image of jerusalem 2013

We are Christians of the Holy Land!
Indigenous Pilgrims on a Journey of Faith

26 December   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Hélène Mickel is a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem, the little town that stars so prominently this week in our Christmas carols. But Hélène is also part of an indigenous faith community comprising just over 15% of the overall population of Bethlehem today. She has stayed in her native town whilst a large majority of her family and friends have left already for more hopeful, promising or even cheerful foreign climes.

Haig Hagopian is an Armenian Christian from Jerusalem, the city that is six miles and 20 minutes north of Bethlehem. Haig also happens to be my brother, and our family have lived in Jerusalem ever since the early 1900's. Indeed, Jerusalem was once bustling with local Christians, and two of the four quarters of the Old City (Christian and Armenian) were a living testimony to their centuries-old presence. Today, although my brother and his immediate family have chosen to remain in Jerusalem, many Christians have left in search of more dignified, politically stable and economically viable alternatives.

Hélène and Haig, hailing from two places that symbolise the nativity and resurrection of the Christian faith, are echoes of a small but robust community who were met last week by four pilgrims from England. The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Moderator of the Free Churches, Reverend David Coffey and the Primate of the Armenian Church of Great Britain, Nathan Hovhannisian, undertook a "pilgrimage of solidarity" with the Christians of the Holy Land in order to express their support to those beleaguered communities at a time of deep political, economic, religious and social pressures.

So what do Christians like Hélène and Haig witness in this holy land of so many pilgrimages but also of so few visions?

Some sixty short years ago, Christians constituted well over 25% of the overall Palestinian population in the Holy Land, and pretty much 80% of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Today, those numbers have dwindled drastically, largely because of the political conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. No matter how people choose to interpret facts or massage realities, the political situation has been - and remains to be - the primary cause for the alarming reduction in the number of indigenous Christians in this biblical land. Christians have lost hope in a land that witnessed the birth of hope.

Over the past thirty-nine years, the length of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, Israeli settlers have colonised Palestinian land - often encouraged, and frequently funded, by successive Israeli governments. The physical, demographic and economic integrity of the land - and thereby of the people living on it - has been eroded by deliberate Israeli occupation policies that are not only contrary to International law and UN Resolutions but also strive to get rid of Palestinian demography (the people) whilst retaining Palestinian geography (the land). In Bethlehem alone, an ugly segregationist wall relentlessly encircles this town as it does other Palestinian areas, separating one Palestinian from another. With secondary and smaller cement walls buttressing this wall, and with 27 Israeli Jews-only settlements on Palestinian land, along with a myriad checkpoints cutting off one town from another, the resources of this town - and many others - are being snuffed out and have resulted in the creation of small gaols within Palestine. The concomitant consequences have been unemployment, poverty, socio-economic meltdown, despair and violence. Is it any wonder that Palestinian Christians are leaving in droves?

Israeli policies today are reminiscent of the corrosive policies of any apartheid system. They are being exercised in Bethlehem and other Palestinian territories (where Christians also live in small numbers amongst Palestinian Muslims). Is it also any wonder that some Christian leaders have spoken out vociferously against such practices that have condemned their communities to this downward spiral? How much longer can such weakened communities resist without any resistance?

But in focusing upon Israeli occupation, it is also honest to look inwardly at other problems plaguing Palestinian Christians in this once-golden land. Those two contributory problems are Christian-Muslim relations and Western Christianity.

When I was political and ecumenical consultant to the Churches of Jerusalem during the Oslo years, I recall how Michel Sabbah, Patriarch of the Latin-rite Catholic Church of Jerusalem, helped nip in the bud any complaints about tensions between Christians and Muslims in different parts of Palestine. His office would call the late Chairman Yasser Arafat's representatives to seek their mediation. Today, those conduits of conflict resolution are more complex and less discernible, and the tensions between Palestinian Christians and Muslims are more perceptible. I believe this is due in part to a growing political Islamisation within cross-sections of Palestinian society in the West Bank (and in Gaza, where a small pocket of largely Orthodox and Catholic Christians still live today). Some of those Muslims have become less tolerant, spurn diversity and consider non-Muslims as heretics who do not belong to the land. Such attitudes are due to the ill-educated or even fanatical belief that those Christians are linked to the larger Christian Church in the West (Greece, Rome, London) and are therefore alien - neither Middle Eastern nor Arab! One can hear some Bethlehemites speaking out - often discreetly - about current practices of physical and structural violence whereby Christian shops are the last ones to be frequented for business and where Palestinian Christians are the last to receive financial aid from local authorities. Talk to a Christian ironmonger, a butcher, a secretary, a verger, and one detects those worries simmering under the veneer of pan-Palestinian nationalism.

Much as this is an unlucky development detracting from the collective effort necessary to focus on the more central objective of ridding Palestinians of Israeli occupation, it is a reality that is featuring increasingly in the lives of everyday Christians.

But is the radicalisation of Islam the only reason why a small but growing number of Palestinian Muslims are looking more charily at Palestinian Christians? Has Palestine become an almost Lebanese clone where confessional politics are taking hold of what has for long decades been a fiercely secular and inclusive society? I for one remember growing up in a neighbourhood of northern Jerusalem that had many Muslim neighbours who were not only 'neighbours' but also friends. I am sure that both Hélène and Haig could tell many stories - and still can for the most part - about their own experiences of respectful coexistence and mutual respect. After all, Palestinians have almost always been united by their political aims, not divided by their religious affiliations. One must not forget that some of the incipient Palestinian liberation leaders were Christian, as are also some politicians and delegates today. But ... one must not deliberately turn into an ostrich either.

I think that the tensions fomented by Islamist radicalism, over and above the Israeli occupation, are also exacerbated by fundamentalist evangelical Christian constituencies in the West (largely in the USA) who purport that the Christian faith equates itself with an unquestioning support of Israel. They claim this is because God chose the Israelites as His people and entered into a covenant with them. It is therefore the duty of Christians, those groups claim, to defend Israel (as a political entity) and Israelis (as a demographic entity) over the whole of biblical land Israel (as a geographic entity).

In my opinion, such Christians are not only limited in the periscope of their faith but are also harming 'other' Christians by adhering rigidly to the tenets of the Old Testament, ignoring the transforming message of the New Testament, being selective in their scriptural and prophetic quotations, and not rendering Israelis today accountable for their policies against Palestinians. Surely, to be hemmed in by a faith perception that is literal and exclusivist is not how Jesus - the Son of God whose birth in Bethlehem we celebrate these days - will have acted today. But such Christians also believe that the only way for the Messiah to return to earth (and therefore fulfil prophesies in the Book of Revelation) is through the in-gathering of Jews (in a modern-day Israel) so they could be converted to Christianity and pave the way for the Second Coming of Christ.  

I cannot see many Jews getting terribly excited by this Christian plan. I wouldn't - frankly! But there exists today a finite political alliance between both parties whereby Jews overlook the underlying eschatological motivations of some Western Christians in return for their unstinting financial and political support of Israel. The Old Testament has become the suitable nexus between [some] Christians and [some] Jews, at the expense of the New Testament and the indigenous Christians.

So where do the Christians of the Holy Land stand today? Like the four pilgrims from England who visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem a few days ago, can they too continue to be pilgrims who fulfil peacefully their journeys of faith?

I believe that the three existential challenges I highlighted are together leading Palestinian Christians like Hélène in Bethlehem and Haig in Jerusalem to re-consider their options. Patriarch Michel Sabbah would probably advocate that Palestinian Christians are cross-bearing witnesses, whose commandment is one of love, of showing how to build a healthy and inclusive society, and of being true bridges with the outside world. In this, he is also underlining the fact that Jews, Christians and Muslims are united through Abraham and Sarah, hewn from the same rock (as written in the Old Testament). Therefore, it becomes quintessential to find ways for co-existence in this land between those three monotheistic faiths.

But how does one root in let alone affirm the Christian presence in the Holy Land? In Bethlehem, for instance, in order to dissuade young Palestinian families from leaving the Holy Land, the likes of Franciscan Father Amjad Sabbara are building new flats and offering them in return for low-rent tenancies. This is a practical - and critical - tool for helping deal with emigration. But if we mean to tackle the root causes of the problems facing Christian in the Holy Land today rather than deal with the symptoms alone, the first station should be an end to Israeli occupation and its illegal practices. Palestinians must be set free from captivity, imprisonment, separation walls, settlements, ID confiscations or incursions and allowed instead to pursue their own destinies. Then, only then, could Palestinians be expected to put their own house in order - presently pretty much in shambles - and become more accountable as they build at long last an independent state. These, I hope, would be some of the impressions etched on the minds of the four pilgrims who visited the Holy Land from England last week.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   26 December


Print or download a copy of this article.


Google: Yahoo: MSN: