(This is the first in a series of posts about the situation of Christians in Palestine and Israel.)
The first Christian church started in Jerusalem shortly after the day of Pentecost. Thus Christians have lived in what is now Palestine and Israel for almost 2000 years. Christianity was the major faith of the region from the 4th century until sometime after the Arab Muslim conquests in the 7th century. Islam then replaced Christianity, but Christians have continued to live there until today. While the relationship between Christians and Muslims has not always been harmonious, the Christian faith has survived for almost a millennium and a half.
At the beginning of the 20th century, it is estimated that 20% of population of the Middle East was still Christian. But today Christians constitute no more than three to four per cent of the population of the Palestinian territories.
Now the majority of Palestinians Christians live outside of Palestine, especially in Jordan. It is estimated that almost 70% of the Jordanian population is of Palestinian descent. Outside of the Arab world, about 500,000 Palestinians live in Chile, while sizable numbers can be found elsewhere in the Americas as well as in Europe.
Christians form about two-thirds of the latter group. Some Palestinian Christians had emigrated already almost a century ago because of drought and for economic reasons. The more recent exodus was largely in response to the wars in 1948 and 1967, as well as pressure from Muslims, but there is by no means unanimity about who should receive the blame. The Palestinians still blame Israel, as does the Catholic Church.
It is difficult to get precise figures about how many Christians are left in Palestine. According to Operation World, which is probably the most reliable source for such information, less than 2% of the Palestinians are Christians. A majority of these are Greek Orthodox, but many other traditions are represented as well, including Catholics, Protestants, and Copts.
Both Bethlehem and Nazareth used to be overwhelmingly Christian, but now have Muslim majorities. Even Jerusalem was slightly more than 50% Christian as late as 1947, yet today it is less than 3% Christian. In Gaza there are only about 10,000 Christians, concentrated especially in the city.
In spite of the small number of Christians in Palestine, they play a significant role in politics, the diplomatic corps, and the arts. Sula Arafat, the widow of Yasser Arafat, is a Christian, as was George Habash, the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Hanan Asrawi, a legislator and scholar, is another prominent example.
Palestinian Christian leaders have been vocal in support of the Kairos Palestine document, "A moment of truth" (December 2009), which calls for the boycott of Israel by Christians all over the world. The document wants Israel to abolish what it terms their "apartheid" laws, which are similar to those that existed in South Africa, that discriminate against Palestinians and non-Jews. (I will return to this document when I contrast this stance with that of Christian Zionism in a future post.)
The Canadian government shortly after the publication of this document cancelled support for Kairos Canada, a human rights organization, because of its association with this boycott. Kairos Canada refuted this accusation. All the opposition parties objected to this decision of the government.
Christians in other parts of the world should support their fellow believers in Palestine. Not all Palestinians are Muslims, nor are all Palestinians terrorists.
While there are not as many Christians there as there used to be, nevertheless, their numbers and influence are sufficient that we cannot disregard them. Even if they were not fellow believers, they deserve our support in the name of justice.
Instead of condemning all Palestinians, we must encourage the efforts that many Palestinians are making to achieve a just and lasting peace between Palestine and Israel. Such a peace will not be possible if we only support Israel. An even-handed approach that recognizes the merits of both sides of the conflict is needed.
We must speak out especially when the Canadian and American governments take a pro-Israel stance that is heavily influenced by domestic politics in both countries.
As I wrote earlier, being pro-Palestinian does not make one anti-Israeli. Our goal is peace between all the inhabitants of both Palestine and Israel, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. That goal does not allow for partiality. Instead, it demands justice.