The upcoming celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is an opportune time to reflect on the fate of Palestinian Christians in Israel, the Occupied Territories and, in particular, Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. Their numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate due to the pressure of Israeli occupation, the ongoing constraints on movement, discriminatory policies, home demolitions, the arbitrary arrests and confiscation of lands.
Unfounded claims put forth by the Israeli government that Palestinian Christians are leaving because of religious tensions between them and their Muslim brethren are unfounded. Fourteen centuries of common life between Christians and Muslims is not something either community would ever cast aside lightly.
There are varied estimates on how many Palestinian Christians are still living in Palestine today, compared with the period before 1948 when the state of Israel was established atop Palestinian towns and villages. Regardless of the source, there is near consensus that the number of Christian inhabitants of Palestine has dropped by nearly ten-fold in the last 70 years.
A population census carried out by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in 2017 concluded that there were 47,000 Palestinian Christians living in Palestine – with reference to the Occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Ninety-eight percent of Palestine’s Christians live in the West Bank – concentrated mostly in the cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem – while the remainder, a tiny Christian community of merely 1,100 people, or two percent, lives in the impoverished and besieged Gaza Strip.
When Israel occupied Gaza along with the rest of historic Palestine in 1967, an estimated 2,300 Christians lived there. Years of occupation, horrific wars and an unforgiving siege have decimated the community whose historic roots date back to two millennia.
The demographics of Bethlehem, too, have dramatically shifted over the last seventy years when the city was eight-six percent Christian. Currently, with only thirteen percent of the Bethlehem district available for Palestinian use, because of the illegal Israeli settlements, the Christian population has dropped to twelve percent, merely 11,000 people.
The most optimistic estimates place the overall number of Palestinian Christians at less than two percent. The correlation between the shrinking Christian population in Palestine, and the Israeli occupation and apartheid should be unmistakable.
By separating Palestinian Christians from one another, and from their holy sites, the Israeli government hopes to weaken the socio-cultural and spiritual connections that give Palestinians their collective identity. Its strategy is predicated on the idea that a combination of factors – immense economic hardships, permanent siege and apartheid, the severing of communal and spiritual bonds – will eventually drive all Christians out of their Palestinian homeland.
Israel is keen to present the ‘conflict’ in Palestine as a religious one so that it can, in turn, brand itself as a beleaguered Jewish state in the midst of a massive Muslim population in the Middle East. The continued existence of Palestinian Christians to the modern Palestinian narrative and identity does not factor nicely into Israeli’s agenda.
Please remember the Palestinian Christians in your prayers and thoughts this Christmas season.
Cathy Sultan’s book Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with Both Sides can be purchased here.: Amazon