A 76-year-old Greek Orthodox monk is beaten up by villagers, his carefully tended olive trees are uprooted and his isolated West Bank monastery is defaced with graffiti depicting nuns being raped.


A 76-year-old Greek Orthodox monk is beaten up by villagers, his carefully tended olive trees are uprooted and his isolated West Bank monastery is defaced with graffiti depicting nuns being raped.

The land of Jesus’s birth is not always an easy place for Christians to live in 2006.

The population of Christians in the Holy Land, particularly in the Palestinian territories, is dwindling as more and more leave for a better life abroad, turning the community into a tiny minority squeezed between Muslims and Jews.

The traditional merchant class, heavily dependent on tourist money, has suffered a recession since a Palestinian uprising began in 2000 and Israel walled off Bethlehem with a barrier.

The Israelis say it is designed to stop suicide bombers and Palestinians call it a land grab.

“(Christians) are suffering from both Islamic extremists and Israeli security concerns,” said Canon Andrew White, a former Middle East envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Anglican Church.

While incidents as violent as the harassment of the Greek Orthodox monk are rare, life for Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has become more precarious in the past decade.

Caught in the midst of conflict, Churches have sought to help local Christians quietly by not rocking the boat and being careful over criticizing the Palestinian Authority, which might be seen by some as tantamount to supporting Israel.

“The world has got to wake up to the reality of what is going on and not just view it as a political matter, taking one side or another, and realize that Christians are the people caught in between,” White told Reuters.

At the time of the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Christians were a majority in the Holy Land. Until a century ago, they made up about 20 percent of the population.

Migration by the educated, middle-class Christian population was precipitated by Arab-Israeli wars in the 20th century and intensified in the past few decades as violence grew.

Today, there are about 50,000 Christians in the Palestinian territories — about 1.5 percent of the population — and about 100,000 Christians in Israel — approximately two percent.

Like all Palestinians, Christians have suffered from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Some hold leadership positions in the Palestinian Authority, others in militant factions. Most are imbued with a strong sense of Palestinian nationalism.


Corruption and lawlessness in the West Bank and Gaza in the past decade have hit Christians harder than others because, as a minority, they have not been able to defend themselves easily.

Exasperated at the failure of the Palestinian Authority to act and the reticence of churches to speak up, a group of Christians in Bethlehem drew up a list of grievances that included theft of their land by Muslims, attacks and desecration of Church property.

The Christians passed the list to Church leaders, saying local authorities had done little to help.

These days Christians face extra uncertainty from the rise of the militant Islamist Hamas group, whose charter calls for the establishment of an Islamic, rather than a secular, state — a goal that causes many Christians to have misgivings about remaining.

Since the group’s election victory in January, however, Hamas officials have vowed to address Christians’ grievances, kindling the hope that life might actually improve under the fundamentalist Islamic movement.

There are no accurate figures on the rate of emigration but estimates suggest about 1,000 Christians a year are leaving.

“If the situation continues, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity will become cold, empty museums,” said Samir Qumsieh, a Palestinian-Christian businessman, referring to two of the holiest Christian shrines.

Throughout the Middle East, Christian scholars say, tension is rising between Arab Christians and their Muslim neighbors who see Christians as belonging to a Western World they blame for the conflict in Iraq and other regional troubles.

“Even though Christianity grew in the Middle East, the Christians are increasingly seen as being part of the West and therefore at risk at being targeted because of it,” White said.

Besides the harassment of the Greek Orthodox monk in the Bethlehem area, a parish school in the West Bank city of Ramallah has been firebombed twice and a Bible study center received threats to shut down or be burned to the ground.

“From time to time the youths of our parish are attacked by young Muslim men through forcible entry into the convent’s courtyard,” one Roman Catholic priest told Reuters.

Last year, Christian-Muslim rioting erupted in two West Bank towns and there were confrontations between Druze Arabs and Christians in a Galilee village in Israel.

The incidents had roots in cultural clashes over family honor — they were sparked by anger over allegations of women being dishonored — as well as conflicts over land.

They were indicative of the situation faced by the dwindling Christian population in a society where the size and influence of the clan is often the final arbiter in disputes.

Infighting over theology or historical slights waters down Christian influence further.

“We are seen as Christians in the eyes of our Muslim countrymen and Palestinians in the eyes of Israel and the West. We lose on both fronts,” said one, speaking anonymously.


In the case of the harassed monk who lives in a monastery with two nuns, the abuses have been going on for over a decade.

“One day as I tended my olive trees, they came and beat me up, very badly. They tore up my clothes. They were ready to kill me. Then they put wire fencing around me and they said we’ll put the pig inside and we’ll kill him because pigs are not wanted on this land,” the monk said in a testimony.

Late last year, graphic drawings depicting nuns being raped were daubed on monastery property.

The Greek Orthodox Church dismissed the matter as a land dispute between neighbors. Another Church source said the Church feared its interests could be hurt if it spoke out.

Land disputes are a particular source of tension between Muslims and Christians in the Bethlehem area. Space is running short in a city largely blockaded by Israel and Muslim families are growing faster than Christian ones.

Christians complain that their appeals to Palestinian courts have fallen on deaf ears, although the land disputes have also sometimes involved Muslim landowners.

“It is not an Islamic-Christian confrontation. Historically, we have lived in peace,” Qumsieh said. “They are targeting Christians because we are the weak link.”