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Christians in the crossfire


There were young people inside, policemen, civilians of different stripes, a few dozen gunmen, and an assortment of about 40 monks, nuns and priests of the Roman Catholic church, the Greek Orthodox church, and the Armenian church. For days the stench from 250 unwashed bodies, from the open wounds of those hurt by gunfire and from two rotting corpses filled the cavernous church where most of the refugees spent their time waiting to be delivered from a fate that grew grimmer hour by hour.

The Israeli siege of those inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built on what is considered the birthplace of Jesus, seemed a tale straight from the 12th century. With electricity, telephone service and water cut off and the only access to the outside world occasional phone calls made from cellular telephones, those inside the compound of the Nativity subsisted on dwindling supplies of food and water. When nine youths left the church on April 26 carrying the coffins of two Palestinians killed earlier in the siege, they reported that those who remained inside were surviving on a broth of boiled water and grass.

For observers, the standoff between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers at one of Christianity’s most holy sites heightened the life and death drama. That the birthplace of the Prince of Peace should become hostage to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed an obvious irony. But the siege that kept Bethlehem citizens confined to their houses for weeks while those inside the church lived in increasingly desperate circumstances also seemed an apt metaphor for the predicament of Christians in the Holy Land, who form a small minority under increasing strain. With Christian towns on the front lines of military action and the Palestinian national movement taking on a new Islamic undertone, observers inside and outside the Holy Land say not just the Church of the Nativity but the Christian population itself is increasingly hostage to outside forces.

“The pressure being created by the occupation has unleashed an unbearable set of pressures on the Christian community, and the Christian churches here in America have turned a blind eye,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington.

As many as 16 million Arab Christians exist in the Middle East, but only a small and dwindling number remain in the Holy Land. Twenty percent of the Palestinian population in 1948, Christians now comprise less than 2 percent of the Palestinian population. Partly because of the interest in the Holy Land taken by Christian churches in Europe, the United States, Canada and elsewhere, Palestinian Christians have more contacts in the West and greater opportunities for travel and emigration than their Muslim countrymen, said Sr. Elaine Kelley, an administrative director of Sabeel, an ecumenical Palestinian peace and justice center in Jerusalem, who also works for the Portland, Ore., archdiocese. Those Christians who remain in Israel and the occupied territories are an educated and relatively affluent segment of the Palestinian population who emphasize that there is little apart from religious belief that distinguishes them from other Palestinians.

“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,” said the Rev. Riah Abu El-Assal, the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem.

“We are all under occupation. We endure the same suffering and we have the same aspirations. We don’t have any discrimination between Christians and Muslims,” said Fr. Raed Abu-Sahlia, chancellor of the Catholic Church in Jerusalem and secretary to the Latin patriarch.

A new militancy

But growing Islamic militancy inside the Palestinian movement is beginning to affect relations between Christian and Muslim Palestinians, said Zogby and others NCR spoke to for this article. Unlike the first intifada in which Christians and Muslims both participated, the second intifada that began in the fall of 2000 has been primarily a Muslim movement with Christians so far taking little part, said Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen. That may change as the situation in the occupied territories worsens, notes Christiansen, who said he understands that some of the armed men inside the Church of the Nativity are Christian. An adviser on the Middle East to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Christiansen has been involved in efforts to end the siege at the Church undertaken by Israelis to capture the armed Palestinians inside.

“The Palestinian movement is basically a secular nationalist movement,” Christiansen said. “Because this intifada has been violent from the beginning and because it’s groups like Hezbollah and Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have been leaders in this violence, there’s been an Islamicization of this intifada,” said Christiansen. “It’s in the interest of the United States and Israel to keep Palestine a secular state, but if this is drawn out, the Islamicization of resistance is bound to increase. The secular elements in the movement are going to be marginalized or are going to take harder-line positions because of the Islamicization.”

In addition to the pressures of the occupation that all Palestinians feel, Zogby said Christian Palestinians are now feeling a challenge to their patriotism. “They’re seeing this Islamic fervor develop around them, and they’re caught in a vise,” said Zogby.

About 120,000 Christians live in Israel and another 50,000 in the occupied territories. The Christian population includes Orthodox congregations, Episcopalians, Lutherans and other Protestant denominations, and Roman Catholics.

About two-thirds of the Christians living in the occupied territories reside in a triangle formed by Bethlehem and the towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour. It’s an area that has become the focus of Israeli military attention during the past year. Frequent firing by Palestinian militiamen from these towns has drawn massive Israeli retaliation, with the result that residents are leaving the area in great numbers. Christiansen said that following the start of the second intifada in the fall of 2000, about 400 Christians left Beit Sahour by January 2001, and by July 2001 that number had risen to about 2,400. In one Catholic parish, a thousand out of 2,000 people had left by July 2001. Though emigration from Bethlehem has been going on for a long time due in part to its greater prosperity, Christiansen said emigration from Beit Sahour and Beit Jala is a new phenomenon related to the difficulties presented by the second intifada.

“The situation is very difficult on all fronts. For Palestinian Christians, they experience the same hardships as all Palestinians experience, and obviously many people are not prepared to stand this any longer and are seeking a more peaceful life and a life of greater opportunity for their family,” said Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger, spokesman for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, which oversees Christian religious sites in the Holy Land, including the Church of the Nativity.

Provoking retaliation

Why Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala have become centers of Palestinian resistance is unclear. According to Br. David Scarpa, a Christian Brother who is director of teaching at Bethlehem University, the militiamen shooting from Bethlehem seldom do much damage to Israeli soldiers or settlers living nearby but do provoke Israeli retaliation. The university has been a frequent target of Israeli shelling, though Scarpa said the university campus is not used by gunmen as a locale to shoot from.

Scarpa said in Beit Jala residents have done their best to prevent gunmen from coming into their town because they are far more dangerous to the people of Beit Jala than to Israeli soldiers.

“It’s very complicated,” Scarpa said of the background and motives of gunmen who use the Christian towns as a base to fire at Israeli soldiers and settlers. He gave as an example one gunman apprehended in 2000 by the Palestinian Authority who turned out to be a Jordanian in the pay of the Israeli government.

Christiansen speculates that the presence of gunmen in Christian areas may be an effort to draw Christians into the battle or it may be a feeling that the outside Christian world would pay more attention if Christians rather than Muslims were attacked. Christiansen said a certain envy of the bourgeois status of Christians living in primarily middle-class towns may also be a factor.

“A lot of the militia people in the beginning came out of the refugee camps and hill tribes,” Christiansen said. “There’s some sense that because the Christians haven’t been for violence, they haven’t been doing their share. In the first intifada, Christians were just as involved as Muslims.”

That has not been true of the second intifada, however. “There’s not the mysticism of violence among the Christians that you have with others,” Christiansen said.

Indeed, Christian Palestinians have historically been in the vanguard of nonviolent resistance, Kelley said. For centuries Arab Christians have served as a bridge between the Muslim community and the West, she said.

Christiansen dismissed a report listed on at least one pro-Israeli Web site that the Palestinian Authority has been behind the Islamicization of resistance as “disinformation.” Saudi Arabia and other nations have given money to poor Palestinians to buy property and to form Islamic schools, but the Palestinian Authority has not been encouraging Christian emigration or Islamicization in Bethlehem, he said.

Some informed observers suggest that it’s not impossible that Israel may be behind the attacks of gunmen in Christian areas. Zogby points to the role that Israel played in Nazareth where he said the Israelis fomented plans by Islamic militants to construct a mosque beside the Basilica of the Annunciation where the angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to Mary.

“They’re the ones that created the conflict between Muslims and Christians in Nazareth over the building of the mosque,” Zogby said. “They encouraged this Islamic fervor to begin with. It’s the same thing in Bethlehem. They create the condition for this fight to occur, for this fear to occur, and then profess innocence as they reap the benefits of this tension.”

Scarpa said many people in Beit Jala are convinced that the militiamen’s presence there is a setup. “When you see people in protected positions shooting their guns up into the air and triggering a massive Israeli response and that seems to be their main intention. … Can you give me an explanation for this?”

Upsurge in emigration

Whatever the source of the gunfire that has made Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour fought-over territory, the fighting has triggered a sharp upsurge in Christian emigration as a result of Israeli troops choosing to return rifle fire with tank fire and helicopter gun ships and destroying much of the housing stock in those towns. Church leaders say that if the high rate of emigration continues, Christianity could become extinct in the part of the world that gave birth to it.

“The concern of the church is that the Holy Land will become a Christian museum rather than a place for a worshiping Christian community and a continuing Christian community since the time of Christ,” said Kelley.

A resident of Bethlehem for four years, most recently from 1998 to 2000, Kelley said the Catholic church is taking an active role in trying to keep a Christian community alive in Palestine. Kelley said Bethlehem University, for example, was established after Pope Paul VI visited the Holy Land and met with native Palestinian Christians who appealed to him because there was no opportunity for higher education. The university now offers the only bachelor’s degree in religious studies in Arabic in the country, and the Latin patriarch is dependent on Bethlehem University for educating teachers for Catholic schools throughout Israel and the occupied territories as well as in Cyprus, Jordan and parts of Egypt.

In an attempt to minimize friction between the Christian and Muslim communities and because they have considered Israeli attacks on churches preferable to attacks on Palestinian homes, local church leaders have not been publicizing Israeli attacks on church property, said Christiansen.

“They wanted to prevent attacks on homes, and it was more important to protect civilians than church property,” Christiansen said. “They didn’t want to create an immunity for themselves when Muslims are under attack and they wanted to show themselves open to the same suffering as their fellow Palestinians. Everybody is revolted at the notion of shelling churches, but the point is that the people are the dwelling places of God.”

The Latin seminary in Beit Jala was shelled for three hours simply on the grounds that suspicious people were seen nearby, Christiansen said, adding that there have been many more violations of the rules of war on the part of Israel than has been reported in the United States. Though the siege at the Church of the Nativity has been widely covered in the press, Christiansen said there have been surprisingly few protests from Christians in this country as one week has slipped into the next. One Congressional aide on Capital Hill told him there have been few calls about the matter.

Tea with the apostles

“Historically, there’s been a huge void of Christian concern for the Christian Palestinian community and a major gap in knowledge about their existence,” Kelley said. “Many, many times I’ve mentioned Christian Palestinians in this country, and people ask, ‘Are they converts?’ It amazes me because these people are not converts. They are an indigenous, continuing Christian community. They joke that their ancestors drank tea with the Apostles.”

The religious right has become a major supporter of Israel. Ironically, Zogby said, the religious right in the United States has not only ignored the plight of Christian Palestinians but has been hostile to them. “They have an ideology that puts value on the Jews of the Holy Land converting and not on the indigenous Christian communities that have been there since the time of Christ,” he said.

Kelley said Christians on the ground in Israel and the occupied territories are appalled by the lack of concern on the part of churches in the United States.

“Typically, Christians are horribly ignorant of the situation there. Even though our church officially supports Palestinians’ political rights, the people in the pews -- about 70 percent of them -- support Israel. That comes from the tradition of the Holocaust. But it has not come from real knowledge of what has changed and what is happening there. The Jewish people are no longer the victims. They are now the oppressors of the Palestinian people,” said Kelley.

While Catholic bishops have supported Palestinian rights and the formation of a Palestinian state, Kelley said even many Catholic clergymen are uninformed about the conflict in the Middle East and the situation of Christian Palestinians. Efforts to lobby Congress on their behalf have met with little success.

“Congress is not responsive to our advocacy,” said Corinne Whitlach, director of Churches for Middle East Peace, an office that lobbies for a more evenhanded U.S. policy in the Middle East and was created to reflect the concerns of a coalition of mainstream churches that includes the Episcopal church, the Presbyterian church, the United Methodist church, the Church of the Brethren and Roman Catholic religious orders. “Congress is extremely pro-Israeli.”

Whitlach said her office had not attempted to contact members of Congress about the siege of the Church of the Nativity but was concentrating on recent efforts in Congress to end diplomatic recognition for the Palestinian Authority and to return the United States to the era when U.S. diplomats were not allowed to speak to representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the bill has rapidly won numerous cosponsors. Although Israel has failed to comply with President Bush’s request that it end its incursions in the West Bank, the House of Representatives has proposed giving Israel another $200 million in aid on top of a $3 billion aid package it annually receives.

“As American citizens, don’t these people have some responsibility to know what is happening in our Congress?” Whitlach asked.

In Jerusalem, Samia Khoury, a Palestinian Christian who works at the Sabeel Center, said that modern Western people relate much more to fears on behalf of Israel than concerns for a largely Muslim Palestinian population. “The Biblical context influences people,” she said, adding that she and other Palestinians have been challenged to reevaluate their faith in the light of historical circumstances.

“When all of this started in 1948, we asked why? Is this the God of justice we know? Because that was the justification. ‘God gave us this land, and we are the chosen people.’ Our dispossession was done in the name of God, in the name of the Bible,” Khoury said.

A liberation theology center adapted to a Palestinian context, Sabeel developed a program that took visitors on what Khoury calls a “modern Via Dolorosa,” with trips to a refugee camp, demolished Palestinian homes, and Israeli checkpoints in the occupied territories.

“There’s been so much distortion of facts, so much obliteration of facts,” Khoury said. “If an Israeli child is killed, it’s all over the media. If a Palestinian child is killed, nobody cares.”

Church under siege

As of May 1, the siege of the Church of the Nativity continued despite what Christiansen said were constant reassurances from the United States government that the siege would end shortly.

On April 30, 26 Palestinians were allowed to leave the church, leaving about 200 still in the church. Kept closely apprised of the status of the negotiations, Jaeger said he didn’t understand why talks were taking so long.

“We are impeded from any kind of access to our community,” he said. “We are impeded from carrying food to them. The condition must be getting direr all the time. We are asking this of the parties: Why?”

Pope John Paul II, who has taken a close interest in the crisis, personally calling the Franciscans inside the compound of the Church of the Nativity to express his support, sent a special envoy, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, to Jerusalem May 1 in a visit aimed at directly participating in solving the crisis.

For their part, the Franciscans have issued a plea for greater involvement of the Christians around the world in pressing for an end to the siege.

“At the beginning of ‘the fifth week of occupation and siege’ of the Sanctuary of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Order of Friars Minor expresses its bitter disbelief at the incapacity of the civilized world to induce the parties to accept and carry out a greatly longed-for pacific solution,” the Franciscans said in a message posted on their web site April 30.

Related Web sites
Bethlehem University

Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land


Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. She traveled to Israel to report on the conflict in March. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 10, 2002