The Situation of Palestinian Christians: Some Food for Thought
January 2004

In the mid-nineties of the twentieth century, the total number of Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip was estimated at around 49,702 distributed among the various denominations as follows:
Greek Orthodox---- 25,835------------ 52.0%
Latins----------------- 15,168------------ 30.5%
Greek Catholics ----- 2,848-------------- 5.7%
Protestants------------ 2,443------------- 4.9%
Syriacs------------------ 1,498--------------3.0%
Armenians------------- 1,500-------------- 3.0%
Copts---------------------- 250-------------- 0.5%
Ethiopians---------------- 60-------------- 0.1%
Maronites---------------- 100-------------- 0.2%
(Source: Christians in the Holy Land, Edited by Michael Prior and William Taylor, London, 1994 originally from a compilation by Dr. Bernard Sabella based on different sources and estimates of the various churches in Jerusalem.)
The demographic situation has changed since the mid-nineties. Today, we speak of the Palestinian Christians being less than 2% of the entire population. Some would even suggest that we are approaching the 1.5%. The decline is not simply due to emigration, estimated among Palestinian Christians in the last three years since the start of the Second Intifada at around 2600 Christians. There is also the fact of the continuing higher birth rate among the general population and the fact that the average age of Palestinian Christians is higher than that of the entire population. Besides the marriage habits of Palestinian Christians tend to take place later in life which means the number of children per Christian family is lower than that among the average family in the general Palestinian population.
· The majority of Palestinian Christians reside in the West Bank with only 2,500 living in the Gaza Strip.

· Jerusalem by itself has the largest concentration with 10,900 Christians.

· Bethlehem (6,559 Christians) Beit Jala (6,343 Christians) and Beit Sahour (7,335 Christians) make up 20,237 Christians.

· Ramallah, a traditionally Christian town, has now 6,450 Christians and hence in 3rd place to the greater Bethlehem area and Jerusalem, in terms of Christian population figures.

· Some of the larger Villages with significant Christian populations are Zababdeh in the north of the West Bank with 2,251 Christians; Bir Zeit with 2,158 Christians Taybeh with 1,100 Christians; and Aboud with 1,017 Christians. The last three mentioned villages are in the Central West Bank in the vicinity of Ramallah.

· The Growth Rate of Palestinian Christians is estimated at 2.2 percent per annum or roughly 1,093 Christians. However, because of a high rate of emigration, it is estimated that at times of great instability and political upheaval, 500 to 600 Christians leave the West Bank each year.

· The Christian population hence does not grow annually by more than 1.0 percent at best during these difficult times. If this rate is taken to predict how the Christian population will grow in future years, there is no comfort in saying that if things continue as they are it will take the Christians of Jerusalem and the West Bank at least 70 years to double their numbers. Given, however, that most who leave are younger members of the community then it is most likely that the growth rate will even become smaller.

· This all means that by 2020 the growth rate of the Christian population is expected to be zero percent. If, however, major problems develop then the Christian numbers would most likely be reduced further leading to the shrinking of Christian communities in the Holy Land.

· While Christians will not disappear from the Holy Land, the viability of their communities and churches as vibrant entities would most likely be negatively affected by the exit of younger members of the churches.

· Aside from the demographic aspects, proportionately more Palestinian Christians are doing better on some socioeconomic indicators than the general population. This could be because they are overwhelmingly an urban population living in the cities. It also could reflect the educational and professional skills that they have acquired and that contribute to bettering their employment and job prospects.

· On education, especially till the secondary level, the advantageous gap that the Christians used to have has now disappeared. Still, there are proportionately more Christians enrolled in Universities and higher learning institutions here and abroad than the general population.

· Christian Palestinians, when asked to place themselves on a social class scale are more likely to place themselves in upper class and less likely to place themselves in lower class. But two thirds of the Christian Palestinian population, like the general population, place themselves in Middle Class.

· Christians are characterized by a smaller family size. Extended family relationships while present are not as important as they are in other groups of the population.

· Christian Palestinians tend to be more skilled in foreign languages, in the use of the internet and in being open to international media.

· A good number of Palestinian Christians, estimated in the Jerusalem Bethlehem area, at no less than 25% of the Christian labor force work in Church Related Organizations, either directly employed by the Church or indirectly in the various civil society organizations linked to the different Churches.

Need for a Clear Socio Economic and Political Vision for Palestine

But aside from these statistics and figures, the major challenge today to Palestinian Christians and in fact to all Palestinians is one that revolves around "What Kind of Society Do We All Want?"

In order to address this challenge, five factors need to be considered:
1) The first thing that comes to mind is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and whether its continuation can allow us to engage in the exercise of developing a clear vision for Palestinian society.
2) The second thing that comes to mind is the responsiveness or lack of it of the Palestinian National Authority on the development of a Palestinian vision.
3) The third factor that could be considered is whether this vision can be religiously pluralistic so as it will not be exclusive but will maintain the inclusivity of all Palestinians, irrespective of religion.
4) The fourth element that needs answers is the role of the Church, both local and international, in contributing to this vision.
5) The fifth deals with whether a comprehensive peace will be worked out not simply between Palestinians and Israelis but also between Israel and the Arab World?

1) On the first factor, there are some who expect us Palestinian Christians to be different than our Moslem compatriots on the subject of Israeli occupation. We must understand that Palestinian Christians are an integral part of their society and hence they are Palestinians for all matters. Accordingly, ending the occupation is a principle to which Palestinian Christians subscribe. The negative effects of Israeli occupation have touched all of us and have made us into a traumatized, distressed and hurt people. Some would argue that it is not possible to engage in developing a clear vision while Israeli occupation continues. I differ on this; we need to develop this vision in particular because there is Israeli occupation. Working towards ending occupation and developing a Palestinian vision can and should work together.

2) But is the Palestinian National Authority responsive? I think that the National Authority has learned its lesson. It is now more evident that continued financial support would not be forthcoming without reforms that touch on all aspects of the performance of the PNA. Over 70% of the annual budget of the PNA is covered by the foreign donors. But aside from the demands for reforms externally, more and more Palestinians, including high ranking officials, are asking for reforms and demanding that we have a clear vision of where we are going as a society. Certainly, Israeli occupation remains a major stumbling block but there are many Palestinians now who believe that this is no excuse for not developing a vision and implementing reforms.

3) There are some who mistakenly argue that Palestinian Christians leave because of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Research results on Christian emigration throughout the last 12 years show that people emigrate because of the bad economic and political situation. The rise of fundamentalism certainly poses some serious questions but in itself and by itself is not cause for departure. People, who are not familiar with Islam, as Palestinian Christians are, often see things in black and white. This is not our experience. We have lived with Moslems as neighbors for centuries, our children go to school with their children and make life-long friendships, and we experience together the same difficult political, social and economic conditions. The mutual tolerance of Islam and Christianity shows itself in practical activities of daily life: this is the real dialogue of life. But some would argue that there are Christians who are not comfortable and who have some concrete complaints, certainly not on religious freedom but on practical matters of daily life. This is true not only of Christians but of other Palestinians as well. What happens often is that a conflict over property or any other matter is reduced to religion as a cause. In reality, however, the causes of conflict can be found elsewhere: in legal claims, in some people wanting to usurp the property of other people or for a variety of other reasons. It is expedient to say that my Moslem neighbor is doing this to me because I am a Christian but this would not be the explanation, rather it would be sometimes a cover for it.

Some people argue that Christians in Palestine cannot voice their concerns or their difference on matters such as suicide bombings or "martyrs". Palestinian Christians do speak out and do express their differences but we always do it with respect to the sensitivities of our compatriots. Likewise, Moslems do show sensitivity to our concerns. My Moslem students at Bethlehem University always describe Islam as being tolerant and accepting of others. Certainly, Christians the secularists they are in political and social matters would like to see that secular nationalism is the order of the day and the core of the Palestinian vision for the future. This is one of the reasons why Christian youth tend to be found in Palestinian political organizations of the center, Fateh, and the left of center, such as People's Party, Popular Front and Democratic Front. We as Palestinian Christians do convey the message that politicizing Islam leaves us with an uneasy feeling because we do feel that we are left out when the stress is on Islam as an organizing political and social religion. Our bonds with our Moslem compatriots were always bonds of nationalism and when they stress bonds of religion, this poses a problem to us on identity, future and also on vision of the society. Not that we do not want them to practice their religion and live out its principles and guidelines but we also want them to be aware of our presence and of our feeling as an integral part of the society that should not be left out because of religion.

4) The Church has an important role to play in the Holy Land. This land is not simply the place of roots, it is also the place where Christian Palestinians live as citizens whether in Palestine or in Israel. This was beautifully pointed out in the Statement issued by Heads of Churches on Jerusalem as the Place of Roots issued in November 1994. Accordingly, and in spite of their small numbers Christians of the Holy Land have as much right as any other group to input the process of peace making and eventual reconciliation. In fact, the Christian dimension in the present conflict is so important as reminder to those who reduce the conflict to religion, on the Jewish and Moslem sides, that the conflict and its solution is not a strictly religious question but a political and nationalist question. The Church, therefore, is called upon to emphasize the Christian dimension and to remind all that our presence here is not simply a question of numbers as it is a rich heritage of history and belonging to the land where Christianity first started. The international Church represented by the illustrious bishops and spiritual leaders present here is called upon to back the local Church in its effort at affirming the Christian role in the Holy Land. The support is both concrete and spiritual. In concrete terms, the preoccupation is to help Christian Palestinians help themselves and this way to give an added incentive to stay put in this place of roots. On spiritual support, it is always uplifting to us when we see bishops and clergy of the Universal Church in contact and partnership with our Local Church and its leaders. This gives us hope that the Universal Church cares and that it wants all of us to live peaceful lives in our society and with our neighbors across. The Church is also called upon to encourage all kinds of contacts and exchanges among the different nationalities and faiths that make up this blessed part of our world. This is important not simply to say that dialogue is important but the more Israelis, Palestinians, Moslems, Jews and Christians come together the more the likelihood of developing a common vision for the future of all in this land becomes a possibility. The Universal and Local Church cannot turn its back on this and we as faithful have to be committed to this as well.

6) A comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab World is not problematic because of the Arabs, it is problematic because of Israel and some may say more so than is the case with the Arabs. There was a time when the Arab states refused to recognize Israel. Today the issues of war and peace between Israel and its neighbors are quite different than those of 5 years ago or even of one year ago. The role of the United States is crucial in peacemaking among Israel and its neighbors. Not simply because it is the one superpower in today's world but especially so because of its unfortunate direct involvement in Iraq and with Israel, ever since its establishment. The Israelis will not make peace with their own accord. Some of them feel that their military power is sufficient to contain Arab hostility and to overcome it. This is applicable but for a short or medium term. In the long term, Israel is as much in need of peace as we are. Sacrifices need to be made on all sides and Israel has to face up to these sacrifices. Without the proper pressure from the US Administration, it is unlikely that Israel would move forward on a peace agenda. The Church can provide an input to policy makers in the different countries stressing the need for the painful sacrifices on all sides, including Israel. The Church should not be too diplomatic but should approach the difficult and problematic issue of peacemaking and reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis with conviction and determination. Understanding the concerns of Israel need to be matched by understanding as well the fears of Arabs and the hurt felt by Palestinians for the treatment they receive, for the lack of recognition of their rights and for a long history of exile and refuge. Peacemaking needs courage on all sides. The Church is also called to be courageous in trying to impress on both sides and other concerned sides the need for making peace based on justice and on finding a fair and honorable solution to all. This is a difficult task but as military personnel keep insisting that their military machines, toys, planes and strategies are best in protecting and defending their countries, the Church and other peacemakers, irrespective of religious or other background, should keep insisting that the best protection is not military might but making an honorable and just peace with your neighbors. With peace all will come out winners; with war the gains and joys of the victor will only fuel the hurt and vicious cycles of violence of the loser.

Your presence here today is a clear sign from all of you in wanting to see peace and reconciliation in our troubled land. May I take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for this witness and may I wish you the best for successful deliberations in this conference. Your being in Bethlehem today makes a pessimist like myself reconsider and become determined to work towards a position of optimism that will bring together with all those who want to work for a just, honorable and lasting peace.

Dr. Bernard Sabella
Associate Professor of Sociology
Department of Social Sciences
Bethlehem University
Executive Secretary
Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees
Middle East Council of Churches