Palestinian Christians have become a tiny minority in Bethlehem.
Christmas is supposed to be a happy time of rejoicing and being together with the ones you love. But in the city where it all began, it is coming dangerously close to being celebrated for the last time. In Bethlehem, along with the rest of the Palestinian-controlled territories, the Christian population is dwindling rapidly as it lives under the threat of extinction.
As with Christian communities throughout the Middle East, Palestinian Christians are but a fraction of their previous number. In 1950, the Christian population stood at 15 percent in the Palestinian-controlled territories. Today, Christians represent less than 1.3 percent of the Palestinian population, their estimated numbers down to about 35,000 people.
Christians are subject to systematic discrimination by both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Both governments consider Islam to be their official religion. As a result, Christians have been relegated to the status of dhimmi, a tolerated but second class that is afforded protection by Islam. The PA’s judicial system does not ensure equal protection to Christians, with injustices ranging from Muslims seizing Christian property without any legal repercussions to physical violence, forced conversions to Islam, and even death.
Christian holy sites are routinely desecrated and destroyed. Five to six decades ago, the city of Bethlehem was a major focal point for Christianity, with a Christian majority that made up more than 70 percent of the population. Today, Christians make up less than 15 percent of the city’s residents. The PA has historically shown contempt for Christian holy sites in the area such as when Yasser Arafat turned the Greek Orthodox monastery near the Church of the Nativity into his own personal domicile during his visits to the city.
However, the most glaring act of desecration in Bethlehem occurred in 2002, when an estimated 180 PA gunmen took over the Church of the Nativity. The gunmen took the priests, nuns, and monks hostage, while looting the church of its food and valuables. Catholic priests at the site said that some of the Bibles in the church were torn up for toilet paper and that many valuable sacramental objects were stolen. After the hostages were released and the terrorists left the church, it was discovered that altars, religious objects, and furniture were fouled by urine, cigarette butts, and human excrement.
The destruction of Christian holy sites in the Palestinian-occupied territories continues to this day. In Gaza City, the ruins of an 1,800-year-old Byzantine church were bulldozed by Hamas, in order to make way for a shopping mall. Despite pleas from Christians, construction workers removed ancient artifacts and continued their work on the site. Churches, monasteries, and convents throughout the Palestinian-occupied territories are frequently defaced with graffiti, looted, and even destroyed.
While Christians are on the brink of extinction and treated as second-class citizens in the Palestinian-run territories, the complete opposite is happening in Israel. Since Israel’s independence in 1948, the Israeli Christian population has increased five-fold to an estimated 158,000 citizens. This growth is unheard of anywhere else in the Middle East. Apart from Christian religious freedom being protected in Israel, the Israeli government often encourages Christmas celebrations throughout the country.
According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Christian Arabs fare the best in terms of education, when compared to any other religious group receiving an education in Israel. Christians are to be found in every facet of Israeli civil and political life, exercising considerable influence in Israeli society disproportionate to their population. Salim Joubran, a Christian Maronite and Israeli Supreme Court judge, was in charge of overseeing Israel’s 2015 legislative election.
Considering how the PA restricted Christmas festivities last year, much to the disappointment of Palestinian Christians, this Christmas promises to be an even bleaker affair. It is time for Christians and others throughout the world to declare with one voice that the purging of Christians from Palestinian-occupied territories must stop. Especially when it is occurring mere miles away from Israel, the greatest country for Christians in the Middle East. Both the PA and Hamas must immediately cease their repressive policies meant to eliminate Christians from their rule.
Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA (Wikimedia Commons)