In the biblical city of Bethlehem, thousands of Christians and other tourists from all over the world flocked to the largest celebrations the city had hosted in years. Manger Square and the surrounding streets bustled with visitors as live music filled the air with Christmas classics and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
Children played in the square under a Christmas tree sparkling with lights, and pilgrims crowded into cafes and shops brimming with religiously themed souvenirs. Later they would attend Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity. Even some Palestinian Muslims caught the Christmas spirit, with veiled women wearing Santa hats.
Yet amid all the jubilation and celebration, I couldn’t help but wonder: Where have all the Palestinian Christians gone?
Since the 1950s, the Palestinian Christian population in Bethlehem has shrunk from over 80 percent of the population to less than 12 percent today. This is reflective of the wider Christian population in territories ruled by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, where they continue to drop from 15 percent of the overall Arab population to now just under 2 percent.
Under the Palestinian Authority, Christian holy sites are routinely desecrated and destroyed. It was only in 2002 when PA gunmen took over the Church of the Nativity, holding about 30 priests, nuns and monks hostage, and looting anything that looked valuable. Catholic priests on the site reported that Bibles were torn up for toilet paper, and altars and other religious objects were desecrated with urine, cigarette butts and human excrement.
The PA has historically shown contempt for Christian holy sites since its inception. Yasser Arafat systematically changed Bethlehem’s demography by bringing in thousands of Muslims from neighboring refugee camps, desecrating Christian cemeteries and convents in the process.
“Let me tell you something,” said a Palestinian merchant requesting anonymity. “Bethlehem used to be mainly a Christian city. In Israel, the Arabs have all the rights. But here, [our] government has ruined everything. Before the Intifada, the Jews would visit our cities, eat our food and buy from our shops. But now? Nothing! The fanatics ruined everything.”
While Christians under Palestinian rule face systemic persecution, they are flourishing in Israel. Since the Jewish State declared independence in 1948, the Christian population has increased five-fold to 175,000 citizens. Israel has the only continuously growing Christian community in the Middle East. Christians take part in all aspects of public life. Indeed, Israel’s Declaration of Independence ensures complete social and political rights “to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
It is rather inauthentic when you see the PA constantly misrepresenting Jesus as a “Muslim Palestinian.” These ludicrous attempts to rewrite Jewish history and deny Israel’s right to exist fall apart when you look inside Bethlehem’s shops and see Jewish ritual items such as menorahs, shofars, Kiddush cups, and mezuzahs for sale. Even a model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem was on display, despite the PA officially denying its existence.
Israeli products can be found on market shelves, and Israeli wines are listed on restaurant menus. Though the PA blames Israel for the continued exodus of Palestinian Christians, the PA should instead emulate the Jewish State’s model of treating its Christian minority with dignity and respect.
In other words, stop trying to celebrate Christmas without Christians.
Bradley Martin is a Senior Fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center.