Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is playing to full houses in the Syrian capital Damascus. Watching it here turns out to be much the same as watching it on opening night in New York—customarily rowdy moviegoers observe a reverent silence, the usual sound of candy wrappers is replaced by sobbing and gasping, and, at the end of it all, the audience files out of the theater in silence and contemplation. Many of those watching the movie on this occasion are Palestinian Christian refugees whose parents or grandparents were purged from their homeland—the land of Christ—at the foundation of Israel in 1948. For them the movie has an underlying symbolic meaning not easily perceived in the West: not only is it a depiction of the trial, scourging, and death of Jesus, it is also a symbolic depiction of the fate of the Palestinian people. “This is how we feel,” says Zaki, a 27-year old Palestinian Christian whose family hails from Haifa. “We take beating after beating at the hands of the world, they crucify our people, they insult us, but we refuse to surrender.”
At the time of the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, it is estimated that the Christians of Palestine numbered some 350,000. Almost 20 percent of the total population at the time, they constituted a vibrant and ancient community; their forbears had listened to St. Peter in Jerusalem as he preached at the first Pentecost. Yet Zionist doctrine held that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Of the 750,000 Palestinians that were forced from their homes in 1948, some 50,000 were Christians—7 percent of the total number of refugees and 35 percent of the total number of Christians living in Palestine at the time.
In the process of “Judaizing” Palestine, numerous convents, hospices, seminaries, and churches were either destroyed or cleared of their Christian owners and custodians. In one of the most spectacular attacks on a Christian target, on May 17, 1948, the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate was shelled with about 100 mortar rounds—launched by Zionist forces from the already occupied monastery of the Benedictine Fathers on Mount Zion. The bombardment also damaged St. Jacob’s Convent, the Archangel’s Convent, and their appended churches, their two elementary and seminary schools, as well as their libraries, killing eight people and wounding 120.
Today it is believed that the number of Christians in Israel and occupied Palestine number some 175,000, just over 2 percent of the entire population, but the numbers are rapidly dwindling due to mass emigration. Of those who have remained in the region, most live in Lebanon, where they share in the same bottomless misery as all other refugees, confined to camps where schools are under-funded and overcrowded, where housing is ramshackle, and sanitary conditions are appalling. Most, however, have fled the region altogether. No reliable figures are available, but it is estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 Palestinian Christians currently live in the U.S.
The Palestinian Christians see themselves, and are seen by their Muslim compatriots, as an integral part of the Palestinian people, and they have long been a vital part of the Palestinian struggle. As the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, the Reverend Riah Abu al-Assal has explained, “The Arab Palestinian Christians are part and parcel of the Arab Palestinian nation. We have the same history, the same culture, the same habits and the same hopes.”
Yet U.S. media and politicians have become accustomed to thinking of and talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one in which an enlightened democracy is constantly forced to repel attacks from crazy-eyed Islamists bent on the destruction of the Jewish people and the imposition of an Islamic state. Palestinians are equated with Islamists, Islamists with terrorists. It is presumably because all organized Christian activity among Palestinians is non-political and non-violent that the community hardly ever hits the Western headlines; suicide bombers sell more copy than people who congregate for Bible study.
Lebanese and Syrian Christians were essential in the conception of Arab nationalism as a general school of anti-colonial thought following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. During the 1930s, Hajj Amin al-Hussein, the leader of the Palestinian struggle against the British colonialists, surrounded himself with Christian advisors and functionaries. In the 1950s and ’60s, as the various factions that were to form the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) emerged, some of the most prominent militants were yet again of Christian origin. For instance, George Habash, a Greek Orthodox medical doctor from al-Lod, created the Arab Nationalists’ Movement and went on to found the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Naif Hawatmeh, also Greek Orthodox, from al-Salt in Jordan, founded and still today heads up the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Among those better regarded in the West, Hannan Ashrawi, one of the Palestinian Authority’s most effective spokespersons, is a Christian.
In fact, over the decades, many of the rank and file among the secular nationalist groups of the PLO have been Christians who have seen leftist nationalist politics as the only alternative to both Islamism and Western liberalism, the former objectionable because of its religiously exclusive nature, the latter due to what is seen by many as its inherent protection of Israel and the Zionist project.
Among the remnant communities in Palestine, most belong to the traditional Christian confessions. The largest group is Greek Orthodox, followed by Catholics (Roman, Syrian, Maronite, and Melkite), Armenian Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans. There is also a small but influential Quaker presence. These communities are centered in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, and Ramallah.
For them, the conflict with Israel is quite obviously not about Islamism contra enlightenment but simply about resistance against occupation. To be sure, there have been periods of tension between the Christian communities and members of the Islamist groups, yet to many Christian Palestinians the Islamist movements have emerged by default as the heroes in the conflict with Israel. Following the incremental atrophy of leftist ideals, the Islamists are seen as the only ones who are willing and able to fight the occupation. The Lebanese Hezbollah, widely seen as a nonsectarian organization that is able to cooperate with people of all faiths, is particularly admired both among the refugees in Lebanon as well as those who remain in Palestine. “We have received far more support and comfort from the Hezbollah in Lebanon than from our fellow Christians in the West,” remarked one Christian Palestinian refugee in Damascus. “I want to know, why don’t the Christians in the West do anything to help us? Are the teachings of Jesus nothing but empty slogans to them?”
This is a justified and important question, but the answer is not straightforward. The Catholic Church has, in fact, long argued for an end to the Israeli occupation and for improvement of the Palestinians’ situation. The leaders of the Eastern Orthodox churches have taken similar, often more strongly worded positions. Likewise, many Lutheran and Calvinist churches run organizations and programs that seek to ease the suffering of the Palestinians and draw attention to the injustices with which they are faced. Usually working within strictly religious frames of reference, however, their impact on the political situation has been minimal.
This political limitation has not applied to those parts of the Evangelical movement that have adopted Zionism as a core element of their religious doctrine. Christian Zionists in the U.S. are currently organized in an alliance with the pro-Israel lobby and the neoconservative elements of the Republican Party, enabling them to put significant pressure on both the president and members of Congress. In fact, they are among the most influential shapers of policy in the country, including individuals such as Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell, and groups such as the National Unity Coalition for Israel, Christians for Israel, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, and Chosen People Ministries.
Christian Zionism is an odd thing on many levels. A key tenet of Christian Zionism is absolute support for Israel, whose establishment and existence, it is believed, heralds Armageddon and the second coming of Christ. The politically relevant upshot of this is that without Israel’s expansion there can be no redemption, and those who subscribe to this interpretation are only too eager to sacrifice their Palestinian fellow Christians on the altar of Zionism. They do not want to hear about coreligionists’ suffering at the hands of Israel.
Israeli and Jewish American leaders have until recently kept their distance from the Christian Zionist movement. But Beltway alliance politics coupled with a sharp turn to the right among American Jewish organizations since Israel began its onslaught on Palestinians in September 2000, has driven them into each other’s arms. One of the most potent forces behind the Evangelical Zionist influence in Washington is Tom DeLay, leader of the Republican majority in the House. DeLay insists that his devotion to Israel stems from his faith in God, which allows him a clear understanding of the struggle between good and evil. Be that as it may, he is also able to cash in financially and politically from his position. Part of DeLay’s growing influence within the Republican Party stems from the fact that his campaign committees managed to raise an impressive $12 million in 2001-2002. Washington Post writer Jim VandeHei suggested, “In recent years, DeLay has become one of the most outspoken defenders of Israel and has been rewarded with a surge of donations from the Jewish community.”
In Oct. 2002, Benny Elon, Sharon’s minister of tourism and a staunch advocate of a comprehensive purge of Palestinians from the Holy Land, appeared with DeLay at the Washington convention of the Christian Coalition. Crowds waved Israeli flags as Elon cited Biblical authority for this preferred way of dealing with the pesky Palestinians. DeLay, in turn, received an enthusiastic welcome when he called for activists to back pro-Israel candidates who “stand unashamedly for Jesus Christ.” In July 2003, Tom DeLay traveled to Israel and addressed the Knesset, telling the assembled legislators that he was an “Israeli at heart.” The Palestinians “have been oppressed and abused,” he said, but never by Israel, only by their own leaders. DeLay received a standing ovation.
Christians find themselves under the hammer of the Israeli occupation to no less an extent than Muslims, yet America—supposedly a Christian country—stands idly by because its most politically influential Christians have decided that Palestinian Christians are acceptable collateral damage in their apocalyptic quest. “To be a Christian from the land of Christ is an honor,” says Abbas, a Palestinian Christian whose family lived in Jerusalem for many generations until the purge of 1948. “To be expelled from that land is an injury, and these Zionist Christians in America add insult.” Abbas is one of the handful of Palestinian Christians that could be described as Evangelical, belonging to a group that appears to be distantly related to the Plymouth Brethren. Cherishing the role of devil’s advocate, I had to ask him, “Is the State of Israel not in fact the fulfillment of God’s promise and a necessary step in the second coming of Christ?” Abbas looked at me briefly and laughed. “You’re kidding, right? You know what they do to our people and our land. If I thought that was part of God’s plan, I’d be an atheist in a second.”
Anders Strindberg is an academic and a journalist specializing in Mideast politics.