The Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr sprang to my mind last week when I read another alarmist report from the Holy Land. In the midst of the man-made conflicts that are battering the region under one guise or another, the author was questioning whether indigenous Christians have any future in a part of the world where they constitute a numerical minority sandwiched between ‘rapaciously militant’ Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference

Dr Reinhold Niebuhr {1932}

The Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr sprang to my mind last week when I read another alarmist report from the Holy Land. In the midst of the man-made conflicts that are battering the region under one guise or another, the author was questioning whether indigenous Christians have any future in a part of the world where they constitute a numerical minority sandwiched between ‘rapaciously militant’ Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims.

My instinctive reaction will have been to dismiss this article out-and-out as yet another creative bit of writing where faith – or more pointedly institutionalised religion – is placed at the forefront of all sorts of skirmishes and conflicts. After all, there is an almost romantic perception in many minds that depicts Palestinian Christians as a small number of hardy men, women and children from different confessions who are carrying their heavy crosses and plodding on in hostile territory.

However, and before being rationally dismissive, let me become emotionally inquisitive. After all, there was a time not so long ago when one in five inhabitants of Palestine was Christian. Now, it is more like one in fifty. Once, Bethlehem was 95% Christian, whereas Christians now constitute a meagre 15%.  So what brought on this decline? Just hear out some of the comments that might come out of the lips of ordinary Palestinian Christians today! Some would claim that the West treats Palestinian Christians as a non-people, and that few outside the Middle East know of their centuries-old existence as local communities. Others might stress that Palestinian Christians have been forgotten, even by their co-religionists in the West. It is hard, they would add, to maintain one’s spirits when the only people you can look to for support treat you with indifference. Other Christians might lament that the collective Christian morale is being eroded from all sides. After all, the West often ignores them, the Muslim world sometimes treats them shabbily, and they are subject to the indignities heaped upon them as a direct or indirect result of Israeli occupation. Is it any wonder they resort to despair or apathy?

But I believe there is more to the story than sheer indifference by the world – or an IOU owed to them by the ‘Christian’ West. As the noted sociologist and Bethlehem University lecturer Dr Bernard Sabella has often indicated in his statistics and articles, Christians are becoming an ever-smaller minority. At the beginning of the 20th century, for instance, they accounted for 25% of the population in many countries of the Middle East. But in the third millennium, their numbers have dwindled to less than 6% – except in Lebanon. In the Holy Land, the number hovers around an unhealthy 2%.

Why are Christians in the Holy Land fewer than ever before today? Let me posit a few apostrophic thoughts that might disturb the surface of this trend at a time when organisations from the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation to Sabeel are trying to sustain (‘sustain’ but not always ‘maintain’) the Christian presence and witness in the Holy Land.

One simple reason for the decline in numbers is that Muslim families multiply faster than Christian ones. With hygiene and healthcare conditions improving all the time despite the economic challenges of the region, and with the rates of infant mortality diminishing correspondingly, people are surviving in larger numbers and living longer. Therefore, the comparatively lower birth rate by Christians has contributed to this incremental gap.

Also, Christian communities of the 1950’s and 1960’s after al-Nakba constituted by and large not only the intelligentsia or academic elite of the Palestinian population in Jerusalem and the West Bank, but were also generally well-heeled families.

Now, those realities have changed noticeably, and Christians are finding themselves increasingly less a part of the intelligentsia or of academic elitism, and their financial lifestyles have slipped considerably. With some exceptions, their political profile in the country has also diminished, and many men and women rightly or wrongly feel disenfranchised and disempowered members of society. For some, one appealing solution would be to leave the country and travel westward – perhaps where they also have relatives who would cushion the initial trauma of the move away from the Holy Land.
Political Occupation
But demography alone would be an insubstantial factor. In fact, the worsening political situation in the Holy Land over a period of thirty-seven long years of occupation has debilitated Palestinian morale and contributed greatly to this emigrant movement. The concomitant oppression of a whole people by an occupying Israeli hyper-power in the eastern sector of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, has created insufferably challenging socio-economic conditions for a large majority of local Christians. Living under occupation is a humiliating and sordid reality, where people have to contend with discrimination, indignity, irreverence, separation and segregation. It is not easy to face off economic closures, confiscation of land, settlement construction / expansion, Identity card withdrawals, military aggression and separation barriers.

Such political hardships have in turn engendered untenable economic conditions for many Christians who for long years had run their own small businesses. Oppression with poverty, or politics with economics, has created a toxic blend that has enhanced the rate of Christian emigration toward the West – notably Australia, Canada and the USA.

Radical Islamisation

Another fall-out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it has dispossessed many Palestinian Muslims of real hope. Bereft of motivation for the future, and without any exit strategies out of their political morass or economic black holes, many young Muslims have seen their lives drift away. They have therefore sought refuge in religion, reverting with zeal to their faith as the only strict instrument of salvation. What was for decades a Palestinian secular and inclusive sense of political governance has faltered along the way and has been re-Islamised in literalistic and exclusive ways. Consequently, a thought-provoking number of cases of intolerance has sprung up and created the occasional but uncomfortable buffer zones between Christian and Muslim Palestinians. Although this inchoate phenomenon – witnessed also in many other parts of the world from Iraq to Pakistan – has mostly been pietistic in nature, there have nonetheless been cases of faith-based chauvinism or bias exercised against some indigenous Christians.

Without sounding like a weak-kneed apologist, or being compared too readily by some thinkers to an ostrich that hides its head in the sand, I believe this re-Islamisation could perhaps in part be interpreted – though not overlooked – by placing it in a broader political context. Following the horrors of ha-Shoah where six million innocent people were murdered in the most inhumane and homicidal ways imaginable, the troubled conscience of the West facilitated the population of Palestine with European Jewry. Europe’s midwifery gave birth to Israel in 1948 at the expense of another people – whose virtual identity was annulled and whose real territory was confiscated. Consequently the Arab / Muslim world perceived Israel as a Western Christian creation, and this identification still at times smears Muslim-Christian relations in the Holy Land.

Christian Zionism

Ordinary Muslims listen to the vocal flanks of Western Christianity today and conclude that all Christians are pro-Israel. Although this sweeping generalisation is far from the truth, the attitude of many Christian Zionists from the USA invariably leads some Muslims to such conclusions. Christian Zionists, and some Christian evangelicals whose faith is driven by a slavishly literal reading of the Bible, are a divisive voice for local Christians. They turn prophetic texts in the Bible into apocalyptic scenarios for the end times in a predictive and reductionist form of prophecy. They use passages of biblical prophecy out of context to influence political and religious leaders to accept the State of Israel as a necessary condition for the return of the Messiah

[Jesus Christ] and the eschatological end of time [Armageddon]. Consequently, their brand of Christianity, and their selective scriptural exegeses, undermine the presence and witness of local Christians and affect their continuity by giving the false impression of Islamophobic militancy within all Christian communities.

Just consider two examples. The world – including Palestinian Muslims – witness every year the parades associated with the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem when tens of thousands of Christians profess their unquestioning loyalty to Israel. In the streets and alleyways of Palestine, not all Muslims enjoy the theological sophistication to discern the vernacular difference between those Christians and the Palestinian Christians who have always been at the vanguard of the struggle for peace, reconciliation and justice. Or else when the World Jewish Congress and the Knesset’s [Israeli Parliament] Christian Allies Caucus foster a growing alliance between their respective Jewish and Christian organisations. Is it any wonder that misperceptions would compound realities and impact relations?
Is this a faithful picture of the Cross in the land of the Resurrection today? Quite possibly, and it points the way to some serious challenges that all Christians face world-wide. After all, what impacts a Christian in any one part of the world would impact another Christians in another part too. Otherwise, our understanding of fellowship, let alone of the koinonia of the Universal Church, would become questionable. So when Christian leaders from the Holy Land, such as Catholic Patriarch Michel Sabbah or Anglican Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal, encourage Palestinian Christian émigrés to return to their homelands, it is no wonder that such exhortations sometimes come face-to-face with daily realities and fall on deaf ears. This is why the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land issued a pastoral letter only five months ago in which they stressed the need ‘to educate Christians with Scripture, with the commandment of love and with civil and national education.’ As Patriarch Michel Sabbah reflected at a chapter meeting of the Custody of the Holy Land in Amman on 29 July 2004, ‘the faithful must be educated to love and edify their societies’ [so that they can] ‘reflect, think and act.’

Buffeted between those jarring and competing challenges, local Christians in the Holy Land feel perplexed and choose at times the emigrant way out of their homeland. Sadly, what is still lacking today in order to revivify and renew the Christian faith-based presence and witness is a genuine solidarity from the West that must be leavened with a prophetic vision from the Holy Land. Until then, I continue to seek guidance from the Serenity Prayer.