The Situation of Palestinian Christians: Some Food for Thought
By Bernard Sabella
In the mid-nineties of the twentieth century, the total number of Palestinian
Christians in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip was estimated at around
49,702 distributed among the various denominations as follows:
Greek Orthodox---- 25,835------------ 52.0%
Latins----------------- 15,168------------ 30.5%
Greek Catholics ----- 2,848-------------- 5.7%
Protestants------------ 2,443------------- 4.9%
Armenians------------- 1,500-------------- 3.0%
Copts---------------------- 250-------------- 0.5%
Ethiopians---------------- 60-------------- 0.1%
Maronites---------------- 100-------------- 0.2%
(Source: Christians in the Holy Land, Edited by Michael Prior and William
Taylor, London, 1994 originally from a compilation by Dr. Bernard Sabella
based on different sources and estimates of the various churches in Jerusalem.)
Today, almost ten years later, Palestinian Christians number less than 2%
of the entire population. Some would even suggest that we are approaching
the 1.5%. The decline is not simply due to emigration, estimated among Palestinian
Christians in the last four years since the start of the Second Intifada
at around 3000-3500 Christians. There is also the fact of the continuing
higher birth rate among the general population and the fact that the average
age of Palestinian Christians is higher than that of the entire population.
Besides the marriage habits of Palestinian Christians tend to take place
later in life which means the number of children per Christian family is
lower than that among the average family in the general Palestinian population.
· The majority of Palestinian Christians reside
in the West Bank with only 2,500 living in the Gaza Strip.
· Jerusalem by itself has the largest concentration
with 10,900 Christians. (Although this number is considered to be higher
than the actual number of indigenous Christians in Jerusalem estimated at
around 8,000 only).
· Bethlehem (6,559 Christians) Beit Jala (6,343
Christians) and Beit Sahour (7,335 Christians) make up 20,237 Christians.
· Ramallah, a traditionally Christian town, has
now 6,450 Christians and hence in 3rd place to the greater Bethlehem area
and Jerusalem, in terms of Christian population figures.
· Some of the larger Villages with significant Christian
populations are Zababdeh in the north of the West Bank with 2,251 Christians;
Bir Zeit with 2,158 Christians Taybeh with 1,100 Christians; and Aboud with
1,017 Christians. The last three mentioned villages are in the Central West
Bank in the vicinity of Ramallah.
· The Growth Rate of Palestinian Christians is estimated
at 2.2 percent per annum or roughly 1,093 Christians. However, because of
a high rate of emigration, it is estimated that at times of great instability
and political upheaval, 500 to 600 Christians leave the West Bank each year.
Unfortunately, there is no system for knowing the exact numbers of those
who emigrate and hence reliance is on estimates based on data gathered from
surveys and from general demographic statistics.
· The Christian population hence does not grow annually
by more than 1.0 percent at best during these difficult times. If this rate
is taken to predict how the Christian population will grow in future years,
there is no comfort in saying that if things continue as they are it will
take the Christians of Jerusalem and the West Bank at least 70 years to double
their numbers. Given, however, that most who leave are younger members of
the community then it is most likely that the growth rate will even become
· This all means that by 2020 the growth rate of
the Christian population is expected to be zero percent. If, however, major
problems develop then the Christian numbers would most likely be reduced
further leading to the shrinking of Christian communities in the Holy Land.
· While Christians will not disappear from the Holy
Land, the viability of their communities and churches as vibrant entities
would most likely be negatively affected by the exit of younger members of
· Aside from the demographic aspects, proportionately
more Palestinian Christians are doing better on some socioeconomic indicators
than the general population. This could be because they are overwhelmingly
an urban population living in the cities. It also could reflect the educational
and professional skills that they have acquired and that contribute to bettering
their employment and job prospects.
· On education, especially till the secondary level,
the advantageous gap that the Christians used to have has now disappeared.
Still, there are proportionately more Christians enrolled in Universities
and higher learning institutions here and abroad than the general population.
· Christian Palestinians, when asked to place themselves
on a social class scale are more likely to place themselves in upper class
and less likely to place themselves in lower class. But two thirds of the
Christian Palestinian population, like the general population, place themselves
in Middle Class.
· Christians are characterized by a smaller family
size. Extended family relationships while present are not as important as
they are in other groups of the population.
· Christian Palestinians tend to be more skilled
in foreign languages, in the use of the internet and in being open to international
· A good number of Palestinian Christians, estimated
in the Jerusalem – Bethlehem area, at no less than 25% of the Christian labor
force work in Church Related Organizations, either directly employed by the
Church or indirectly in the various civil society organizations linked to
the different Churches.
Need for a Clear Socio Economic and Political Vision for Palestine
But aside from these statistics and figures, the major challenge today to
Palestinian Christians and in fact to all Palestinians is one that revolves
around the question of "Where Do We Go from Here?"
In order to address this challenge, five factors need to be considered:
1) The first thing that comes to mind is the need to end
Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
2) The second thing that gives some space for optimism
is the election of Mr. Mahmoud Abbas (Abou Mazen) as President for the Palestinians.
3) The third factor has to do with what kind of a political,
economic and social system would we Palestinians want to have?
4) The fourth element that needs to be considered is the
role of the Church, both local and international, in supporting Palestinians
as they seek to direct themselves to the future.
5) The fifth factor has to do with the nature of peace
and whether it is going to be restricted to Palestinians and Israelis or
would it extend to all in the region?
1) On the first factor, it is important to highlight that an end to Israeli
occupation is the only promise for a genuine peace between us and the Israelis.
No Palestinian would disagree with this statement, regardless of religious
or other background characteristic. So as Palestinian Christians we need
to work for an end to Israeli occupation. Our style is characterized by non-violence
and by the biblical injunction of seeing God in others. This is as effective
a method to end occupation as any. This is not restricted to Palestinian
Christians as a majority of our Palestinian compatriots believe that we can
achieve the ending of Israeli occupation through nonviolent means. But Israeli
occupation must end as a necessary step to dealing with the question of where
do we go from here.
2) The election of Mahmoud Abbas, Abou Mazen, as Palestinian President is
welcome news. He brings to office a new and invigorating breath of professionalism
and pragmatism. He is promoting a sense of responsibility internally and
is dealing with issues with Israel in a practical and concrete manner. His
leadership qualities are very promising and we should as Palestinians support
him as we try to find out where we go from here. But the promises of this
new leadership and the potential for their fulfillment depend also on positive
developments between Palestinians and Israelis. Also world and regional support,
chief among which is the US Administration and the EU, among other important
actors are crucial for the success of Abu Mazen.
3) The future of Palestinian Christians in this Land is not solely determined
by the achievement of Peace between us and the Israelis. Another important
factor is the kind of social, political and economic system that we will
be able to develop in the next decade or two. While I am not particularly
worried about the rise of "fundamentalism" as a cause for Christian Palestinian
emigration, I am more concerned that the socio-economic and political system
would be one characterized by pluralism, secularism and openness. Survey
results in the last ten to fifteen years have pointed out that Islamization
of society was not a cause for Christian Palestinian emigration; rather it
was the political situation and the lack of jobs and employment opportunities
as a result that led hundreds of Christians to leave. But it is fair
to say that Palestinian Christians, as people who opt to Middle Class style
of living, would feel much more comfortable in a secular and non-theocratic
form of government. So, the preference of Palestinian Christians is for a
political system that is secular and for an economic and social system that
gives preference to individual choices and free enterprise. This is not necessarily
a Palestinian Christian preference as many Moslem compatriots show the same
preferences. It is a healthy thing that as we engage in searching for our
future, there are also religious principles that guide the discussion. We
are, after all, a highly religious society but our concern is not with practicing
religion but with how religion should not be misused/abused by some to press
their view of the world on others.
As Palestinians, we pride ourselves that what links us with each other, Moslems
and Christians alike, is the dialogue of life. Throughout centuries we have
developed respect and sensitivity to each other's religious traditions and
styles of life. Certainly, Christians the secularists they are in political
and social matters would like to see that secular nationalism is the order
of the day and the core of the Palestinian vision for the future. This is
one of the reasons why Christian youth tend to be found in Palestinian political
organizations of the center, Fateh, and the left of center, such as People's
Party, Popular Front and Democratic Front. We as Palestinian Christians do
convey the message that politicizing Islam leaves us with an uneasy feeling
because we do feel that we are left out when the stress is on Islam as an
organizing political and social religion. Our bonds with our Moslem compatriots
were always bonds of nationalism and when they stress bonds of religion,
this poses a problem to us on identity, future and also on vision of the
society. Not that we do not want them to practice their religion and live
out its principles and guidelines but we also want them to be aware of our
presence and of our feeling as an integral part of the society that should
not be left out because of religion.
4) The Church has an important role to play in the Holy Land. This land is
not simply the place of roots, it is also the place where Christian Palestinians
live as citizens whether in Palestine or in Israel. This was beautifully
pointed out in the Statement issued by Heads of Churches on Jerusalem as
the Place of Roots issued in November 1994. Accordingly, and in spite of
their small numbers Christians of the Holy Land have as much right as any
other group to input the process of peace making and eventual reconciliation.
In fact, the Christian dimension in the present conflict is so important
as reminder to those who reduce the conflict to religion, on the Jewish and
Moslem sides, that the conflict and its solution is not a strictly religious
question but a political and nationalist question. The Church, therefore,
is called upon to emphasize the Christian dimension and to remind all that
our presence here is not simply a question of numbers as it is a rich heritage
of history and belonging to the land where Christianity first started. The
international Church is called upon to back the local Church in its effort
at affirming the Christian role in the Holy Land. The support is both concrete
and spiritual. In concrete terms, the preoccupation is to help Christian
Palestinians help themselves and this way to give an added incentive to stay
put in this place of roots. On spiritual support, it is always uplifting
to us when we see brothers and sisters in the faith come in contact and solidarity
with our Local Church; its faithful and leaders. This gives us hope that
the Universal Church cares and that it wants all of us to live peaceful lives
in our society and with our neighbors across. But the essential element in
the Church message should be justice.
When we speak of Jerusalem as the place of roots and when we aspire that
one day there will be light shining forth from Jerusalem to affirm peace
and to promote reconciliation and we see what the Israeli authorities are
doing from enforcing the Absentee Property Law of 1950 which robs Palestinians,
without reference to religion, of their property because they are living
in Beit Jala or Bethlehem or Ramallah, beside the isolation and other measure
s adopted by Israel, in recent weeks, to separate East Jerusalem from the
West Bank, this all makes one pessimistic and sad. These measures and
policies of the Israeli government not only contradict even the US official
position on Jerusalem but also all human, legal and international agreements
and resolutions on the city and are thus cause to raise serious objection
to them by Churches, International Organizations and Governments. Especially
disappointing is the choice of timing by the Israeli government and rightist
circles within it to enforce the Absentee Property Law in Jerusalem when
Abu Mazen and the Palestinians have been seriously talking about a truce
5) The Oslo accords and the cold peace prevailing between Egypt and Israel
on the one hand and Jordan and Israel on the other point to the disappointments
and frustrations of peace on paper and not peace in hearts. A genuine peace
between us and the Israelis necessitate doing everything to bring hearts
closer together: separation walls and other checkpoints and measures aimed
at securing the Israelis will not do the trick unless there is no longer
a need for these separation methods. They are in fact a reminder of the absence
of real and genuine peace. The role of the United States is crucial in peacemaking
among Israel and its neighbors. Not simply because it is the one superpower
in today's world but especially so because of its unfortunate direct involvement
in Iraq and with Israel, ever since its establishment. The US needs face
uplifting among Arabs and Moslems. Even if the US administrations continue
unashamedly supporting Israel, at least to balance their bad image with the
Arabs and Moslems, they could advance the prospects of peace between Israelis
and Palestinians. This is said because we have given long time ago on the
possibility that the US administrations would stand for justice and fairness
in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Church should not be too diplomatic but
should approach the difficult and problematic issue of peacemaking and reconciliation
between Arabs and Israelis with conviction and determination. It should knock
on the doors of American diplomats, policy makers and other influential people
and groups to highlight the need to end in a just manner the apparently interminable
conflict in the Holy Land.
Palestinian Christians, like other Palestinians, have become so pragmatic
in their approach and response to a prolonged oppressive occupation that
they have lost the sense that some of those biblical miracles used to give
us in terms of hope and inspiration. Your presence here, however, still raises
hope that the caring of people like you, your churches, your constituencies,
ordinary folks in your communities would increase the likelihood of a miracle
in this part of the world. We do our share, regardless of how modest; I am
also sure that there are Israelis and Jews who do their share as well, what
we expect from you is that you continue with doing your share. With all of
us working, each in her /his way, who knows a miracle may happen that will
restore our faith in biblical miracles and in the religious traditions and
miracles of our Moslem and Jewish neighbors.
Dr. Bernard Sabella
Associate Professor of Sociology
Department of Social Sciences
Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees
Middle East Council of Churches