HOLY LAND -At the heart of today’s burning issues in the region, Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land (Israel and Palestine), feel threatened, directly or indirectly, in many ways. How many of these Christians are there? Why did they emigrate in the past? And why are they still emigrating today?

Given that information is neither clear nor comprehensive, it would not be prudent to issue a definitive response or issue an official statement regarding these questions. But it is possible to return to some historical facts of an objective nature and to cautiously present the figures put forward by authors or researchers.

Appproximate figures and percentages

On the official website of the visit of Pope Francis in the Holy Land, the Media Commission has published that “approximately” between 120,000 to 130,000 Palestinian Christians live in Israel (there are also 190,000 Christian migrants, or Israeli Christians of Russian origin or other nationalities who are beyond the scope of this article).. While “almost” 50,000 Christians live in Palestine (38,000 in the West Bank, 10,000 in East Jerusalem and 2,000 in Gaza). This means that the Holy Land is home to approximately 180,000 Christians who are Palestinian Arab according to their culture and history.

Palestinian Christians are present today in many countries around the world. Some have settled in neighboring Arab countries, while others have decided to settle in Europe or even in countries in the West.

Some estimate that there are about 500,000 Christians in the Holy Land today, but this number seems unlikely. The author of the article advancing this number has, however, with the writer of another article, published in Spanish [3], that estimates there are 300,000 to 500,000 Christians living in Chile alone, for the most part Christians from the region of Bethlehem.

According to the Spanish article, Mr. Nael Salman, the mayor of the town of Beit Jala who visited Chile in 2013, said that 400,000 Chilean inhabitants have their roots in the town of Beit Jala. This would mean that they are 20 times more than residents of Beit Jala today!

Why have Christians emigrated?

In seeking the answer, two distinct types of emigration become apparent: voluntary and involuntary. The first began towards the end of the 19th century to early 20th century under the Ottoman Empire. The reasons were varied and could have been political, religious and/or economic.

In 1909, the Ottoman authorities abolished the exemption from military service enjoyed until then by Jews and Christians. Many young Christians saw emigration as a means of escaping conscription and thereby the murderous conflicts in which the Sublime Port was involved at the time. But to where did they emigrate?  To Europe and the Americas, Christian countries. Here, it is apparent that political reasons matched religious reasons, because the Christian minority, suffocated by the Ottoman regime in Palestine, also found in these Christian countries a place of “religious exile,” as explained in the Spanish article cited above.  But these countries also appeared very promising economically, especially South America whose riches were more readily available to the newcomers.

On the other hand, we know that the involuntary emigration of Palestinian Christians started in 1948 with Al Nakbah and the creation of the State of Israel.  Between 780,000 to 800,000 Palestinians (Muslims and Christians) were forced to leave their towns and villages, without ever being able to return.  Of these, 50,000 to 60,000 were Christians. Some estimates consider that they accounted for 35% of the Christian inhabitants of the Holy Land at that time.

Why do Christians emigrate today?

Christians did experience more stable conditions in Palestine under the Hashemite Kingdom between 1948 and 1967.  But since the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by the Israelis in 1967, Christian emigration has become common occurrence.  The tensions of the first Intifada, the evident fragility of the Palestinian Authority, the second Intifada, Israel’s containment of the territories by means of the wall and the checkpoints together with the current radicalization of Islam all served to exhaust Palestinian Christians and increase their desire to emigrate, especially among the young.

According to the Papal visit website, Christians accounted for some 10% of the population of Palestine in 1948. Today, they do not exceed 2%.  According to a French article, 56% of Christian Palestinians, or of Palestinian origin, today live outside the Holy Land.

The author concludes with the forewarning that “emigration will progressively and permanently  weaken the Christian community still present in Israel and the West Bank”. And that “the working assumption of its disappearance or marginalization in the years to come cannot be dismissed”.

This still leaves the question that should call to action the Heads of the world’s Churches, Christians around the world, but equally Palestinian Muslims: how to preserve and provide concrete support to the peaceful, open and dynamic Christian presence in the Holy Land, in order that Christians should not disappear from the Land of Christ?

By: Firas Abedrabbo- LPJ