With Christmas just around the corner, many will soon be singing carols about that silent night in the little town of Bethlehem. Two thousand years later, it is worth asking what has become of the biblical town of Bethlehem and its Christians.
Like many other Christian populations in the Middle East, Christians in the Palestinian Territories have left the region en masse in recent decades, making their survival in their ancient homeland more and more dubious. Most reports, and Palestinian Christians themselves, blame the Israeli occupation for squeezing them out. In the Kairos Document, issued by prominent Palestinian Christian leaders in 2009 as a plea to the international community, the diminishing Christian population in Palestine “is one of the dangerous consequences, both of this conflict, and of the local and international paralysis and failure to find a comprehensive solution to the problem.” The statement narrows the blame to one culprit, Israel, suggesting a complete disregard for other factors hindering Christians’ ability to survive in the area. While being stateless and living under occupation does significantly contribute to the everyday challenges of Palestinians, a deeper look at their indigenous Christian population reveals the reason for their exodus is a bit more complicated.
In the Palestinian Territories, religious freedom is an elusive concept. According to Article 4 of Palestine’s Basic Law, Islam is the official religion although “respect and sanctity of all other heavenly religions shall be maintained.” The law goes on to say shari’a shall be the main source of legislation, meaning conversion from Islam is punishable by death. Although the Palestinian Authority has never officially carried out capital punishment for converts, some communities and families have. Many Christians who come from a Muslim background feel they must hide their new faith or otherwise face ostracism, violent attacks, or death at the hands of their family or community. Unfortunately, many threats against Christians under the PA go unreported due to fear of repercussions.
From the outside, it appears there are no issues between Muslim and Christian Palestinians. In fact, some Palestinian Christians deny accusations of discrimination outright. Lebanese Christian academic Habib Malik expresses one theory for this in his article “Christians in the Land Called Holy,” which locates the unique unity between Muslim and Christian Palestinians in their mutual stand against Israel. Malik argues that Palestinian Christians’ denial of religious conflict with Muslims stems from what he calls a “dhimmi psychological state” predicated on “the urge to find ‘or to imagine and fabricate if need be’ a common cause with the ruling majority in order to dilute the existing religious differences and perhaps ease the weight of political Islam’s inevitable discrimination.”
It’s unclear what would happen if Israel weren’t in the equation. In nearly every other Middle Eastern country where Christians exist, they are discriminated against or severely persecuted.
While Palestinian Christians don’t face systematic, large-scale persecution, conversations with local Christians behind closed doors reveal discrimination is, in fact, present.
Conducting research in the West Bank this past summer, I spent considerable time with Christian families around Bethlehem. One evening as I was eating dinner with a family, a mosque right outside their home broadcasted verses from the Hadith. Shortly after the recitation ended, the father of my host family remarked, “They just cursed the Christians.” While they explained this did not happen every day, I was shocked to discover that Palestinian Christians, living in what used to be a Christian-majority town in the West Bank, are forced to listen to curses hurled at them from loudspeakers.
The situation for Christians is far more severe in Gaza than in the West Bank. After Hamas won a plurality in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, the organization used the power of the gun to take over the territory in June 2007 and imposed its radical Islamic ideology. Persecution of Christians here is masked by Hamas’ statements of goodwill toward Gaza’s small Christian population, which numbers less than 1,000 people. Declarations like the party’s 2017 political document prohibit religious bigotry and allow followers of other religions to “practice their beliefs in security and safety,” but these are empty sentiments and meaningless documents. In reality, Hamas supporters and Salafi-jihadist groups like Swords of Righteousness and the Army of Islam target Gazan Christians with forced conversions, discrimination in schools, attacks on their businesses, and in some cases even martyrdom.
Khaled, a 27-year-old Christian who managed to escape Gaza, revealed in an interview that “the city of Gaza no longer has a place for the Christians.” Discrimination, wars, and political conflict all contribute to their exodus. Attributing it to anything less is either ignorant or purposely misleading.
Where do we go from here, and can anything be done? For starters, anyone who supports Palestinian sovereignty should also advocate for the values the future Palestinian state should uphold. Religious freedom—not only codified in law but also culturally practiced—should be at the forefront of any agenda supporting a future Palestine. After all, if history is any indication of how Christian minorities fare under new predominantly Muslim states, we should fear for our Palestinian brothers and sisters’ future more than their present.
Names have been changed to protect identities.