Thirty or 40 years from now, you may not have a Palestinian Christian community. We would not let a nearly extinct bird vanish from the skies, or a nearly extinct species of fish disappear from the seas. We can do no less than to seek to save ourselves.
About 200 representatives of American and Palestinian Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches met Oct. 2 with prominent Arab Americans and Middle East diplomats in a day long national convention in Bethesda, Maryland. Their aim: to mobilize U. S. Christian support for the rapidly diminishing Christian community in the Holy Land.
The meeting was sponsored by the newly formed Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, which gathered church leaders to consider what President Clinton called in a letter to the conference “special challenges for Christians in the Holy Land”.
As descendants of the first Christians two millennia ago, Palestinian Christians consider themselves “the living stones” of their faith, said Albert Mokhiber, vice chairman of the American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee. But today, they are a beleaguered community on the verge of extinction. “Thirty or 40 years from now, you may not have a Palestinian Christian community. We would not let a nearly extinct bird vanish from the skies, or a nearly extinct species of fish disappear from the seas. We can do no less than to seek to save ourselves.”
In the words of Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan of Jerusalem, addressed to a largely American ecumenical audience: “You belong to us, and we belong to you. Our mission is yours, and yours is ours.”
The Palestinian Christian community is in free fall because of the conditions its members face in an occupied land. Conference speakers observed that in 1920, 20 percent of Palestinians were Christians: today, less than 2 percent are. There are fewer than 8,000 Christians in Jerusalem, a city of mote than a half a million people. Reasons for their departure include conditions which affect Palestinian Muslims and Christians alike.
Separated families because of onerous Israeli security requirements for Palestinians passing through checkpoints and seizure of identity papers of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. Several panelists mentioned the virtual conversion of “a checkpoint into a border” in Bethlehem, including a security zone 300 meters wide encroaching on the town in what was called a duplication of the tightly controlled crossing between Israel proper and Gaza.
Unemployment. This is now 30 percent, and increasing, because of Israeli restrictions on exports of farm produce from Gaza and the West Bank. There also are severe impediments to tourism. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism requires tour guides to obtain permits, and more than 95 percent of several thousand guides escorting visitors to the holy places in the coming millennial year are Jewish.
Expanded settlement activity. During the first three months of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s government, conference participants were told, there have been even more housing starts to expand existing Jewish settlements (tenders have been issued for 6,000 of these) than there were in the final three months of the Netanyahu administration. This is despite Barak’s pledge riot to build new settlements.
Home demolitions and a decline in public health and sanitation services in East Jerusalem. “Time is running out,” according to Father George Maklouf, pastor of the Virgin Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church of Yonkers, New York. “Palestinian Christians are facing what is tantamount to ethnic cleansing.” In the words of Father Majdi Siryani of the Latin Patriarchate, Jerusalem: “Both Palestinians and Israelis are paying a heavy price they don’t have security, and we don’t have sovereignty.”
Several panelists sketched the role of Palestinian Christians as what Jordan’s Ambassador to the United States Marwan Muasher called “a bridge of understanding and a force for justice in situations in the Middle East that need more of both;” Father Siryani noted that Christians have a unique role in constitution building in a future Palestinian state. Among their tasks: ensuring that what he called “a weak rule of law” in areas now controlled by the Palestine Authority.
The most persuasive call for support by churches in the United States and the West to Palestinian Christians came from Ambassador Muasher, himself a Christian, who noted that Jerusalem is not only a city of shrines, but of people. In the current final status talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Jordanian envoy said, the Church seems content with the position that Jerusalem should remain an open city for all faiths. This position is alarmingly insufficient.
“Indeed the issue of an open city for all faiths is not contested by either Palestinians or Israelis today,” Muasher continued. “Both agree on at least that much By going no further, the Church seems to be ignoring the interests of the indigenous Arab Christian population while not furthering those of Christians around the world. For if Jerusalem loses its Christian population, the city loses an important element that has contributed to its image as a center of diversity and tolerance throughout the ages. The Christian world’s claim to a share in Jerusalem as a spiritual place central to the faith will be weakened, at best, if no members of the faith are residing there.
“This is a fact that so far has eluded Christians and churches around the world. By supporting the continued presence of indigenous Christians in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, the Church would not only be supporting their cause, but the cause of Christians around the globe, and the cause of tolerance and peace …There is no better place to start than Jerusalem, to strive to keep it a symbol of faith for all, and I stress, all, Abrahamic faiths,” Ambassador Muasher concluded.
The HCEF was formed less than a year ago under the leadership of Rateb Rabie, a Palestinian American Christian, and Father Emil Salayta a Jordanian priest serving in Palestine. In addition to informing American churches about the plight of Palestinians, the foundation supports employment, educational and health projects in Palestine and raises money throughout the U.S. to alleviate suffering there.
During the day long national conference at Bethesda’s Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart and evening banquet at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC, there were appeals, working groups and informal conversations aimed at marshaling support for the projects. Among the suggestions:
Assistance by American churches to establish micro-credit funds to help Palestinian female small business entrepreneurs, modeled after the highly successful Grameen Bank program in Bangladesh where the payback rate has beers 98 percent
Organizing gifts of software programs to Palestinians, along with training in computer technology.
Continuing expansion of the Living Stones housing project for Palestinians, including fund raising for a $7 million project on land owned by the Lutheran Church on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. Forty nine Palestinians recently moved into new homes as a result of already completed Living Stones project construction.
Fund raising for scholarships, including those for vocational on the job training, often as important as university scholarships and those far sponsoring children in elementary schools. A typical scholarship costs $500 a year. In the past year, National Presbyterian Church sponsored 100 Palestinian students.
Partnerships between individual churches in the U. S. and those in Palestine. Scholarships for simply equipping and administering Palestinian schools could result, as well as teacher exchanges, and summer scholarships both in the U.S. and in Palestine. The partnerships also could stimulate shipments of books from libraries in the United States to schools in Palestine
David Johnson, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, spent most of the 1990s in Jerusalem working with Palestinians. In a panel on the future of the holy city, he said Christians the world over must offer tangible help to provide reasons for Christians to stay, and not leave, Jerusalem. Churches, he said, can advocate equality of public services for Palestinians there by financially supporting such institutions as the St. Augustine Hospital on the Mount of Olives, and offering legal and professional counseling services to those who need it. Others on the panel said U. S. churches should exert Political pressure on Israel to provide public services to Palestinians comparable to those given Israelis in Jerusalem and Israeli occupied or jointly administered areas.
– Alan Heil