Harassment, Islamic Radicalism Drive Flight of Palestinian Christians

By Patrick Goodenough | May 15, 2009 | 1:38am EDT

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Pope Benedict XVI in P.A.-controlled Bethlehem on Wednesday, May 13, 2009. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Standing alongside Pope Benedict XVI in Bethlehem this week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Israel for the emigration of Palestinian Christians, but researchers say the reasons for the declining numbers of Christians in the place of Jesus’ birth are considerably more complex.

Religious intolerance, expanding Islamic radicalism and P.A. harassment are cited as “push” factors, along with economic hardship and unemployment attributed in part to security closures that affect the important tourism industry. “Pull” factors include the existence of flourishing communities in the diaspora, easing assimilation.

In his comments, however, Abbas blamed only Israeli policies, including the security barrier standing between P.A.-controlled Bethlehem and nearby Jerusalem.

“In this Holy Land, the occupation still continues building separation walls,” he told the visiting pontiff of Wednesday.

“Instead of building the bridge that can link us, they are using the force of occupation to force Muslims and Christians to emigrate, and thus our holy places become antiquities for tourism,” the PLO media center quoted Abbas as saying.

But the decline of Christian numbers in Bethlehem long pre-dated the building of the security barrier. Scholars note that it even pre-dated Israel’s capture of the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War.

Greater Bethlehem, which includes the linked towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, was part of the British mandate of Palestine until 1948, then fell under Jordanian control until June 1967. Israel administered the area until it handed authority to Yasser Arafat’s P.A. in 1995 as a result of the Oslo peace accords.

Israeli political analyst Yoram Ettinger, a former Israeli government liaison to the U.S. Congress, revealed several years ago that in the run-up to the handover to Arafat, former Bethlehem mayor Elias Freij, an Orthodox Christian, lobbied the Israeli government not to transfer Bethlehem, saying it would become a town with churches but empty of Christians. Freij later became a P.A. minister, and died in 1998.

Justus Reid Weiner, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs who has been tracking the persecution of Palestinian Christians for more than a decade, says the Christian population of Bethlehem dropped from 80 percent of the total in 1950 to 60 percent in 1990 and to some 40 percent in 2000. It is today estimated at somewhere around 15 percent.

“Mahmoud Abbas is wrong in stating that the security fence is the main reason for Christian emigration from Bethlehem,” Seth Frantzman, a Ph.D. student at Hebrew University who wrote his M.A. thesis on Arab Christians, said Thursday.

“Emigration began in 1948 after thousands of Muslim refugees were settled in the city by Jordan and the economy of the city declined drastically under Jordanian rule,” he said. “With the handover of the city to Palestinian Authority control in 1995 emigration increased even more.”

From the time of Bethlehem’s transfer to the P.A. in 1995 it was seven more years before Israel began work on the controversial security barrier in June 2002. It did so amid continuing violence following the outbreak of the terror campaign known as the “second intifada.” (More than 100 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks during March 2002 alone.)

During that seven-year period the pace of Christians leaving Bethlehem picked up, amid reports of Muslim-Christian tensions and P.A. intimidation and corruption.

In August 1997, for instance, a fracas erupted in Beit Sahour after an Islamist confronted a Christian woman about her attire and assaulted her male companion. When the man retaliated P.A. police arrived and arrested two Christians. Later, nearly 200 Christians marched to the local police station where police opened fire, wounding seven, according to eyewitnesses quoted in media reports at the time.

An Israeli government report released later that year said P.A. officials had tried to cover up the sensitive incident afterwards.

Palestinian security officers stand on the roof of the Church of the Nativity before the start of the papal mass in Bethlehem on Wednesday, May 13, 2009. (AP Photo)

‘Harassment, bullying, intimidation’

Other incidents adding to Christian anxieties included the rape and murder of two Christian sisters by gunmen allied with Arafat’s and Abbas’ Fatah faction in 2002 and the kidnapping by a Muslim of a 16-year-old Christian girl in 2005.

Her family lodged a complaint with P.A. police, but the girl, who has U.S. citizenship, was only released after the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem intervened. The family then moved to the U.S.

“Monthly acts of harassment, bullying, intimidation and low-scale violence are the actual result of PA control,” Frantzman said.

With the outbreak of the second intifada, gunmen began using Bethlehem’s Beit Jala as a staging post for gunfire attacks at the nearby Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, in an apparent bid to draw Israeli return fire.

“Their goal was self-evident – to direct international attention [to] any retaliatory bombardment of this Christian town by the Israelis,” according to Daphne Tsimhoni of the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University, author of Christian Communities in Jerusalem and the West Bank Since 1948.

During Israel’s operation Defensive Shield, a military action aimed at flushing out terrorists in 2002, Palestinian gunmen holed up in the Church of the Nativity – traditionally marked as the site of Jesus’ birth – are remained there under siege for 39 days, after which a European-brokered agreement allowed them to leave, with 13 men described by Israel as “senior terrorists” going into exile in several European countries.

The gunmen included P.A. security officers and members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a Fatah affiliate.

Documents found by the Israeli military during Defensive Shield and later released by the government indicated a campaign of harassment and intimidation of Bethlehem’s Christians by Fatah and P.A. agencies, including the seizure of property, extortion, blackmail and arrests on false pretexts.

The influence of Islamist groups is also cited as a factor in Christian unease and emigration.

P.A. law stipulates that Bethlehem’s mayor must be a Christian. Frantzman said this maintains “the veneer that Bethlehem is a Christian town.”

Of the 15 seats on the local council, seven are reserved for Muslims and eight for Christians. Since municipal elections in 2005, Hamas has controlled six of the Muslim seats while the Christian seats are held by members of Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist group.

‘Precarious’

The decline of Christianity in Bethlehem mirrors that elsewhere in the P.A. areas, where Christian denominations include Catholic, Armenian, Syrian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Protestant.

Frantzman said statistics are nearly impossible to come by, but cites Tsimhoni as saying the Palestinian Christian population has dropped from 35,000 in 1997 to 25,000 in 2002, with another 12,000 living in Jerusalem.

Frantzman said about 300 Christians left the P.A. areas each year after 1995, and after the start of the second intifada the number doubled.

Writing in the Jordan Times this week, Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist from a Christian family, said reasons for Palestinian Christian emigration to Western countries include “violence, occupation and uncertainty, coupled with work (or lack thereof) and emigration opportunities.”

Syrian Orthodox leader Sami Barsoum told The Jerusalem Post that Christian flight was a result of “so many wars” and the absence of security and tranquility.

“Jews say we’re Arabs, and Arab Muslims say we are Israelis,” he said. “Our life has become so sensitive, so precarious, no wonder the Christians are leaving the country.”

The pope referred to the exodus of Arab Christians during a Mass in Jerusalem this week, saying it was “a source of concern to all who love this city and this land.”

“Today I wish to repeat what I have said on other occasions,” he said. “In the Holy Land there is room for everyone.”

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