Palestine Update: Muslim-Christian Solidarity in Palestine

Palestine Update: Muslim-Christian Solidarity in Palestine


All too often Westerners’ make the rather simplistic conclusion that the presence of Palestinian Christians in The Holy Land is owing to rather rigorous Protestant missionary activity. This approach fails to take into account a very elementary fact- that Christianity as an indigenous religion in The Holy Land predates Islam. In point of fact, the lack of conscious, and even callous indifference and ignorance of the Christian plight in the region on the part of western Christians has led (in a positive way) to Palestinian Christians adopting to hold on to other crucial identities other than “Christian.” Most Palestinian Christian would rather identify themselves as “Arab” or “Palestinian.”

This shift has roots in the ongoing struggle for freedom and justice against the Israeli occupation of Arab lands. Palestinian Christians and Muslims feel suffocated by the same conditions of the occupation and are acutely conscious that their struggle is a common one for their liberation. In fact, it is argued that Palestinian Christians would tend to identify contemporary Christianity with the United States’ support of Israel and Zionism. Their sense of betrayal has decisively cemented relationships amongst the Muslims and Christians. Palestinian Christians feel a closer allegiance to their Muslim neighbors than to Christians in the West. Their grim outlook is confirmed by the shrinking figures of the local Palestinian Christian population, which has decreased from some 350,000 in 1948 to much less than fifty percent of that figure and those numbers are only worsening.

I would like to historically explore through an overview how the Palestinian identities merge. Based on this I will try and narrate the particularities of their interaction and propose prospects for a sustainable future for the Muslim-Christian relationship in the region.

After Pentecost

Palestinian Christians point to Pentecost’s miraculous occurrence in Jerusalem as the foundation for global Christianity, but also for Palestinian Christianity in particular. In the apostolic era, local Christians were not yet identifiably Arab in character, despite the presence of a few Arab settled tribes; according to the biblical narrative they were a varied mix of Jews and Gentiles. Taking control of Palestine in 313, the Byzantine Empire communicated a very clear vision of “right-believing” (Orthodox) Christianity and discouraged local doctrinal diversity. Though imperial rule helped Christian monasticism and scholarship flourish, Palestinians saw mainstream Christianity as influenced by Greek philosophy and tied to Greek cultural identity. This experience characterized European Christianity as foreign, alien, and uninterested in the well-being of Christians.

In contrast to this estrangement, Muslim rulers encouraged support for Christian institutions and healthy dialogue between the religions. During the early Islamic years (about four centuries beginning with the conquest of Jerusalem in 638 CE), the Christian community in Palestine became linguistically and culturally ‘Arabized’. With the emphasis placed on cooperation and diversity by each local Muslim regime, it is not surprising that Palestinian Christians welcomed Islamic governance. Meanwhile, Palestinian estrangement from the West was only reinforced by the Crusades, which targeted many Palestinian Christians.

In the times that followed, Middle Eastern encounters with the West became more frequent, particularly political and cultural contact with Christians of a “missionary” or colonialist outlook. In response to these encounters with a foreign, Christian other, a movement called al-Nahda (“the Awakening”) took place among Arab intellectuals in the second half of the 19th century. The advocates of al-Nahda dreamed of a common Arab identity with a “secular tone”. They, however, considered Islam to be crucial to Arabs’ self-concept. This re-shaping and re-definition of Arab identity secured a privileged place for Islam and rejected Western Christian colonialism. In practice, though, this meant that intellectuals and governments could extend a warm policy of tolerance to Arab religious minorities, allowing them to participate in public life. This precedent for Muslim-Christian cooperation is essential to understanding how Christians operate in modern Palestinian society and politics.

Christians in Palestine Today

Today’s Palestinian Christians are by no means a homogenous demographic. Approximately 41% are Greek Orthodox, 36% are Latin (Roman) Catholic, and 9% are Greek Catholic; the rest are either non-Chalcedonian Orthodox (Armenian, Coptic, Syrian) or Protestant (Anglican or Lutheran). Their income and level of education tends to be above average when compared to other residents of the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip; this may help explain why a proportionally high number of Palestinian emigrants are Christian.

It is worth noting that there are Israeli citizens, in East Jerusalem and the rest of Israel proper, who are ethnically Arab and religiously Christian. In fact, Arab Christians make up a higher proportion of Israel’s population than that of the Palestinian Territories. Both groups — Palestinian and Arab Israeli Christians — are vocal in the public square.

For Palestinian Christians, a healthy relationship with their Muslim neighbors, politics aside, trumps allegiance to the Christian West, which has often “betrayed” its co-religionists by supporting the very state that threatens to drive them out. Western Christians see organizations like Hamas as irrevocably opposed to Christianity. The truth is that Hamas leaders are comfortable sending their children to Christian schools. And in the changing political scenario where the PLO and Hamas are seeking reconciliation, Hamas is increasingly being viewed as more liberal and less perilous for the Christians. 

When it comes to relations with the Israeli government, local Christians face unique challenges. For Arab Israelis, loyalty to Israel has been slowly contradicted by Israel’s growing tendency to officially define “Israeli-ness” on a racial and religious basis, not a political one.

The Promise and Peril of Identity

The dynamics of identity are changing very rapidly for all Palestinians. While Palestinian society is historically reputed for its secularity and generous pluralism, Muslim Palestinians are becoming more attached to their religious identity, augmenting the politicization of Islam. This leaves Christians in a dilemma, and their impulse is to identify themselves foremost as Arabs and as Palestinians to ensure common ground with their neighbors.

Palestinian Christians place a high political priority on the restoration of a Palestinian homeland, and this stance requires alliance with Muslims in the region. Throughout Palestinian history, the dynamics of identity are also tied to political currents. Solidarity with the rest of the (predominantly Muslim) Palestinian populace is to the greatest advantage of the local Christian populace, and so their Arab and Palestinian self-image takes precedent over their Christian one.

There are therefore two forces leading Christians in the Holy Land to define themselves foremost as Arab and Palestinian. On the one hand, the rise of politicized Islam is pushing Christians away from their distinctiveness, and on the other, a desire to see their homeland intact has pulled them into allegiance with their Muslim neighbors in a pan-Arab spirit of solidarity.

If diluted distinctiveness threatens Christianity’s presence in the Holy Land, what will the next generation of Christian Palestinians look like? We may see a new wave of assimilation, with Palestinians embracing Islam’s dominance as the only hope for their homeland. This may entail actual conversion to Islam, or it may lead to an alienating, potentially fatal creep: as Muslims move toward religious identity and Christians move away from it, the two communities may come to share less and less in common, and the long-standing good relations between Palestinian Christians and their last strong ally may dissolve.

Despite these concerns, Christianity’s presence in the Holy Land may help change the way Westerners perceive the Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestinian Christians have the opportunity to serve as a mediator among actors in the region, rather than being caught in the crossfire. Aside from the historical and symbolic reasons for Christians to maintain a faithful presence in the Holy Land, a consistent and well-articulated indigenous Christian voice in the conflict can contribute another perspective that relies more on practical realities than ethno-religious rhetoric. Palestinian Christians know firsthand the damages wrought by ethnic pride and religious partisanship. If Christians in Palestine can present a united message and witness of the Gospel, they have the opportunity to bring a frank, radical spirit of reconciliation and brotherhood to the region.

Palestinian-Christian/Muslim Relations: Myths, Propaganda and Realities

For the last sixty years, the violence in Palestine/Israel has often been presented as a bloody grudge match between Jews and Muslims. This narrative, though appealing in its simplicity, not only disguises the territorial and colonial core of the conflict but also erases the historic presence of the Christian Palestinians. In recent years though the Christian Palestinians have been receiving more publicity, sadly often only because of the community’s worryingly high levels of emigration.

Approaching the subject of Muslim-Christian relations in Palestine has been complicated by the way in which various parties have sought to manipulate and distort sectarian relations for their own propaganda purposes. On the one hand, Israel and its Western advocates have suggested that Palestinian Christians are the subject of the same ‘jihad’ being waged against Israel and the ‘West’ by ‘Islamic terrorists’.

It is important to understand how Christian and Muslim Palestinians have traditionally lived and worked alongside each other, with a focus on their united front against the Zionist movement. It is also crucial that we understand how Israeli policies of divide and conquer have directly and indirectly served to fragment Palestinian society and aggravate inter-communal tension. Another factor demands our attention – how the so-called ‘war on terror’ and the regional rise in prominence of Islamist political groups affect the Christian-Muslim equation. Palestinians are often at a loss to explain that there is little or nothing that provides a Christian basis for the wars that the USA wages against Islamic countries and that these wars are driven by economic and political self interest.  

It is not just political manipulations that have driven this attempt to create a wedge between Muslims and Christians. Diplomats and religionists have done the same- and worse. Recently, Kairos Palestine a group of Palestinian Christians who co-authored the document “A Moment of Truth,” denounced an op-ed by Michael Oren’s in the Wall Street Journal (9 March 2012). In an inaccurate and manipulative text, Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US had blamed the plight of Palestinian Christians on oppression at the hands of Palestinian Muslims – rather than at the hands of the illegal Israeli occupation itself. Kairos called the Oren op-ed in the Wall Street an attempt to mask reality. They said: “Christian persecution is caused mainly by the occupation that systematically degrades all Palestinians, restricts our movement, confiscates our land, devastates our economy, and violates our rights — including the very basic right to a decent life” They went to reject Oren’s attribution of migration within the Palestinian Christian community to ill-treatment by Palestinian Muslims. “This damaging analysis” they said, “willfully ignores the underlying political oppression that afflicts Christians and Muslims alike. In the case of Bethlehem, for instance, it is in fact the rampant construction of Israeli settlements, the chokehold imposed by the separation wall, and the Israeli government’s confiscation of Palestinian land — largely Christian owned land in the Bethlehem area — that has driven many Christians to leave. At present, a mere 13% of Bethlehem-area land is left to its Palestinian inhabitants.

Kairos also made a bold assertion arguing that Oren’s article reveals a disturbing conception of democracy itself because he seeks to highlight ways in which Israel supposedly seeks to protect the survival and encourage the prosperity of the Christian community. Kairos argues that Oren implies the Israeli state’s lack of interest in ensuring the same for Muslims. Democracy, Kairos argues, is not selective.

Kairos raises a pertinent question to Oren’s claims saying that while Oren goes on about present-day religious tension, he neglects to say that Christians and Muslims lived together for the past 1500 years without major problems — and that, upon the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, more than 100,000 Christians were lost virtually overnight. Kairos declares that the US invasion of Iraq, for instance, has done graver damage to Christian-Muslim relations across the world than anything that appears in Oren’s article. Kairos “refuse to be marginalized in the way Oren defines our marginalization; we refuse to be pitted against our Palestinian Muslim neighbors and friends; and we refuse to let our collective oppression be manipulated in a way that fragments us, obscures us, or masks the oppression’s true cause, which is the Israeli occupation” .

In a similar protest to a BBC interview in June 2011 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Kairos Palestine expressed deep dismay at his comments regarding the situation of Christians in Palestine, in particular, and in the Middle East in general. Kairos called to question his “inaccurate and erroneous” remarks that cited Muslim extremism as the greatest threat facing Christians in Palestine. Denying that that was the primary “reason for our emigration”, they challenged the Archbishop saying it was “particularly faulty and offensive especially you say that the movement of Muslims into the Bethlehem area, where space is limited, is forcing Christians to leave”. Equally shocking is how Your Grace managed, diplomatically –instead of being prophetic, as one would expect you to be, not to mention the Israeli occupation, the separation wall, Israel confiscation of Palestinian land, its policies that violate freedom of movement and worship” as the fundamental causes.

Kairos regretted that the Archbishop did not choose to “have a different voice than the one in mass media and other right wing political parties, which exploit our sufferings to fuel some islamaphoebic tendencies and negative images about Islam” That, they said, is “what the Israeli occupation persistently tries to do. It demonizes Islam in a way that deflects blame from the repression levied by the state itself. We are concerned that your comments are serving the same purpose”. In anger and despair, the Kairos response said: “We are no longer expecting support from Church leaders around the world. Our Hope, Faith and Love come from elsewhere”.

Christian-Muslim Relations prior to 1948

Even today, the previous generations of Palestinians in the West Bank today will tell you that in ‘their day’, it was never a question of ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim’; you were just Palestinian. Certainly Christian and Muslim Palestinians have a long history of cooperation, mutual appreciation, and societal unity. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that there were no differences between the two communities historically. In the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, many Christian Palestinians had already started to emigrate, tired at the lack of opportunity and development in Palestine. Moreover, owing to the impact of missionary schools and colleges, as well as ties to Western Churches, the Christian Palestinians were disproportionately represented in the middle class and elite. They thus felt the stagnation under the Ottomans more keenly, and were quicker to seek opportunities abroad.

On the eve of Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, however, the Christians were very much part of Palestinian society, representing around 10-12% of the overall Arab population. Concentrated in areas such as the Galilee, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem, there were also several smaller mixed villages where Christians and Muslims lived alongside each other. Once the initially small scale Zionist settlement of Palestine had reached a more threatening and politically significant scale, Christian Palestinians became victims of the same social and personal catastrophe that befell so many thousands of their Muslim compatriots.

A Muslim in Ramallah had this to say: “I’m a Muslim living in the Christian city of Ramallah, I went to a Christian school, many of my friends are Christian, and we share greetings during Muslim and Christian holidays. The school weekend is on Friday and Sunday so that both Muslims and Christians can have their own day. On the walls of my school there’s a huge graffiti showing Jerusalem’s mosques and churches. There’s a very similar painting in Ramallah’s busiest square showing crescents and crosses”.

There are some-but not many- Christians and Muslims who get married. Recently, human rights organizations are carrying out an advocacy initiative asking that the Palestinian authority regulates laws to make equitable. They want to see remnants of the discriminatory laws enacted during the Ottoman rule give way to what would fall within a secular political framework.  A very famous singer in Palestine- a Christian married to a Muslim, during Ramadan makes them Eftar, and said how she even tried to fast so that she could share what her husband feels. So, one could affirm that Christian Muslim relations are ground in a common humanity.

An overview of the Christian presence in Palestine

The estimated number of Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem is now 51,710, making the percentage of the Palestinian Christians in the Occupied Territories two percent of the Palestinian population. The influx of Jewish immigrants since the late 1880s, the Nakba of 1948 and the expulsions of 1967 played a big role in diminishing the presence of Palestinian Christians. During the Deir Yassin Massacre of 1948, over a quarter of a million Palestinians, many of them Christian, were displaced or disappeared. Many of the 531 villages that were levelled in 1948 had a mix of Christian and Muslim inhabitants. To this day, millions of Palestinians have been expelled from their lands, and rendered homeless and as refugees. Of the remaining Palestinian Christians, most of them have emigrated at an increasing rate from 1990 onwards, because of lack of freedom and security and due to the deteriorating economic situation.

Propaganda and the Muslim-Christian equation

Various Christian Zionist propaganda sources claim that the main problem for Palestinian Christians is their Muslim neighbours. The decline of Christian presence in Palestine is portrayed as the fault of Muslims and not of the illegal Israeli occupation.Christian Zionist tours to the Holy Land contribute towards the spread of this myth and frame the conflict in an anti-Muslim way in order to distract attention from Israel’s continued violations of international law.

Palestinian Christians are an indigenous, integral part of the Arab Palestinian culture and civilization in the political, historical and religious spheres. At the political level, Palestinian Christians have been fellow citizens in the common struggle against foreign or colonial invasion, regardless of its religious or ethnic identity. Many seats in the current Palestinian Legislative Council are held by Palestinian Christians. This amounts to more or less 8% of the seats, whereas Christians only make up 2% of the population of the West Bank and Gaza. Similarly, the Samaritans, who number three hundred and twenty persons, have one seat in the Council. Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter are observed, and Christians continue to be an integral part of the Arab Palestinian culture and civilization.

Palestinian Christians, like their Muslim counterparts, have experienced a long history of dispossession and have not been immune to Israeli policies of occupation and discrimination. Not only do they have to deal with the day to day hardships that come with occupation, but they are also dismayed by the fact that many of their fellow Christians in Europe and North America unquestionably support the Israeli regime. Western Christians have, for a variety of reasons, tended to show greater sympathy towards the state of Israel than towards the worsening condition of the Palestinian people. This alliance can be traced back as far as 1917, when the United Kingdom issued the Balfour Declaration and established Palestine as a “national home for the Jewish people”.

However, Western Christian alliances with Israel go beyond a political alliance. Throughout the 20th Century there has been a significant influence of Christian theological attitudes toward Israel which has been devastating on the indigenous Palestinian Christian community. The rise of Evangelism and Christian fundamentalism has fermented the unquestionable support for the state of Israel. As was highlighted by the Pope in 2010 “the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories is creating difficulties in everyday life….moreover; certain Christian fundamentalist theologies use Sacred Scripture to justify Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”

Christian Zionist support for Israel is also manifested in the shape of pilgrimages to the Holy Land, encouraged particularly by the Israeli Government Tourist Office.This support has an objectionable consequence on the indigenous Palestinian Christian communities. Many of the Western pilgrims appear not only ignorant of recent Middle Eastern history, but surprised to find an Arab Christian presence at all. Like their Muslim neighbours, they are subject to daily experiences of humiliation at checkpoints and roadblocks and prevented from making pilgrimage to their Holy places of worship. Palestinian Christians are routinely prohibited from travelling to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, where the church commemorates Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection from the dead, whilst Palestinian Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza strip are prevented from travelling to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Palestinian Christians and the Islamic resistance

Contrary to what is propagated in the media, the relationship between Christians and the Islamic resistance in Palestine is one of respect. Although tensions arise between the Christian minority and the rest of the population, these are not the result of a systematic discrimination against them, but are more due to the everyday anguish of the siege and occupation.

With regard to the Islamic resistance Movement (Hamas), Article 31 of its Charter specifically says, “Hamas is a humane movement which cares for human rights and is committed to the tolerance inherent in Islam as regards attitudes towards other religions…under the shadow of Islam it is possible for the members of the three religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism to coexist in safety and security”.

Hamas has always demonstrated respect for Christmas religious festivities. In December 2003, they were the first to organize an assistance package and donations to families whose houses were damaged by the Israeli Defence Forces in Rafah. The movement went even further and on Christmas Eve 2003 when several officials dressed up as Santa Claus and distributed presents to Christian children in Bethlehem.

Muslims and Christians in Palestine are not just bonded at the playground or in the spiritual sphere. They share the sheer disappointment with the Oslo process and the rampant corruption of the Palestinian Authority, which has misappropriated billions of dollars worth of aid from the international community. Hamas winning the elections in the territories reflected the disillusionment of Palestinians, and was a natural reaction to their dissatisfaction. Often regarded as a military organization, the movement engages well beyond its military wing. It runs a network of social, educational, health and economic services, especially in Gaza. Christians in Bethlehem and Ramallah, tired of the PA’s corruption and sex scandals, were not afraid to vote for Hamas.

It’s not romance all the way- but the truth is about harmony
No form of human relations are perfect and so there are the occasional tensions in Muslim-Christian relationships. But there exists a healthy framework around which a vibrant and determined civil society works to preserve the rich tradition of multi-religiosity. In Jerusalem, most Palestinians wish to see the city be an international city- a common capital- the headquarters of all things international and one where peace will find a well for the entire world to draw from.

Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike share a few common roots and there are many common elements to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–the so-called Abrahamic religious heritage.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are monotheistic religions, namely they believe that there is only one God. All three religions believe that this God is the origin and source of all that exists. God cares about the entire creation and desires the well-being of all. God is just and has provided basic rules for our guidance so that we may be good and righteous, according to God’s intention. God is also merciful; by means of God’s grace we are given strength to be more like what we ought to be.

The three religions believe that human beings are the highest creatures here on earth. We are the children of Abraham. God created us full of mystery, which means potential for continuous growth, both as a species and as individuals. The Future

No matter how difficult the past and present may be, the three religions must define a common hope for the future. Evil and suffering cannot ultimately prevail. God has provided a condition (or state of being) for which our three religions have different names, but we agree on the term Paradise. This future will bring about God’s unchallenged rule; unconditional bliss for all who live with God.