Christians caught in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, September 15th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. The last decade has seen a mass emigration of Christians from parts of Israel controlled by Palestinians. 

A survey earlier this year of nearly a thousand Christians in the area tells of the struggles they face, and why they’d leave their homeland. WORLD intern Vivian Jones brings this story.

AUDIO: [Call to prayer]

VIVIAN JONES, CORRESPONDENT: What is it like to be a Christian in the land where Jesus was born? Five times a day, the Muslim call to prayer washes over the city of Bethlehem. 

Every morning, hundreds of Palestinians move through border checkpoints to go to work in Jerusalem, about 20 minute’s drive away. 

In 1922, Christians made up 84 percent of the population of Bethlehem. One hundred years later, only 12 percent of Bethlehem residents are Christian. 

Christians make up an even smaller fraction of the entire Palestinian population: less than 1 percent.

SAYEGH: You are a really tiny minority in the land. 

Khalil Sayegh is a Palestinian Christian who grew up in the Palestinian territory known as the Gaza strip.

SAYEGH: You’re living in a conflict zone. Whether you like it or not, there is this whole political conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And the consequences of this conflict, you have things like checkpoints, you have things like armies stopping you, you have things that you wouldn’t really like many times at the checkpoints. 

AUDIO: [Street sound]

Gaza is now controlled by Hamas, and Sayegh lives in the city of Ramallah in the West Bank. Earlier this year, he helped conduct a survey to identify challenges that Palestinian Christians face as a part of daily life, and what motivates some to emigrate.

NICHOLSON: This is the world’s most famous conflict. 

Robert Nicholson is president of The Philos Project, a nonprofit that conducted the survey together with the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research

NICHOLSON: The Christians who are a minority of both Israelis and Palestinians are suffering the most, right. They’re sort of caught between a hammer and an anvil. And they’re often missed in the larger story of the conflict, the ancient presence of Jesus’s followers in the land of his birth. 

AUDIO: [Sounds of mass at Church of the Nativity]

Khalil and the survey team spoke with nearly a thousand Palestinian Christians to idenfiy struggles that life in the midst of the Palestininan-Israeli conflict presents. 

Forty eight percent of the Christians surveyed said the dire economic situation is the most significant challenge they face.

Eighty two percent worried about the absence of liberty and the rule of law. Eighty percent feared corruption in the Palestinian Authority.

Notably, 77 percent are unhappy that their children aren’t learning any Christian history connected with their ancestral land.

SAYEGH: When they cover history you don’t see really any Christian arc of history. And that’s heartbreaking because we have a really rich history in this land where Christianity has been born in this land. Where even pre-Christ we have this whole Biblical culture that was in this land. However, in the Palestinian curriculum, they choose to deny it. 

Sayegh says it’s not surprising, but it is concerning. 

SAYEGH: And I get it: from the perspective of Palestinians, to deny this means to deny the connection of the Jewish people and interest in the land and that kind of where they find their identity in the opposition to Israel. But still, it’s problematic because you are not only undermining the Jewish right and connection to the land, but you’re undermining the rights and connection of the Christians themselves to the land. 

Beyond economic and cultural motivations, living as a minority in the midst of ongoing conflict between the Arabs and Israelis poses its own set of challenges: 44 percent reported experiencing religious tension and discrimination, including verbal attacks or racial slurs from Muslim neighbors. Sayegh says it’s not uncommon for Christians to be called “crusaders” or “infidels.”  

On the other hand, 83 percent fear being expelled from their land, being attacked by Jewish settlers, or being denied their civil rights by the State of Israel. 

Sayegh says many Palestinian Christians feel they’re nothing more than pawns in the political tug-of-war. 

SAYEGH: When people talk about Palestinian Christians it feels to me that they just want to use them as a puppet for their own political agenda. So if you really want to help Christians in Palestine, you have to just look at their problems as it is—not trying to look at their problem in a way that will help your personal agenda.

While Palestinian Christians continue to face challenges to their freedom and economic prosperity, Philos President Robert Nicholson encourages action before they disappear entirely from the Holy Land.

NICHOLSON: Palestinian Christians are part of a larger whole, right? And if we look at the whole, we see that if we don’t do something for these communities, they will be gone forever. And so will their culture, their language, their unique faith traditions…

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Vivian Jones.


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