, where
the church commemorates Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection
from the dead, whilst Palestinian Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza
strip are prevented from travelling to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

December 2009, a group of Palestinian Christians, including Archbishop
Michel Sabbah, the retired Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem published "A Moment of Truth" , a call for help to the
international community on behalf of the Palestinian Christians. They
severely criticised "theologians in the West who try to attach a
biblical and theological legitimacy to the Israeli infringement of our
rights, urge for non violent resistance tools such as boycott and
divestments and call for a stop on Israeli ‘racism and apartheid’." In
an interview with Sabbah earlier this year, he clearly spoke on behalf
of all the Christian Churches in Palestine when stating that "Israeli
Occupation is the Main cause of Instability in the Middle East

Christians and the Islamic resistance

Contrary to what
is propagated in the media, the relationship between Christians and the
Islamic resistance in Palestine is one of respect. Although tensions
arise between the Christian minority and the rest of the population,
these are not the result of a systematic discrimination against them,
but are more due to the everyday anguish of the siege and occupation.

regard to the Islamic resistance Movement (Hamas), Article 31 of its Charter specifically says,
"Hamas is a humane movement which cares for human rights and is
committed to the tolerance inherent in Islam as regards attitudes
towards other religions…under the shadow of Islam it is possible for the
members of the three religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism to
coexist in safety and security"

An example of the
coexistence is the situation of Palestinian Christians in Gaza, contrary
to the Israeli propaganda (hasbara). School playgrounds are
places where coexistence between Muslims and Christians takes place. The
Holy Family School in Gaza City is part-funded by the Vatican. Father
Emanuel Musallem explains how he is the priest of more than 4,000
Christians in Gaza. His school has more than 1,200 students, 1,000 of
which are Muslim. Father Emanuel explains how many Hamas leaders are
sending their children to this school, because he is not preaching
"Christianity", he is rather "spreading the light of knowledge in his
Palestinian nation". Father Emanuel declares himself first an Arab, then
a Palestinian, and then a Christian.

On another level, Hamas has always
demonstrated respect for Christmas religious festivities. In December
2003, they were the first to organize an assistance package and
donations to families whose houses were damaged by the Israeli Defence
Forces in Rafah. The movement went even further and on Christmas Eve
2003 when several officials dressed up as Santa Claus and distributed
presents to Christian children in Bethlehem. Another example of the
tolerance and respect between the two communities was when Declaration
number 67 was issued by Hamas in 1990, cancelling a general strike which
coincided with the religious Christmas holidays.

Another issue
which is frequently discussed in the media is whether or not Hamas is
encroaching upon women’s rights in the Gaza strip. Calls to ban male
hairdressers from cutting women’s hair and a ruling stating that female
lawyers had to cover their hair when acting in civil courts were
denounced by many in the international community. However, even though,
to some extent, the atmosphere in the region is more conservative, these
measures were not approved of by the majority of the population and
were therefore never implemented. Hana Afana, a 24 year old trainee
maths teacher explains how Hamas is imposing a religious code, and how what is
really worrying for the women in the region is the siege and the
economic situation
. Qualified professionals and graduates like her
find themselves unable to find a job. According to Mona Ahmad al-Shawa,
who runs the women’s unit at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights,
basic human rights such as access to electricity, running water and
medical treatment are what women want.

Muslims and Christians in
Palestine are not just bonded at the playground or in the spiritual
sphere. They share the sheer disappointment with the Oslo process and
the rampant corruption of the Palestinian Authority, which has
misappropriated billions of dollars worth of aid from the international
community. Hamas winning the elections in the territories reflected the
disillusionment of Palestinians, and was a natural reaction to their
dissatisfaction. Often regarded as a military organization, the movement
engages well beyond its military wing. It runs a network of social,
educational, health and economic services, especially in Gaza.
Christians in Bethlehem and Ramallah, tired of the PA’s corruption and
sex scandals, were not afraid to vote for Hamas.

between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Israeli State – "The Holy
Land is not for Sale or Lease"

The Palestinian Authority
is, however, not the only one accused of corruption and scandalous
transactions, and there seems to be internal strife between the
different Palestinian Christian communities. The Greek Orthodox Church
has been portrayed as collaborating with Israel since 1967, due to its
involvement in land and political disputes. The Orthodox Church is the
biggest private owner of land in Jerusalem and owns most of the land in
the West Bank on which the Christian religious sites, including the
Church of Nativity in Bethlehem where Christians believe Jesus was born,
are built. Much of this land was donated to it by Orthodox Christian
Palestinians in the late 1800s. Over the last few decades the church has
increased land sales to the Israeli authorities or leased land to them
for a period of 999 years. Examples of these transactions include the
sale of St. John’s property in the Christian quarter on 11th April 1990,
the transfer of fifty dunams near Mar Elias monastery, and the sale of
two hotels and twenty seven stores on Omar Bin Al-Khattab square near
the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The church’s land sales have
come against a background of corruption allegations. Nicholas Papadimas,
a previous church treasurer in Jerusalem, was involved some of the
sales before he fled the country and was charged in Greece with stealing
church funds in a separate case. On being appointed as patriarch in
2005, Theophilos had promised to stop selling Palestinian land, but he
was also involved in many shady undertakings with Israel. The current
patriarch, Irineos, has also been accused of being behind secret land
deals with two international Jewish investment groups.

source of tension comes from the fact that the Greek clergy do not allow
Arab clergymen from rising in the church. This is the case of the
prominent Palestinian Christian clergyman, Abdullah Hanaa. On the 13th
of November 2009, Theofilos removed Abdullah from his position as the
deputy head from the Orthodox Church. This resulted in widespread
condemnation from the Palestinian Greek Orthodox Community, who
demonstrated in their thousands in the streets of Ramallah.

The Israeli authorities
have used the church’s corruption and financial difficulties to their
political advantage and applied additional political pressure to ensure
that the choice of patriarchs is beneficial to Israel’s land acquisition
policies. One of the church’s Jerusalem properties was purchased by
Israel with the involvement of the Ateret Cohanim association which is
dedicated to buying Arab property in Jerusalem and settling Jews there.

the Christian and Muslim Palestinian communities have suffered at the
hands of the Occupation. Excavations near the gate of Maryam in the
Western Wall of the Church of the Sepulchre in November 2009 are a
recent example of this. Far from collaborating with the Israeli entity,
the struggle against the occupation should unite not only the different
Christian Churches, but also the Muslim community.


to Hanna Massad, pastor of Gaza Baptist Church, "The last 5 years have
been very difficult for all the Palestinians – Muslims and Christians".
Gaza Baptist Church is one of only three churches serving the 4,000
Christians living among the Gaza Strip’s 1.5 million inhabitants. Hanna
explains how the siege united the community. Because of the lack of
basic food, Christian charities have provided food for families, 99% of
which are Muslim. During the 2009 bombings, "the church ceiling fell
down up to 6 times".

The plight of the Palestinian Christian is
very much connected to that of the Palestinian Muslim in that both,
whether in the Occupied Territories or inside Israel itself, are
experiencing daily injustices at the hands of oppressive and
discriminatory policies imposed on them by the Israeli government. The
conflict is therefore not between Muslims and Christians; nor between
the Greek Orthodox Church and the Palestinian Christians; it is between
Palestinians as a whole and Israel’s occupation and apartheid
establishment. It is indeed hard to be Palestinian Christian. But it is
equally hard being a Palestinian Muslim.

It is hard simply being a

"Palestinian Christians, Facts, Figures and Trends", Diyar 2008

"Christians in the Holy Land: persecuted under the Palestinian
iv. The Catholic Church in the Middle East, paragraph 18.
Vatican City 2009
v. Whitaker, 1994, The Ethical Challenges of
Managing Pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Stephen R. Sizer
Michel Sabbah, "Israeli Occupation Main Cause of Instability in the
Middle East". January 2010

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