CHRISTIANS in the land of Jesus are a dying breed.and many observers put the blame largely on Israeli government behavior. True, the reasons for the decline of the Christian community as a proportion of the Holy Land.s population also include emigration and a birth rate below that of its Muslim and Jewish neighbors. But a major factor is arguably a set of Israeli actions that are not Christian-friendly.

CHRISTIANS in the land of Jesus are a dying breed.and many observers put the blame largely on Israeli government behavior. True, the reasons for the decline of the Christian community as a proportion of the Holy Land.s population also include emigration and a birth rate below that of its Muslim and Jewish neighbors. But a major factor is arguably a set of Israeli actions that are not Christian-friendly.

A century ago, Christians numbered one-fifth of those living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. At Israel.s creation in 1948, they were a solid 10 percent of the population. Today they total barely 1.5 percent.about 160,000 in an Israeli/Palestinian population of over 10 million.

Local Christians believe that in another generation there will be virtually no Christian presence in the land Jesus walked. Finding no fellow believers with whom to pray, visiting pilgrims will be welcomed only by the dead ruins of biblical sites, not the living stones of indigenous Christians. .It will have the artificial allure of a kind of Bible Disneyland,. a visiting Minnesota group was told in April of this year.

The departure of Christians is one result of Israel.s 38-year occupation of Palestinian territories. In much larger numbers than Muslim Palestinians, Christians have emigrated, as middle-class professionals see little or no future for themselves or their children. For centuries, providing services and selling craft items to tourists has sustained many Christian households. With pilgrimages sharply reduced in the past five years, Palestinian Christians have been especially hard hit.  

The Palestinian diaspora today includes more than 300,000 Christians.twice the number living in Israel and occupied Palestine. Bethlehem, once predominately Christian, now counts three Christians living elsewhere for every one who has remained in the .little town. of Jesus. birth. Reflecting that pattern is Bethlehem.s Christmas Lutheran Church, which has seen its membership decline to under 200 baptized, from a high of more than 500 in the 1950s. Palestinian Lutherans (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land) today number under 2,500 in six congregations, with at least that many .alumni. living abroad.

The international Christian presence in particular is being squeezed by Israeli actions. Many expatriate church workers believe the Israeli government dislikes their connection with political power in Europe and North America and seeks to diminish their presence. Whether intended so or not, Israel.s behavior does result in restricting the church.s humanitarian ministries. Three specific examples:

  • Delay or denial of visas for church personnel serving in hospitals, schools, and other church agencies. Roman Catholics alone operate 151 institutions in Israel and Palestine; Protestant and Orthodox Christians have nearly as many. Visa problems make it increasingly difficult for international churchworkers to work in the Holy Land.
  • International church agencies have long enjoyed exemption from Israeli taxes. For more than 50 years, U.S. Christians have offered humanitarian services in the Holy Land. While these are primarily aimed at Palestinians, whose need is greatest, Israelis also benefit. But Israel now wants to end long-standing tax exemptions for these charities. If upheld by Israeli courts, the change could lead to closing such life-giving programs as the Lutheran World Federation.s Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem, sole provider of vital medical specialties to Palestinians in occupied territories.
  • The separation barrier inside the West Bank is damaging Christian institutions, separating them from the people they serve and also frequently keeping pilgrims from visiting Christian holy sites.

Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), considered a staunch supporter of Israel, said recently that Israel.s barrier on Palestinian territory is .drastically undermining the mission of Christian institutions and the social fabric of their communities.. Columnist Robert Novak (.Walling Off Christianity,. April 18, 2005) quoted Hyde as also .concerned about the&[effect of] illegal Israeli settlements and their infrastructure. on the Christian presence.

Israel today seems to welcome only those pilgrims known as Christian Zionists, who stand with Israel.s political and religious right. Mostly American, these groups routinely refuse to meet with indigenous Christians, who are considered theologically and politically .incorrect..

In April our visiting group raised these concerns with an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson. He conceded the problems exist, but denied his government sought a reduced Christian presence. Israel hoped to ease the visa situation for churchworkers, he said, but promised no positive movement on the tax or separation barrier issues.

The death of Christianity in the Holy Land has consequences beyond its impact on Christians wishing to live or visit there. As Charles Sennott writes in The Body and the Blood: The Holy Land.s Christians at the Turn of a New Millennium (available from the AET Book Club):

.Christian presence&is a potentially important, possibly essential, voice in the dialogue for peace, but it is a voice that has been reduced to a hoarse whisper. Historically, Christianity has provided&a small but necessary ingredient acting as a buffer between the Arab world.s broad Islamic resurgence and the strands within Israel of a rising ultranationalist brand
of Judaism. These two fundamentalist movements&increasingly cast the territorial Israeli-Palestinian conflict in religious terms. If the Christians disappear, the Middle East will become that much more vulnerable to this embittered dichotomy..

The Christians who still remain in the Holy Land wonder if their fellow believers in other lands even know, or care, about their plight. One Palestinian church leader told our visiting group that the Holy Land.s Christians generally feel abandoned by Christians elsewhere. What they seek, we heard more than once, is that members of the global church actively stand in solidarity with them, recalling St. Paul.s word (1 Corinthians 12:26), .If one member [of the body of Christ] suffers, all suffer together with it..

Charles P. Lutz is a retired Lutheran church executive who lives in Minneapolis, where he coordinates the Minnesota grassroots advocacy program of Churches for Middle East Peace. The co-author (with Robert O. Smith) of the forthcoming Fortress Press book, A Land Called Holy: How We Can Foster Justice, Peace, and Hope, he has led five groups on Holy Land visits since 1997.