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Christian Presence in Palestine and the Diaspora: Statistics, Challenges and Opportunities

Written by Diyar
August 31, 2012

On Friday August 10th, 2012 a conference on the topic of Christian presence in Palestine and the Diaspora: Statistics, Challenges, and Opportunities “, was sponsored by the Diyar consortium held at the International Center of Bethlehem.  More than 200 participants, including notable national and religious figures from the occupied West Bank, Jerusalem and inside the Green Line (Israel) were present.

Below are the main points, highlighting important facts, statistics and recommendations that emerged from the sessions:

  1. The issue of numbers and percentages of Palestinian Christians is often exaggerated. The prevailing argument often suggests that the number of Palestinian Christians is constantly dropping; but Diyar’s published studies have shown they have remained steady, even with a slight rise. However, their percentage is in significant decrease with the exception of Gaza, where both numbers and percentages continue to decrease.
  2. Nakbah: The study ,as introduced by presented by Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, founder and President of Diyar, states that the main reason for the decrease  is the Nakba; followed by migration. In 1924, 10% of the inhabitants of historical Palestine were Christians. Shortly after the Nakba, their percentage came down to about 8%. The Nakbah affected negatively all Palestinians but particularly the Christians. And within a very short period of time the Christians’ rate declined from 8% to 2.4%.
  3. Emigration: Palestinians, especially those from Bethlehem area, first emigrated to Latin America and then to North America and Australia. The study provided by Diyar on Palestinian Christians in the Diaspora (Latin America) is distinctive in that it is the first to be issued by Palestinian researchers of a specifically Palestinian Christian organization (the Diyar Consortium). Mrs. Violet Raheb-Abado, editor of this study, highlighted what the study had demonstrated namely that in Latin America lives the largest Palestinian and Palestinian Christian community outside the Arab world. One half-million are located in Latin and Central America of whom 80 to 85% are Christians. According to statistics, the largest number of Palestinian communities is in Chile where 350 thousand Palestinian Christian live. In Honduras 3% of its residents are Palestinian Christians. It is worth mentioning that the third, fourth and fifth generation of immigrants consider themselves “natives’ but at the same time have awareness and pride of being of Palestinian roots. Dr. Adnan Musallam noted that the first Palestinian immigration to Latin America in the early century occurred as a result of the policies of the Ottoman Empire. Dr. Musallam also pointed to the role of British policies in preventing immigrants from returning to Palestine and thus underlining “the diaspora."
  4. Birth Rates: The number of births in Christian families is considered the third reason for the lower percentage of Christians following the Nakba and increasing immigration: In Israel, for example, an average of 2.88 children are born for Jewish mothers, for Muslims the rate is 3.84 per family, for the Druze it is 2.49 and 2.18 for Christian mothers. Through the century the proportion of Christians constantly and rapidly dwindled. It is also worth noting that only 3% of proper Israel is under the control of the Arabs in Israel who constitute over 22% of the population. On the other hand, the occupation controls more than 60% of the territory of the West Bank. These statistics and many other demographic facts were addressed by Dr. Johnny Mansour in his presentation at the conference and more extensively in one of a series of three books on this general theme of Christian Presence in the Holy Land; released by Diyar Publisher in 2012 entitled "Arab Christians in Israel: Facts, Figures and Trends."
  5. It was agreed during the conference that Palestinian Christians presence is not defined by mere numbers, as articulated by Patriarch Michel Sabbah , Bishop William Shomali and Bishop Munib Younan. His Beatitude Patriarch Sabbah urged Christians to hang on to their faith that could move mountains and would never break when confronted by difficulties. He also stressed that Palestinian Christians are an integral part of the Palestinian Arab society and have a notable presence in its history and heritage, as well as its struggle with the Israeli occupation, refusing to call Christians a “minority” that needs protection.Bishop William Shomali reaffirmed that we should not make of the small number of Christians a “wailing wall” or view Christians as merely a small number; instead, we should focus on the quality of this Christian presence and influence, and the roles Christians have to play in bridging the gap between the varied cultures around us. Also we must work to deepen the Christian faith and encourage a greater fellowship among churches, and promote a deeper dialogue and shared living among all religions of the area.As Archbishop Atallah Hanna spoke about the issue of Palestinian Christians in Gaza, emphasized that Palestinian Christians are not “imported” from random places in the world; on the contrary, they are natives in this land. He added that the situation in Gaza is the worst as a result of the Israeli policies of closure policies on the one hand, and radical movements on the other.Adding another dimension to the debate Dr. Hatem Khoury addressed the matter of quantity and quality of the Palestinian Christian presence; Quantity, he suggested, needs quality and quality loses value if quantity diminished, especially if Palestinian Christians aim to be partners in the decision making process or to influence decision makers. As Dr. Hanna Issa stated the current number of Christians in Gaza is only 1250 Christian while Dr. Bernard Sabella cited the number of Christians in Jerusalem and the pressures that confront the holy city and its Christian population, which are a result of the policies of occupation. He also called on churches to further address social needs.
  6. The second study published by Diyar Publisher and revealed at the conference was “Palestinian Christians in the West Bank" edited by Ms. Rania Al Qass, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb and Mr. Rifat Kassis, showed that about 45% of the total civil institutions and bodies are Christian entities that are founded, owned and managed and\or funded by Christians.  Moreover, it was evident that in the West Bank the church is one of the largest providers of employment opportunities after the Palestinian Authority. 22,000 Christians and Muslims are employed by the churches and their Christian Institutions. That number comprises about one-third of the Christian population of West Bank Palestinians. The study also points out that the spirit of “volunteering” is growing in churches -a fact that shifted the conversation from the perennial question "What does the church provide for me" to a more positive attitude: "What can I offer to the church? How can I serve the church?”.
  7. In the session entitled "Palestinian Christians within the Green Line,” Dr. Ziad Shlewet shed the light on the change in the concept of identity for Christians living inside the Green Line. Dr. Shlewet delineated the changes of the definition of identity over three periods: First, the years from 1948 to 1967: when Palestinians identified themselves as Palestinian. The second: from the years 1967 to 1990 when Palestinians identified themselves as Arabs; and Third: the new generation that holds multiple identities some of which may be in conflict with others. At the same session, Dr. Atallah Copti’s inputs were focused on school curricula, especially the religion curricula and their impact on the shape or confirm identity.
  8. The conference sessions led to a mutual conclusion that there are racial, ethnic and religious discriminatory policies that cause Christians, Muslims and Jews call for full citizenship and the rule of law. Full citizenship was strongly stressed in the conference as an issue of critical concern by both speakers and audience. Citizenship is not only demanded by Christians in Israel, but by all Arabs in the different Arab countries.
  9. The last session highlighted the strategic plan formed to make the Christian presence in Palestine a more active one. It was stressed that this strategic plan should be enshrined in the constitution and protected by a state that enforces law and freedom.

Some religious and political leaders are working on implementing this strategic plan. Mr. Ziad al Bandak, Mr. Hanna Omereh and Patriarch Michael Sabbah collaborated in presenting the strategic plan in the session moderated by Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb.

The plan consists of several strategic goals that are designed to be implemented in the coming five years:

  1. Educate people about Citizenship and the bases of respect towards each other.
  2. Establish a modern constitution
  3. Enhance the curricula
  4. Raise awareness about the importance of authentic Christian presence in the context of Palestinian society and its contribution to the struggle for justice and peace.
  5. Get the Christian voice to be heard in international forums
  6. Create a conscious Christian spiritually and a Christian who is materially sufficient
  7. Promote self-reliance
  8. Enable and empower churches and institutions to play a role in promoting the sense of belonging to the community, and contribute in building it through encouraging      Palestinian expatriates to invest, and to develop a common vision based on the unity of destiny.
  9. Work on the peace of Jerusalem by protecting its sacred status, conserving its holistic nature and working on enforcing the equality of all its inhabitants.

Diyar Publishing released three studies for further information about the “Christian Presence in Palestine and the Diaspora”. The books and studies are available for purchase online via amazon.com at the following Links:

http://www.diyar.ps/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=497%3Alatin-american-with-palestinian-roots&catid=33%3Abooks&Itemid=71

http://www.diyar.ps/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=496%3Aarab-christians-in-israel-facts-figures-and-trends&catid=33%3Abooks&Itemid=71

http://www.diyar.ps/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=495%3Apalestinian-christians-in-the-west-bank-facts-figures-and-trends&catid=33%3Abooks&Itemid=71



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