Who Will Stand for Palestinian Christians?
Both Muslim and Israeli hostility are squeezing out the Christian community in Christ’s own homeland.
In the 2,023 years (give or take) since the birth of Jesus Christ, His hometown of Bethlehem has grown from a sleepy village to a city of 30,000 souls. It is situated in the south of the West Bank region and is governed by the Palestinian Authority. In the 1920s, Christians accounted for about 80 percent of Bethlehem’s population; today, they’re just 20 percent.
It’s not just Bethlehem, either. At the turn of the last century, roughly 10 percent of Palestinians were Christian, including about 25 percent of Jerusalem. Today, Christians comprise about 1 percent of the population of Palestine.
If current trends continue, Christ’s followers will have vanished from His homeland by A.D. 2100. But why?
The Israeli government and pro-Israel sources will place the blame squarely on the shoulders of Palestinian Muslims. And it’s true, of course, that in Palestine, as in every Middle-Eastern country, militant Islamists target Arab Christians. But that’s not the main reason why 90 percent of Palestine’s Christians have gone into exile.
According to a 2017 study by Dar al-Kalima University (a secular college led by a Protestant minister), only 2 percent of Palestinian Christians cited “Muslim religious conservatism” as a reason to emigrate. By far the most common complaint was “the pressure of Israeli occupation.” Researchers found that “ongoing constraints, discriminatory policies, arbitrary arrests,” and “confiscation of lands” have led to a “despairing situation where they can no longer perceive a future for their offspring or for themselves.”
Put it this way. Earlier this year, the Israeli government declared that fewer than 2,000 worshippers would be allowed to celebrate Orthodox Easter at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. By contrast, in previous years, 10,000 worshippers would pack themselves into the pews. This is part of a growing trend, whereby the State of Israel forcibly prevents Christians—both natives and pilgrims—from practicing their faith. They will always cite “security concerns,” though of course the “concern” is never explained. The Israeli police will simply show up, armed to the teeth, and start turning away worshippers after a certain (miniscule) quota is met.
Or take the tragic case of Shireen Abu Aqla.
Abu Aqla was a reporter for Al-Jazeera. She was also a member of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Last year, while covering a raid on the West Bank—and while wearing a vest with the word “PRESS” emblazoned on the front and back—she was shot by Israeli soldiers. Abu Aqla’s body was prepared for burial at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Jerusalem. Just hours before the funeral, the institution was raided by Israeli police. Patients were knocked off their beds, while medical staff suffered burns from stun grenades. After the coffin was carried out of the hospital, officers attacked Abu Aqla’s pallbearers with batons. Mourners were shot with rubber bullets for displaying the Palestinian flag.
An investigation by CNN concluded that Abu Aqla was “shot dead in a targeted attack by Israeli forces.” The United Nations’ Human Rights Office concurred. A joint statement by the Orthodox and Catholic patriarchs of Jerusalem condemned the Israeli police not only for their “disproportionate use of force” but also for “disrespecting the Church” and violating “the fundamental human right of freedom of religion” by trying to disrupt Abu Aqla’s funeral.
Of course, the Israelis denied everything. A government spokesman pointed out that “journalist are killed around the world every week, without the same global reaction” and claimed that the international furor over Abu Aqla’s death was evidence of an “antisemitic double standard.” The Jerusalem Post called CNN’s report an “anti-Israel hit job.” Yet Tel Aviv has yet to provide a shred of evidence proving their innocence.
When Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of dissident journalist named Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, President Donald Trump notoriously all but defended the Saudis. (“If you’re going to look at Saudi Arabia, look at Iran, look at other countries,” he said.) Yet President Joe Biden has refused to meet with Abu Aqla’s family, and his administration has no plans to censure the Israeli government. This is even more disturbing given that Abu Aqla was an American citizen.
This is why Palestinian Christians are throwing in the towel. They know that the Israeli government has no respect for their rights, either as individuals or as religious minorities. And they know that the United States—the so-called leader of the free world—will happily turn a blind eye when Tel Aviv abuses Arab Christians, even if they happen to be dual Palestinian/American citizens.
And it gets worse. When Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power last year, he became the first Israeli leader to officially promote the expansion of illegal Jewish “settlements” in the West Bank. For decades, Israelis have been encroaching on the Palestinian Authority’s territory. They have evicted Arab residents and cut off their access to public utilities like water and electricity. In the past, Tel Aviv would have insisted that these outposts were lawful while denying that the State of Israel officially supported the “settlers.” Today, Netanyahu not only acknowledges the colonization of the West Bank, but has made it official government policy.
Remember, these are the exact policies that Christians blame for their decision to leave Palestine. And, as the kids would say, that’s not a bug; it’s a feature. Netanyahu returned to power this past December by allying himself with religious Zionist and anti-Arab parties. Their stated goal is to expand Israel’s borders as widely as possible, driving all non-Jews out of their homes in the process.
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One would expect conservatives, the advocates of the religious freedom protected in the First Amendment, to embrace a more balanced position on Israel. Yet only Kentucky’s Senator Rand Paul and Vivek Ramaswamy, alone among the GOP’s national figures, have dared to suggest that we reduce the amount of aid we give to Israel even slightly. When Netanyahu visited the United States earlier this month, he was received warmly—and not only by Biden, but also by conservative darlings like Elon Musk.
Americans of every creed should be outraged by Israel’s treatment of its Arab neighbors. The fact that a foreign government can kill a U.S. citizen—a journalist, no less!—without our State Department so much as wagging its finger should make our blood run cold. Yet Christians have a special reason to stand in solidarity with Palestine. The Israeli government clearly intends to stamp out the Christian faith in Christ’s own homeland. They’ve made this abundantly clear by their efforts to purge Arab Christians from the region and to prevent worshippers from visiting Israel’s churches.
I doubt anything will change anytime soon, but American Christians have a duty to our Palestinian brothers and sisters. If Netanyahu and his allies get their way, they will disappear from the region within the next century. Without our help, they don’t stand a chance.