Received on January 4, 2001
Deconstructing Christianity in the Holy Land
By Colin Shindler


(January 1) - The Body and the Blood: The Holy Land's Christians at the Turn of a New Millennium: A Reporter's Journey by Charles M. Sennott (Public Affairs). To Order...

There are two billion Christians worldwide - and some of them are Palestinian Arabs. About 32,000 Christian Arabs live in the West Bank and Gaza, which - when compared to their Muslim neighbors - is a minute percentage. Their numbers have decreased dramatically since 1948. Another 138,000 are estimated to live in Israel proper.

In 1995, there were fewer Christian Arabs in Israel and the Territories than under the British Mandate. At a conservative population growth of 2% per annum, there should be 420,000; instead the true figure is approximately a third of that, indicating a leakage of nearly 70% through flight and emigration.

There are twice as many Christians from Ramallah who live in Dearborn, Michigan as in Ramallah itself.

Three times as many Bethlehemite Christians live in the "Palestinian Diaspora" as in the city itself.

The emigration of Christians started during World War I when the Ottomans discriminated against them and suspected them of sympathizing with their co-religionists in Europe. Many left for Latin America where they are still - and ironically - called "turcos."

In 1948, 35% of the total Christian

population fled or was expelled during the War of Independence. Today the average Christian is aged 31 compared to 18 for the general Palestinian-Arab population. There are few men and many women - and since intermarriage with Muslims is frowned upon, if you haven't found a husband by the time you have reached the lofty age of 30, then it's all over.

Significantly, Suha Arafat converted to Islam - at least publicly - out of recognition that political necessity dictated that the first lady of Palestine could never be a Christian.

But if you thought that the Jews were plagued by schism and religious territorialism, Christians are well on the way to mounting a challenge in this contest for theological atomization. The largest number of Christians follow the Orthodox Eastern rite and practice a number of geographical

variations - Greek, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Russian. Then come the Uniate Catholics - the Maronites and the Melkites.

And bringing up the rear are a host of minor denominations - Lutherans and Anglicans, Baptists and Evangelicals.

As Charles Sennott, former Middle East bureau chief for The Boston Globe demonstrates, Christian Palestinians are a minority within a minority. Many wish to keep a low profile so as not to antagonize the Muslim majority.

Indeed, Sennott had difficulty in persuading Christians to talk about


For many Muslims, Christianity is perceived as a Western faith and therefore, by implication, pro-Israel.

The zealotry of the Christian Right in the United States, in attempting to be more Zionist-than-thou, further made Arab Christians suspect in Muslim eyes. And historically, Christians, like Jews, were expected to occupy the inferior status of dhimmi in Islamic society.

Occasional sermons labeling Christians as infidels, the burning of a Christian-owned hotel, and attacks on the home of a Christian businessman remind the Christian minority that they are indeed different.

Sennott argues that Christian's played a disproportionate role in fostering pan-Arabism (Arab nationalism) as opposed to the pan-Islamism championed in earlier times by the Ottomans and today by movements like Hamas. Both the Popular Front's George Habash and the Democratic Front's Naif Hawatmeh are Christian Palestinians - albeit lapsed ones.

The secularized Hanan Ashrawi dismisses her Christian background in one paragraph in her autobiography. In conversation with Sennott, Ashrawi's background is a sensitive issue. With Islam ascendent it does not sit well with her Palestinian nationalism. Despite her robotic emphasis on "the struggle of Palestinian people" and the deflection of all blame onto "the Israeli occupation" when speaking to the Western media, Ashrawi makes a private distinction between public reality and public relations.

Before the current intifada, in conversation with Sennott, she had sharply attacked Hamas and its influence in shaping the Palestinian Authority's legal system, especially the use of Koranic law and the adoption of Islam as the national religion.

Nevertheless, for reasons of mutual interest, local Christian leaders maintain excellent relations with the Palestinian Authority.

Unlike the "popular committees" of the intifada of the 1980s, the current violence suggests a predominance of Islamists to the exclusion of Christians. Ashrawi notwithstanding, the Christian secularized intelligentsia does not play much of a role in the Palestinian Authority.

As Sennott explains: "They were not going to pick up stones and they didn't tend to carry guns. In this crisis atmosphere, there was no room for criticism of Arafat, or the Palestinian Authority, or corruption, or human rights violations, or the lack of freedom of speech."

Not that the PLO doesn't seek to exploit Christians for public relations purposes. Sennott reports allegations that, during non-violent anti-Israel demonstrations held in Christian areas, to foster confrontation Fatah has sent in youths to attack IDF soldiers with rocks.

Sennott writes at length about the American evangelicals' support for Israel and their pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Some US Christians tend to identify with the Israeli secular Right rather than the Orthodox Right, as Sennott suggests.

This is because these Christian supporters define Israel in terms of the biblical borders of the Land of Israel. Yet Sennott does not mention that the US Christian Right differentiates between the Jews of Israel - who are an instrument in bringing about the second coming - and American Jewry who are seen as political and social liberals and legitimate targets of conversionist efforts.

Evangelicals have indeed raised millions to assist the aliya of Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. But it is more difficult to discern the funding of Jewish settlers on the West Bank and Gaza that Sennott suggests.

If Sennott has detailed evidence of such assistance, then he should publish it.

Sennott has written a very good account of the dilemmas and difficulties of being a Christian Arab in the Holy Land in the 21st century. His rendition of events during the past years is fair and balanced, somewhat unpalatable as opposed to biased.

Apart from odd errors such as Menachem Begin and the Irgun attempting to conquer Haifa rather than Jaffa in 1948, this book is highly informative. Unlike most current reportage of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is both intelligent and instructive.

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Book excerpt: - At the first station of the cross on the Via Dolorosa, where tradition holds that Jesus shouldered his heavy wooden burden and stumbled toward his crucifixion, the rocks came raining down. Then the shooting started.

Thousands of Palestinian Muslims who had just finished their Friday prayer at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City were setting out on what the Palestinian leadership had declared would be a "Day of Rage." They hurled rocks at Israeli soldiers. And the soldiers opened fire.

This Friday - October 6, 2000 - marked the end of the first week of the new intifada, or "uprising," against the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. The rock throwing, reminiscent of the first intifada which began in 1987, was highly orchestrated by Palestinian political leaders. The Palestinian shabab, which roughly translates as "the boys," lined up on the Old City's Ottoman-era ramparts near St. Stephen's Gate. They climbed atop the interior northern wall of the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary.

To Muslims, this is a sacred sanctuary where they believe the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven in the seventh century. It is one of the holiest shrines of Islam, where the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque stand as a symbol for Muslims around the globe.

But this 35-acre plot of earth is also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, where the Second Temple once stood. All that remains of the destroyed temple is the Western Wall. For many Israelis and Jews worldwide, the capture of the Old City and the Temple Mount in the 1967 Six Day War stood as a symbol of return to a unified Jerusalem after 2,000 years of exile.

For most Christians, the Temple Mount represents still something else. It was the holy place where Jesus railed against the circle of priests who ran the Temple, even violently turning over the tables of the money changers and those who sold animals for ritual sacrifice as an offering to God. All of this activity at the Temple, Jesus felt, missed the point of the Jewish faith, of what it meant to live a life in the covenant with God and how to uphold the Law. According to the gospels, he predicted its destruction.

The Christian Palestinian shop owners on the Via Dolorosa and even a few Western Christian pilgrims scurrying to get out of the cross fire between the shabab throwing rocks from their Muslim shrine and the soldiers of the Jewish state firing back at them, probably were not taking time to ponder how Christians view this sacred space in the history of man's relationship to God... I was with a small group of reporters crouched just inside the Ecce Homo arch, which marks the first station of the cross, watching this scene unfold just as the column of Israeli soldiers advanced from the second station up to the arch. I leaned up against the Herodian stone of Ecce Homo which dates back to the first century A.D., just as the first bursts of gunfire broke out. The arch marks the place where tradition holds Jesus was condemned by Pontius Pilate where he was scorned and beaten and a crown of thorns placed on his head, and Pilate stood Jesus before a mob and said, "Ecce Homo," or "Behold the man." According to the Gospels, the mob shouted back, "Crucify him!" The advancing Israeli forces opened with volleys of tear gas canisters and then sound grenades which exploded and echoed off the stones of the Old City, a rock quarry of history and archeology and faith and war.

I had no idea when I set out to write about my journey through the Holy Land that it would have such a dramatic ending, with fighting on the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem...

Back in the blazing heat of summer, the Camp David peace talks had offered inspiring hope that a final settlement was at hand. Then the talks had dramatically collapsed. Now, in these first cool nights of autumn, the Middle East was washed in the deceptive grays of dusk-caught between the fading light of peace and the enveloping darkness of a war.