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Christians in the Holy Land

Palestinian Christians pray at Ar Raqqah Al-Qusayr church in Ramallah
Palestinian Christians at Ar Raqqah Al-Qusayr church in Ramallah

The roots of the Arab Christians lie deep in Palestine. Jerusalem has always been lively and has welcomed brothers and sisters in faith over the years as resident and passing pilgrims, calling on them to learn about the sources nurturing their faith.

The vast majority of Palestinian Christians, estimated at 600,000 in the world, have local roots. They speak Arabic and have a long history that connects them to the mother church. Over 70 per cent of them live outside Palestine; only 50,000 Palestinian Christians remain in the country across the West Bank, where 47,000 of them live, and the rest are in the Gaza Strip. They make up 1.25 per cent of the Palestinian population in the occupied Palestinian territories. The total population under Israeli occupation was estimated at 4 million in 2009.

The Palestinian Christians are distributed among denominations as follows: 51 per cent Greek Orthodox, 33 per cent Latin (Roman Catholic), 5 per cent Protestant, 3 per cent each Syriac and Armenian Orthodox, and 2 per cent Copt, Ethiopian, Maronite and other Christian groups.

The number of Arab Christians inside the Green Line (Israel) has reached 117,000, nearly 66,000 of whom are Roman Catholics; 45,000 attend Greek Orthodox churches and nearly 6,000 belong to Protestant denominations.

Jerusalem is the symbol of coexistence of everyone and it is a joint heritage of the Muslims and Christians. The Christians in Jerusalem are like the Christians in Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Ramallah and all the others in Palestine in that they are all subject to the very real problem of emigration. Their emigration rates are much higher than those prevalent in the Palestinian community generally.

For example, the number of Christians in Jerusalem according to 1922 statistics was 14,700 and the Muslim population was 13,400; in 1945 the figures were 29,350 Christians and 30,600 Muslims. The number of Christians in Jerusalem dropped to 27,000 in 1947 due to the war situation that arose in Palestine on the eve of the UN Partition Plan in 1947. The number of Christians in the Holy City should have reached at least 100, 000 by the year 2000, but their numbers did not exceed 12,000 and there are now only about 10,000.

In addition, 50 per cent of Christian Jerusalemites lost their homes in West Jerusalem in 1948. Israel then confiscated 30 per cent of the land owned by Christians after the 1967 occupation. All of these factors have contributed towards making the Christians a continuously dwindling community.

The Christian Palestinians are facing several challenges that are ultimately facing the Palestinian community as a whole. Despite this, there are specific challenges that have special significance, especially those associated with emigration and the dwindling number of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land.

Migration from the country has led to a decrease in numbers and a change in the dynamic of relations inside a single church, as well as changes in its relations with other churches and with the wider community. However, the fall in the number of Christians is not only a result of emigration, but also of other demographic changes. Arab Christians in general have a lower birth rate in comparison to the Palestinian community as a whole.

The estimate of the Palestinian Christian population beyond occupied Palestine is 3 million; that’s between 31 and 22.6 per cent of the total Christian population in the Arab world. These statistics suggest that Arab Christians in the Middle East have a strong tendency towards emigration.

Some of the churches that have suffered more than others due to emigration are the Assyrian, Armenian, Syriac and Maronite Churches, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, as over 50 per cent of its Palestinian members are abroad.

As for the Chaldeans, the turbulent situation in Iraq resulted in their displacement both inside and outside the country, where they can have some level of stability and peace of mind.

The US Census Bureau stated in 2000 that three quarters of the Arabs living in the US (1.2 million according to the bureau’s records) are Arab Christians. Not many Arab activists in the US look at these numbers and are pleased, as they believe that the true number is double or three times this number.

The biggest threat that the Christian Palestinians have faced, especially after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, is Judaisation and land confiscation. This is evidenced by the fact that the Israeli authorities confiscated 11,000 acres of olive tree woodland in Beit Jala to build the Gilo settlement. They also seized thousands of acres of land belonging to Christians in order to pave exclusive settler-only highways that link the Jewish settlements located south of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Translated from Ajazeera.net, 1 May, 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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