The Situation of Palestinian Christians: Some Food for Thought
By Bernard Sabella

January 2005
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.)
Today, almost ten years later, Palestinian Christians number 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 four years since the start of the Second Intifada at around 3000-3500 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. (Although this number is considered to be higher than the actual number of indigenous Christians in Jerusalem estimated at around 8,000 only).

·    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. Unfortunately, there is no system for knowing the exact numbers of those who emigrate and hence reliance is on estimates based on data gathered from surveys and from general demographic statistics.

·    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 the question of "Where Do We Go from Here?"

In order to address this challenge, five factors need to be considered:
1)    The first thing that comes to mind is the need to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
2)    The second thing that gives some space for optimism is the election of Mr. Mahmoud Abbas (Abou Mazen) as President for the Palestinians.  
3)    The third factor has to do with what kind of a political, economic and social system would we Palestinians want to have?
4)    The fourth element that needs to be considered is the role of the Church, both local and international, in supporting Palestinians as they seek to direct themselves to the future.
5)    The fifth factor has to do with the nature of peace and whether it is going to be restricted to Palestinians and Israelis or would it extend to all in the region?

1) On the first factor, it is important to highlight that an end to Israeli occupation is the only promise for a genuine peace between us and the Israelis. No Palestinian would disagree with this statement, regardless of religious or other background characteristic. So as Palestinian Christians we need to work for an end to Israeli occupation. Our style is characterized by non-violence and by the biblical injunction of seeing God in others. This is as effective a method to end occupation as any. This is not restricted to Palestinian Christians as a majority of our Palestinian compatriots believe that we can achieve the ending of Israeli occupation through nonviolent means. But Israeli occupation must end as a necessary step to dealing with the question of where do we go from here.

2) The election of Mahmoud Abbas, Abou Mazen, as Palestinian President is welcome news. He brings to office a new and invigorating breath of professionalism and pragmatism. He is promoting a sense of responsibility internally and is dealing with issues with Israel in a practical and concrete manner. His leadership qualities are very promising and we should as Palestinians support him as we try to find out where we go from here. But the promises of this new leadership and the potential for their fulfillment depend also on positive developments between Palestinians and Israelis. Also world and regional support, chief among which is the US Administration and the EU, among other important actors are crucial for the success of Abu Mazen.

3) The future of Palestinian Christians in this Land is not solely determined by the achievement of Peace between us and the Israelis. Another important factor is the kind of social, political and economic system that we will be able to develop in the next decade or two. While I am not particularly worried about the rise of "fundamentalism" as a cause for Christian Palestinian emigration, I am more concerned that the socio-economic and political system would be one characterized by pluralism, secularism and openness. Survey results in the last ten to fifteen years have pointed out that Islamization of society was not a cause for Christian Palestinian emigration; rather it was the political situation and the lack of jobs and employment opportunities as a result that led hundreds of Christians to leave.  But it is fair to say that Palestinian Christians, as people who opt to Middle Class style of living, would feel much more comfortable in a secular and non-theocratic form of government. So, the preference of Palestinian Christians is for a political system that is secular and for an economic and social system that gives preference to individual choices and free enterprise. This is not necessarily a Palestinian Christian preference as many Moslem compatriots show the same preferences. It is a healthy thing that as we engage in searching for our future, there are also religious principles that guide the discussion. We are, after all, a highly religious society but our concern is not with practicing religion but with how religion should not be misused/abused by some to press their view of the world on others.

As Palestinians, we pride ourselves that what links us with each other, Moslems and Christians alike, is the dialogue of life. Throughout centuries we have developed respect and sensitivity to each other's religious traditions and styles of life. 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 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 brothers and sisters in the faith come in contact and solidarity with our Local Church; its faithful and 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. But the essential element in the Church message should be justice.

When we speak of Jerusalem as the place of roots and when we aspire that one day there will be light shining forth from Jerusalem to affirm peace and to promote reconciliation and we see what the Israeli authorities are doing from enforcing the Absentee Property Law of 1950 which robs Palestinians, without reference to religion, of their property because they are living in Beit Jala or Bethlehem or Ramallah, beside the isolation and other measure s adopted by Israel, in recent weeks, to separate East Jerusalem from the West Bank, this all makes one pessimistic and sad.  These measures and policies of the Israeli government not only contradict even the US official position on Jerusalem but also all human, legal and international agreements and resolutions on the city and are thus cause to raise serious objection to them by Churches, International Organizations and Governments. Especially disappointing is the choice of timing by the Israeli government and rightist circles within it to enforce the Absentee Property Law in Jerusalem when Abu Mazen and the Palestinians have been seriously talking about a truce with Israel.

5) The Oslo accords and the cold peace prevailing between Egypt and Israel on the one hand and Jordan and Israel on the other point to the disappointments and frustrations of peace on paper and not peace in hearts. A genuine peace between us and the Israelis necessitate doing everything to bring hearts closer together: separation walls and other checkpoints and measures aimed at securing the Israelis will not do the trick unless there is no longer a need for these separation methods. They are in fact a reminder of the absence of real and genuine peace. 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 US needs face uplifting among Arabs and Moslems. Even if the US administrations continue unashamedly supporting Israel, at least to balance their bad image with the Arabs and Moslems, they could advance the prospects of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This is said because we have given long time ago on the possibility that the US administrations would stand for justice and fairness in the Arab-Israeli conflict. 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. It should knock on the doors of American diplomats, policy makers and other influential people and groups to highlight the need to end in a just manner the apparently interminable conflict in the Holy Land.

Palestinian Christians, like other Palestinians, have become so pragmatic in their approach and response to a prolonged oppressive occupation that they have lost the sense that some of those biblical miracles used to give us in terms of hope and inspiration. Your presence here, however, still raises hope that the caring of people like you, your churches, your constituencies, ordinary folks in your communities would increase the likelihood of a miracle in this part of the world. We do our share, regardless of how modest; I am also sure that there are Israelis and Jews who do their share as well, what we expect from you is that you continue with doing your share. With all of us working, each in her /his way, who knows a miracle may happen that will restore our faith in biblical miracles and in the religious traditions and miracles of our Moslem and Jewish neighbors.

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
Tel: +972-2-6271715
Fax: +972-2-6271716