Week 52: Christians in the Holy Land

Week 52: Christians in the Holy Land

December 24 to 30

Palestinians in the occupied territory face increasingly difficult circumstances due to the Israeli occupation. This has led many Palestinian Christians to emigrate, leading to a diminished Christian presence in the Holy Land. This week, as the World Council of Churches publishes the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle for Palestine and Israel, the Kumi Community is focusing on this problem. Here’s what you need to know and what you can do so that together we can rise up.

Topic: Christians in the Holy Land

Who are the Christians in the Holy Land?

The history of the Palestinian Christians dates back to Pentecost in the first century. Over the course of about 2,000 years five major factors have shaped Christians and the Church in this land. The first four include the theological controversies which resulted in the different bodies now present, the coming of Islam, the impact of the Crusades, and the arrival of Protestantism. 

The fifth factor is the ongoing Nakba. While Christianity was shaped by and flourished because, and in spite of, previous conflicts, the ongoing Nakba is threatening to drive Christians and Christianity out of the Holy Land. When Israel declared itself a state in 1948 and Zionist militia drove around 700,000 Palestinians from the land, the Christian population dropped from 8% to 2.3%. The Christian population never recovered. Not only did the percentage of Palestinian Christians remain low, but Christians also struggled to maintain their identity and faith. 

In Palestine today, Palestinian Christians are less than 2% of the population. Out of a total population of roughly 4 million Palestinians, there are less than 100,000 Christians, including 35,000 Greek Orthodox, 30,000 Melkite, 25,000 Latin (Catholic), and small numbers of Oriental Orthodox Christians and Protestants. 

In Israel, Christians are a mixture of Palestinian Arabs, immigrants, and Christian Messianic Jews. Of an Israeli population of 9.2 million there are roughly 125,000 Palestinian Arabs, 150,000 Christian migrant workers and asylum seekers (mostly from Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa), 35,000 Christian citizens who live in the Jewish Israeli Hebrew speaking population (predominantly migrants from the ex-Soviet Union), and 6-10,000 Messianic Jews.

What are the challenges facing Christians in the Holy Land?

Christians in the area face a number of threats. The illegal occupation of the Palestinian territory continues to make life challenging. For example, in the Cremisan valley, just outside of Bethlehem, many olive farmers (Christians and Muslims alike) have had their olive groves demolished by the Israeli military. Other external challenges include discriminatory laws, oppressive practices, limited job opportunities, and threats of injury and death. The Christian community also continues to face internal challenges including leadership structures concentrating responsibility at the top, disunity and isolation within the Christian community, and the need to focus on scarce resources and the serious needs of the people. 

A central challenge facing Palestinian and other Middle Eastern Christians is emigration. Various pressures are making many Christians depart from their traditional homeland. Recent surveys among Palestinian Christians have pointed to several clear reasons why the Christian community, in particular, migrates out.

Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) writes in their entry for Kumi Now, “The top reason given by those who choose to emigrate is the general lack of freedom and security in the Palestinian territories and the lack of peace on the horizon. This includes issues such as:

The deteriorating economic situation in Palestine. The conditions of Palestinian life have made many of our young people concerned about their own economic futures.

The measures of the occupation, including dehumanizing experiences at checkpoints, property confiscations, home demolitions, non-existent building permits, and the lack of possibilities for family reunification. All of this creates an atmosphere of hopelessness. 

The growth of extremism on all sides of the conflict has forced many peace-loving Christians to seek safer environments in which to raise families.” 

We can see from the data that the main reasons for Christian emigration away from Palestine—lack of freedom and deteriorating economic prospects—are tied directly to the experience of the Israeli occupation. This is a long-term and harmful trend for our Lutheran congregation members.”

How have Christians Responded to the Nakba?

Like all of Palestinian society, Palestinian Christians have responded to the Nakba in a variety of ways. However, the community has coalesced in opposition to occupation around shared ideas of peaceful protest, building solidarity between faiths and peoples around the world, and the role of churches as active participants in solving political problems. Some of these movements include: 

Kairos Palestine, a “Christian Palestinian movement, born out of the Kairos Document, which advocates for ending the Israeli occupation and achieving a just solution to the conflict.” (see Week 48: The Kairos Document)

Palestinian liberation theology, a political theology that seeks “to speak justice and truth to people of power” by reconciling the violence of the Nakba with the nonviolent teachings of Jesus Christ. 

Interfaith dialogue and action, such as that described by Rev. Dr. John McCulloch in “Standing with Khan al-Ahmar: Interfaith Engagement as ‘liberating practice’”, where he observes that “What has impacted me as I have spent time at Khan al-Ahmar is that the kind of interfaith that is being practiced is not about theological discussion, but action.” 

These challenges are daunting, but present the opportunity for a Palestinian Christian Social Movement. The future can be created, not merely experienced and endured. This necessitates a sustained and ecumenical movement, not just the creation and reshuffling of bureaucratic organizations. It requires leadership that enables active participation, competence, a high sense of creativity, a commitment to substance and quality, respect for others, and work for the common good. 

A Palestinian Community and Social Movement should focus on connectedness and caring for the whole. It should shift the conversation from the problems of community to the possibilities of community. It must commit to creating a future that is distinct from the past, and focus on gifts and associational life. The small association or group is the unit of transformation and the container for the experience of belonging. 

In short, while ministry, prayer, and theological reflections are essential, if the movement is to have significance and survive, the Palestinian Christian Social Movement must be nonviolent, inclusive, future-oriented, practical, and proactive.

Through the week Kumi Now will publish and share articles highlighting ideas on what needs to be done and how organizations are working to keep the Holy Land a safe and welcoming place for Christians and people of all religions. 

Story: “My Mother vs. Empire: Al-ahaali (people-in-community) is the hope” by Munir Fasheh

“Do not resist evil,” Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:39). I always wondered what he could have meant by it and thought about it again when asked if I could write something concerning the upcoming Sabeel conference on challenging empire. How can we make sense of his statement in today’s world, particularly in Palestine and in relation to empire?

During the past thirty-five years, whenever I faced a dilemma of this sort, I looked to my illiterate mother’s world for an answer. Like most Palestinians, she was the victim of much evil. She and her sisters sewed clothes for twenty-five years to build a house in Jerusalem. I was seven years old when we were driven out of it in 1948, but it is still there, occupied ever since by ‘civilized’ European Jews. After the 1967 war we were able to reach it, but every time we tried to take my mother, she would start crying so bitterly that we took her back to Ramallah. She died in 1984 without ever seeing it.

What is amazing is her reaction to the evil done to her and fellow Palestinians. She followed Jesus’ advice not to resist evil without even knowing that statement. She did not resist empire using its tools; but through embodying the spirit of regeneration in all aspects of her life, through living in harmony with the wisdom in Jesus’ statement. If someone asked, ‘what did Jesus say?’ she could only cite: “love one another.” That was enough to embody Jesus’ spirit in her life. She seems to have discovered that the best way to fight a plague is by strengthening the internal immune system within the family and community—and empire is a plague. Loving one another is the main ingredient in such immunity. In connection to hope, hospitality, and vitality, it was enough for her to incarnate Jesus’ vision in her life. Still, how she did it without being able to read a word is very hard for me to comprehend. I can only explain it by believing that this spirit was regenerated and transmitted from one generation to another for twenty centuries through ahaali, or people-in-community.

Her deep understanding radically transformed my perception of knowledge, learning, faith, and a person’s source of worth. I became convinced that a sure way to kill the spirit of anything is by institutionalizing it. Almost every child learns the language of his/her community by the age of three without the help of any institution. Schools do not only ignore this biological ability to learn but also usually kill it. Does this mean we do away with institutions? I wish we could, but what we can do is build the internal immune system in every child to be able to resist the disease of institutions. For example, we can change our perception and relation to institutions. The best image—one I learned in Mexico—is to perceive them as trees: we go stand in their shade when we need them. The challenge is not to get rid of institutions around us (we can’t) but to unplug them from our inside (which we can).

We can only think wisely about what we know well. “Think globally, act locally” is a modern superstition. Thinking and acting locally was Jesus’ way …

I think Jesus’ statement means “don’t resist evil with evil” because that would only increase and deepen evil in the world. Empire destroys creation. Protecting life’s ability to regenerate itself is the responsibility of religions. Scientists can not do it; wisdom is not a part of their makeup. They still follow the father of modern science, Francis Bacon, who defined science as subduing and conquering nature. In order for religions to play this role, they need to be de-institutionalized and brought back to dwell within ahaali.

Neither empire nor confronting it is—for me—an abstraction or academic term. In my lifetime, seventy years so far, I experienced three empires invading us as Palestinians: Britain, Israel, and the US. They invaded us not only with military armies but also through educational, cultural, and religious “armies.” Through western institutions, I became a ‘soldier’ enlisted in the second type of invasion fighting dear aspects in my life without realizing it. I invaded and conquered my illiterate mother’s math with the math I studied in schools and universities; I helped conquer her Christianity with the institutional one I received from missionaries; I conquered her wise way of raising children by reading Dr. Spock’s and following the path of experts instead of the wise. Only when I was thirty-five years old did I start to realize I was serving empire in its conquest of Palestine at the level of language, knowledge, source of worth, and Christianity—the only indigenous Christianity in the world. Empire not only killed or corrupted life around me but, like the HIV virus, was destroying the internal immune system within me and my community. Empire successfully built nests within me—but not within my mother …

From “My Mother vs. Empire: Al-ahaali (people-in-community) is the hope” by Munir Fasheh. Originally published by Sabeel in Cornestone, issue 59. The full article can be read online.

Kumi Action

Regardless of what religion or philosophy you hold, call and write your nearby churches and say, “This is the week of prayer as part of the World Council of Churches prayer cycle for Palestine and Israel. Palestinian Christians have made a call for churches around the world to listen to their cry for justice. They implore you to not ignore the injustice they suffer and ask: Can you help us regain our freedom, so that peace, justice, and love can prosper in the Holy Land? Please stand in solidarity with them and make their voice heard.” To learn more about the World Council of Churches prayer cycle visit: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/prayer-cycle.

Attend a service at the church you have asked to speak. If they say Yes to speaking about or praying for Palestine and Israel, name the church and say #SheSaidYes on social media. If the church says No, name the church #SheSaidNo. Include a link to this page of the Kumi Now website along with the hashtags #ChristiansintheHolyLand, #KumiNow, and #Kumi52.

Literature: Hymn “Yarabba Salaami”

A well-known hymn sung by many Palestinian Christians

Yarabba salaami amter alayna salaam,

(God of peace, rain peace upon us,)

Yarabba salaami im la’ qulubana salaam.

(God of peace, fill our hearts with peace.)

Yarabba salaami amter alayna salaam,

(God of peace, rain peace upon us,)

Yarabba salaami im’nah biladana salaam.

(God of peace, give our land peace.)

ياربَ‭ ‬السلامِ‭ ‬أمطر‭ ‬علينا‭ ‬السلام

ياربَ‭ ‬السلامِ‭ ‬إملاء‭ ‬قلوبنا‭ ‬السلام

يارب‭ ‬السلام‭ ‬أمطر‭ ‬علينا‭ ‬السلام

يارب‭ ‬السلام‭ ‬امنح‭ ‬بلادنا‭ ‬السلام

Additional Resources

Coming soon