Christians in Bethlehem: Where is the discrimination?

By Muna Hamzeh-Muhaisen

(published in Palestine Report: October 31, 1997)

Bethlehem - Many residents of the Bethlehem area agree that their mixed Muslim and Christian heritage is what makes their district unique.

Churches and convents often overlook mosques, such as the Church of Nativity, which overlooks the Mosque of Omar across Manger Square. On Fridays, the Square is filled with Muslim worshipers who come in large numbers to attend to the Friday sermon while on Sundays, immaculately dressed Christian men and women walk across the Square on their way to church. Often times, the sound of church bells blends in with the call to prayer at the nearby mosque. In downtown Bethlehem, conservatively dressed Muslim women walk alongside Christian women in knee-high skirts and short-sleeved shirts. Muslim and Christian shops and restaurants are located next to each other, with Muslim shops closing on Friday and Christian shops closing on Sunday.

This contrast has been a part of Bethlehem as long as everyone can remember, and while the once predominantly Christian district is now predominantly Muslim, everyone still thinks of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour as Christian towns. The mayors, and deputy mayors, of all three towns are Christian as well as two of the district's four legislative council members. Neither the Muslim nor Christian communities have a problem with co-existence, primarily because both communities regard themselves as being Palestinian first.

Yet, it seems that Israel would like to have the world believe that the Christian community in Palestine is being unjustly and fiercely persecuted.

On October 22, an Israel Radio news broadcast reported that the Palestinian Authority is persecuting Palestinian Christians.

Two days later, the Jerusalem Post published an Israeli government report, alleging that Christians in PA areas are being subjected to "brutal and relentless persecution," and are "rapidly emigrating" from these areas.

The government report claims that Christian cemeteries are being vandalized, churches burglarized, while monasteries have had their telephone lines cut off. The report further claims that "Islamic militants fearlessly harass Christian youngsters", adding that the PA has taken control of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, and other churches, and is pressuring Christian leaders "into serving as a mouthpiece for Yasser Arafat and opponents of Israel." Palestinian reaction to the radio news broadcast was swift. Christian mayors, legislative council members and representatives of Christian institutions in the Bethlehem area issued a statement on October 24, strongly condemning Israel Radio's "cheap and malicious publicity," and accusing it of seeking to "disunite the Palestinian people."

Other Palestinians used the pages of the Internet to voice their anger with the Jerusalem Post report.

Father Labib Kobti, US Representative of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, wrote, "we consider it as a mere propaganda against our Muslim brothers that only benefits the Zionists and Israel."

The Municipality of Bethlehem and the Bethlehem police told Palestine Report that they have never received complaints of vandalism or burglaries from any of the area churches, except for one burglary at a convent in Bethany. According to Lieutenant Halimeh Qardahji of the Bethlehem police, the robber, who was caught, was a new employee at the convent. "When the sisters from the convent came to retrieve the stolen items, they thanked us and told us that the Israeli police never took their complaints of robberies seriously."

Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, Pastor of the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, says that his house was robbed once in 1991, when Bethlehem was still under occupation, while his car was stolen twice. "There have been no robberies since the PA has taken over," he says. "On the contrary, there is a greater sense of security now than there was under occupation." As for vandalizing Christian cemeteries, Rev. Raheb says that several cemeteries were vandalized during the occupation. Some were vandalized by Israeli settlers and some were vandalized by Muslim and Christian youth, who, as it later turned out, were on drugs."

In response to the Israeli claim that the PA is controlling churches and church leaders, Bethlehem Mayor, Hanna Nasser, told Palestine Report that he has never heard of such a thing. "Our churches have complete freedom and I've never heard that they've been under pressure." Rev. Raheb thinks that the whole issue is mere Israeli propaganda. "If they mean the presence of the Palestinian police inside the Church of the Nativity, this has been the case since ancient times and does not meant that they are interfering in the policies of church leaders."

Police Sergeant Hala Harb, a Christian from Bethlehem, says that the presence of the police in the church is necessary in order to assist employees of the Ministry of Tourism in organizing the flow of the large number of tourists who visit the church each day. "We also need the police there to ensure that tourists do not get harassed," says Sgt. Harb, citing an incident last week when a female tourist complained to the police of being pinched by two young men. "The police promptly escorted the two men outside the church."

Sgt. Harb is one of five Christian policemen and women who work in the 270-member police force in the district of Bethlehem. "Our Muslim colleagues have always treated us with respect and we never thought of ourselves as being Christian and their being Muslim. Sgt. Rasha Bardauil, also a Christian, agrees. "We have never faced issues of discrimination and religion was never a subject for discussion for us." Like the police force, most ministries, public and private institutions have a mixture of Muslim and Christian employees. "Our ministry has Christian directors, secretaries and tour guides, as well as several Christians who work with the tourist police," says Bajes Ismail, Director General of the Ministry of Tourism in Bethlehem. "We have always treated each other with mutual respect and have had no problems accepting each other."

Ismail says that if there is any discrimination, it is Israel's discrimination against Muslims and Christians. "Israel does not issue entry permits to Muslims and Christians who want to pray at Holy places in Jerusalem, even though it is their religious right to pray there whenever they choose," says Ismail. "Israel further discriminates against Christian pilgrims by denying them access to Bethlehem whenever a closure is imposed on the area." Ismail cites Christmas celebrations as a sign of the co-existence between Muslims and Christians. "We've had two Christmas celebrations since the PA took over Bethlehem and both times, Manger Square was packed with thousands of Christians and Muslims who came to celebrate together." Ismail points out that during the occupation, the Israeli military would erect checkpoints, forbidding area residents from joining in the Christmas celebrations.

Regarding Israel's claim that Christian Palestinians are emigrating from PA areas, no Palestinians deny that such an emigration is taking place. "Christians, and Muslims, have been emigrating from Bethlehem since 1884 for purely economic reasons," says Mayor Nasser. "Yet the number of Christian emigrants appear more rapidly because they are a minority." Rev. Raheb agrees. "Christian and Muslim emigration from Bethlehem has been taking place for the past one hundred years but because Muslims have more children, their emigration is not as noticeable as that of the Christians." The reverend also thinks that the increase in Christian emigration is due to the increasing disillusionment in the current situation. "The worsening economic situation, due to Israel's repeated closures, has led many to lose hope that there is going to be real peace in the region," he says. "What makes it easier for Christians to emigrate is the pulling factor, with many of them already having relatives who live abroad."

Rev. Raheb points out that when people lose hope, they tend to search for other things to believe in. "This is why I see a parallel between Muslim fundamentalism and Christian emigration: When a Muslim loses hope, he resorts to fundamentalism, thus emigrating psychologically. When a Christian loses hope, he emigrates geographically." (END)