Recent comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury point to the disparities between Palestinian Christians living in the Holy Land and those living in Israel proper. This article points to a semantic issue that has arisen between Israeli census counters and Christian leaders that clouds the problem of how many Christians are leaving the Holy Land to greener pastures. Christian Palestinians being forced from East Jerusalem is yet another disparity.
Jerusalem and West Bank losing Arab Christians
The bruhaha over the numbers of Christians living in Israel and the West Bank began with a recent statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury that Christians are leaving the Holy Land. The Archbishop wrote that Jewish settlers are “driving out” Christians from the Holy Land. This is the inference drawn by news source Jihad Watch, which is a strongly pro-Israel news source, which we quote here in part to show how virulently anti-Islam it is.
The Archbishop, Justin Welby, and the Palestinian Bishop, Hosam Naoum, jointly wrote that “Christmas is a time when we think about the land of the Bible,” then suggesting that radical groups are involved “in a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.” Their article was triggered by Jerusalem Church leaders’ warning that radical Jewish groups were “diminishing the Christian presence” including “the desecration of churches, as well as physical and verbal attacks on priests, monks and worshipers.”
Christian leaders Welby and Naoum state that the Christian population in the Holy Land has decreased from an estimated 73,000 in 1922, ten percent of the total population, and now comprising only two percent, a massive drop over the last almost 100 years. While Israel deserves some blame for this decline, there is some reality to the fact that there are other forces at work.
So, what is the truth of the matter? Well, it’s a bit of both—Christians are leaving the Holy Land, meaning the West Bank, but also including Gaza for this purpose. Muslim anti-Christian sentiments in Gaza and the West Bank are real enough and the Palestinian Authority has not been helpful towards Christian Palestinians. Furthermore, the settler communities are squeezing Palestinians off land that is rightly Palestinian. Because the settlers are using up the resources, there is little chance of Palestinians developing a sound economy, another compelling reason for Christian migration to such places as the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
Israeli claim of Christian community growth only partially correct
Israeli census authorities reported that there is a population of 182,000 Christians in Israel proper, denoting a 1.4% increase from 2020. But, in a need to split hairs on such a sensitive subject, it is appropriate to mention that there has been some loss of Christians from East Jerusalem. Reporting on this topic, Gulf News has noted that “radical groups continue to acquire strategic property in the Christian Quarter, with the aim of diminishing the Christian presence.”
East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, was captured from Jordan in 1967 and annexed—an act rejected by the international community. Christian holy sites adorn the landscape, especially notable being the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed by the faithful to be the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried.
Not to overlook the benefits to Christians who live in Israel proper, it is important to note that Christian Palestinians who graduate from school have a better chance of getting into university than any other group in the country—at a rate of 71.2%. Also, more Christian women attend university or other, higher levels of education than any other ethnic-religious group. These include both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews.
In conclusion, the place of Palestinian Christians in the greater picture of the Holy Land and Israel shows the deep inequalities between those who are citizens and those who are occupied. So, that inequality does not just relate to whether one is a Christian or a Muslim Palestinian—rather, it relates to whether someone is a citizen of Israel or the subject of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. For the latter, freedom and human rights are few and far between.
“Archbishop of Canterbury Blames Israel for Christians Leaving the Holy Land,” Jihad Watch, 12/25/2021
“Israel says Christian community growing after church claims,” Gulf News, 3/23/2021
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, Department of State, and the World Bank in 65 countries.