Christmas fading in the Holy Land

Khaled Diab writes: In the land that put Christ in Christmas, Christianity is shrinking.

Less than a century ago, Christians comprised nearly 10 percent of the population of Palestine (now Israel and the Palestinian territories). In 1946, the figure was around 8 percent. Today, Christians make up about 4 percent of the West Bank’s population, although there are still a few Christian-majority villages, such as Taybeh, whose skyline is dominated by church spires and whose businessmen produce the only Palestinian beer. In Israel, though Christians make up 10 percent of its Palestinian population, they only constitute 2.5 percent of the total population. In Gaza, the Christian minority is even smaller, representing just 1 percent of the population.

One major factor in the decline of Christianity here: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 caused hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee or be driven out of their homes, most never to return – and each subsequent war has led to more Palestinians leaving. Today, though Palestinians are often materially better off than other Arabs, restrictions on movement, lack of economic opportunity, unemployment and the constant indignity of living under occupation prompt many to seek out new homes. Palestinian Christians, relatively better educated that Palestinian Muslims and sharing a common religion with the West, have generally been better placed to leave the region.

“Many Christians prioritize their religion over their nationality, thus feeling at home in Western Christian countries as immigrants,” says Ameer Sader, who teaches English and works as a young guide at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Haifa.

“Also, the fertility rate among Christians is the lowest within Israel and Palestine, playing a role, however small it is, in their decline,” he added.

But the exodus is not solely a Christian phenomenon.

“What is often ignored is the huge number of young Muslims who are leaving. And don’t forget there are more Palestinian Muslims living abroad than Christians,” says Dimitri Karkar, a Palestinian Christian businessman. Karkar lives in Ramallah, which has grown with the influx of refugees from other parts of historic Palestine and Israel’s continued annexation of East Jerusalem. Once a small village, Ramallah has become the de facto administrative capital of Palestine, where about a quarter of its population today is Christian.

Another factor: Christian charities and missionaries, who often do valuable work here, also have played an unwitting role in the exodus of Christians.

“I think that an awful lot of well-meaning Christians in the West, whether they are in America, Britain or other places, have poured a lot of money into the West Bank, and specifically into the churches and ministries here,” observes Richard Meryon, director of Jerusalem’s Garden Tomb, which is locked in a spiritual/territorial dispute with the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre over the exact location of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

This outside aid, he notes, “is causing a hemorrhaging of Palestinian believers,” because many are given assistance to move to the West to study but, once there, decide never to return. At the same time, he points out, the numbers of foreign believers and Messianic Jews who believe in Jesus are rising.

And not all Christian activity has been “well-meaning.” For example, so-called Christian Zionists are passionately, even virulently, pro-Israeli, and many come to the Holy Land (some on Harley Davidsons) to express their support. They show rather less interest in the Christians who actually live there.

Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich seems to even doubt they exist. In an apparent bid to court the Christian Zionist and pro-Israel right, Gingrich made the outrageous claim that “We have invented the Palestinian people,” as if the Palestinians I encounter every day here are figments of the imagination.

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