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Christians are few in the Holy Land as history, economics take toll

There has been growing alarm in some Christian circles that the local Palestinian Christian community is disappearing. The statistics are indeed alarming. Christians were the overwhelming majority in the Holy Land, with only a tiny Jewish presence, when the Muslims took over the area in the seventh century. During the subsequent centuries of Muslim rule, Christian numbers dwindled. Christians and Jews were tolerated by Muslims, but were second-class citizens, and many Christians converted to Islam.

Yet at the beginning of British rule of the area in the 1920s Christians were still 20 percent of the Palestinian Arab community. Today they have dwindled to a bare 4.5 percent of Palestinian Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Many fear that local Christians will become so few that the Christian presence will be only monuments staffed by foreign priests, rather than a living Christian church. A Christian church that can trace its roots to the first Christians, a church that lives in the storied sites of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth will have disappeared.

There is a widespread perception in the United States that this dwindling of the Palestinian Christians is due to Muslim hostility, that Muslim militants who desire a Muslim state have made life intolerable for Christians. This perception is strongly contested by Palestinian Christians. In recent trips to the Holy Land, Christians I spoke with insisted that Palestinians see themselves as one people, Muslim and Christian. The Palestinian Liberation Organization, led by Yasir Arafat -- himself married to a woman of Christian family -- is committed to a secular democratic state. While the dwindling Christian presence should be of concern to Western Christians, this question needs to be put in a larger historical and socioeconomic context.

Although Christians have been a historic community in the Holy Land from the first century, they have been deeply fragmented over the centuries by the various schisms that have rent the Christian church. They have also suffered from ecclesiastic colonialism from dominant churches allied with imperial powers in the West.

In 451 the Council of Chalcedon, which decided the orthodox formula for the two natures of Christ, split the Greek and Latin churches that accepted this formula from churches of the Middle East and Egypt, many of which did not accept the formula. These non-Chalcedonian Oriental churches became separate communions, the Syrian Jacobite, Armenian and Coptic churches. These Christians were persecuted by the Byzantine Orthodox, centered in the Eastern Roman empire of Constantinople, who sought to force them to accept the Orthodox formula. When the Muslims took over the area, their rule was passively accepted by many of these non-Chalcedonian Christians who saw themselves as being delivered from Byzantine rule.

During the crusades, Latin Christians invaded the Holy Land and treated the local Christians as infidels as much as the Muslims. However, the friendly ties established between the Muslim rulers and Francis of Assisi resulted in the Franciscans being given the oversight of Christian places in the Holy Land, such as Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. This Franciscan presence is still very evident. Foreign priests typically run major Christian sites, so that local Christians are excluded from control of their own sacred sites.

In the 18th century, Rome established contacts with both old Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches, creating branches of these churches in communion with Rome. But the effect of this was to further fragment these historical churches. Uniate branches were allowed to keep their historic rites, but split from their historic communities.

This Western colonialism of Palestinian Christianity continued when Europeans sought control of the Holy Land, beginning in the late 19th century. The French allied with local Roman Catholic Christians. German Lutherans, English Anglicans and Scottish Presbyterians sought to evangelize the area. While they began with the intent to convert Jews and Muslims, their actual effect was to further split local Christians, drawing mainly from the old Oriental and Orthodox churches.

This fragmentation continues today with American Mormons and evangelicals establishing their footholds, often drawing local Christians who transfer to Mormon or evangelical churches because of the educational opportunities they offer. The result of this history of ecclesiastical colonialism is that the dwindling Palestinian Christians are splintered into every form of Christianity. Many Western Christians who visit the Shrine of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem are scandalized by the cacophony of competing Christianities, each of which (not including Protestants) has staked out their turf in the sacred shrine.

The dwindling of Palestinian Christians has been tied to educational advantages offered by Western Christians, each seeking their constituency in the Holy Land. Gaining the advantages of Western education allowed Palestinian Christians to immigrate to the West in increasing numbers. Ironically the Western Christian presence, instead of building up the local Christian community, has been a major force in destroying it.

Eastern Christians, as a minority in the Muslim Middle East, have in recent decades sought to improve their relations with each other. In the Middle East Council of Churches, established in 1974, all the Christians of the regions, from Old Catholics to Orthodox to Latins to Protestants are members. Palestinian Christians also have been active in creating ecumenical ties among themselves, seeking to create a sense of the Palestinian local church made up of all these separated communities, but the historic rivalries die hard.

Today the primary reason for Palestinian Christian immigration is not Muslim hostility, but the intolerable conditions of life under Israeli rule, whether in the West Bank, Gaza or in Israel, where Palestinians have nominal citizenship but unequal opportunities within what is defined as a “Jewish state.” There are tensions between Christians and Muslims in cities such as Nazareth, but this is in large part due to the Muslim perception that the Christians, represented by foreign clergy, have power far out of proportion to their numbers in the city. But the primary impetus for immigration is economic. It is the educated middle class, especially Christians advantaged in this regard, but also Muslims, who are likely to seek to immigrate because their economic opportunities are so poor.

Western Christians concerned to stem the disappearance of Palestinian Christians need to recognize how they contribute to this flight. Giving local Christians control of their own sacred places; supporting ecumenical relations among Christians, rather than rivalry; and above all, seeking a just solution to the Palestinian/Israel conflict that would allow Palestinians to live in peace and some reasonable prosperity in their own homeland: These are primary steps to this end. Western Christian pilgrims need to meet and listen to the voices of Palestinian Christians, rather than ignoring them, while they visit ancient stones.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999