This week a number of stories have come out highlighting the general perspective of Palestinian Christians in the context of President Trump's controversial recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Some of these headlines include, "Nazareth cancels some Christmas festivities over Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital" or "Mike Pence to face bitter reception from Palestinian Christians as he visits the Middle East" or further, "Palestinian Christians: Jerusalem is for the three religions". Many Western audiences might be scratching their heads at such news as the first question that is often asked is, "who are the Palestinian Christians?".
Palestinian Christians protest Trump's Jerusalem decision. Image source: Daily Sabah
Anger at Pence's Visit
But as Vice President Pence prepares for his visit to Jerusalem this upcoming week (expected to land in Jerusalem Wednesday), which will include a contested visit to the Western Wall (which administration officials have promised will remain under the sovereignty of the Israeli state in any future agreement), Pence will be seeking the blessing of church officials based in the holy land - at least through the positive optics of brief official meetings and accompanying photo ops.
Though an increasingly small minority in the region, the Palestinian Christian demographic and perspective has long been of huge symbolic importance when Western diplomats consider drastic steps or changes in policy related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially as they are seen as a kind of bridge between the culturally Christian West and the Islamic Middle East. But historically, they've often suffered persecution from both the Israeli and Muslim sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Thus far, the White House's Jerusalem bombshell has met with condemnation and resistance from Palestinian and broader Middle East Christian leadership. Just prior to Trump's December 6th announcement of the monumental shift in policy, Church leaders in Jerusalem wrote the president begging him not to go forward with a move they said would "increase hatred, conflict, violence and suffering", adding further that, "As the Christian leaders of Jerusalem, we invite you to walk with us in hope as we build a just, inclusive peace for all the peoples of this unique and Holy City."
Palestinian Christians speak out on Israeli occupation and Trump's Jerusalem decision pic.twitter.com/f0KkNuBhCs— TRT World (@trtworld) December 13, 2017
And with the arrival of Pence in Jerusalem and a scheduled tour of Bethlehem during the Christmas season, things are about to get more contentious as native Christians have promised to make their opposition visible through things like joining mass protests with their fellow Arab Palestinians and intentionally removing traditional public displays of Christmas.
As The Guardian reports, Pence has already essentially been banned from entering the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem, the place of Jesus' birth:
One person, however, who will not be entering the church, barring a last-minute diplomatic miracle, is the US vice-president, Mike Pence. A proposed visit to Bethlehem and the Nativity church – now cancelled – had been intended as the highlight of a tour of the Middle East next week.
That tour has been thrown into disarray by Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the consequent refusal of Palestinian and many Christian leaders to meet Pence.
Dwindling Numbers but Outsized Voice
Though throughout most of 20th century, Christians were still the majority in cities associated with the life of Jesus, their number in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth are down to about 15% and 30% respectively (and just 2% of the total Palestinian territories population). But their presence is immediately visible in such traditionally religious and touristic sites, as they inhabit the oldest quarters of the cities, and have maintained ownership of prime real estate which predates the modern era (going back to Byzantine times). For example, Israeli Parliament itself (the Knesset) sits on land owned by the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem.
So Christian Palestinians play out outsized role in the conflict given their dwindling numbers (most through mass emigration), and their reportedly widespread opposition to US policy will make things awkward during Pence's visit. Current protests include the following according to The Washington Post:
- "In the West Bank city of Bethlehem... religious leaders turned off the city’s Christmas tree lights last week to protest the White House announcement.
- In the city, the writing is on the wall: “Mr PENCE you are not welcome,” someone has scrawled in red spray paint on the 26-foot-high concrete Israeli security barrier that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
- On Sunday, demonstrators staged a sit-in outside the Church of the Nativity, built on the site thought to be the birthplace of Jesus. “We will not receive Mr. Pence here,” said Saleh Bandak, a Bethlehem-born Christian politician who attended Sunday’s protest.
- ...The pope of the Egyptian Coptic Church, who leads the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East, has called off a scheduled meeting with Pence in Cairo.
- The Chaldean Church in Iraq warned this week that the White House move on Jerusalem risks sparking regional violence and extremism and demanded that the Trump administration respect U.N. resolutions on the city."
And the Washington Post also highlights an interesting contradiction - the perception within the Palestinian Christian community that their American co-religionists are actually hurting and not helping them. The Washington Post explains:
While the news has been badly received among Christian communities in the Middle East, the move was in part a political gesture aimed at Christians: white evangelical voters, who backed Trump overwhelmingly in last year’s presidential election. American evangelical Christians — who believe that the right of the Jews to Jerusalem is enshrined in the Bible and that their presence there will usher in Judgment Day — were a powerful lobbying force behind the decision.
Palestinian Christians complain that Christian evangelicals’ support of Israel doesn’t take into consideration the rights and needs of Christians in the homeland of their religion.
“This is where it all started,” said the Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem. “The Bible originated in Palestine, not in the Bible Belt, but people in the Bible Belt read the Bible in a way that really makes our lives difficult.”
Persecution from the Israeli State
Palestinian Church leaders tend to complain that Israel can sell its expansionist policies to the Western public if it can maintain a simplistic black-and-white narrative of an Israeli Jewish fight against a sea of Arab Muslims. This ultimately serves to underscore the narrative that "Palestinian Arab" is the equivalent of being Muslim.
However, there are other large sectors within Palestinian society that lack affiliation with Islam: secularists, communists, Arab nationalist, and Druze among them. It is also an inconvenient fact which frustrates the "Muslim vs. Jewish" narrative that the oldest identity when it comes to the Palestinian Arab demographic is represented in the Christian segment of the population.
And as much of the reporting from this week has affirmed, Christian Palestinians as a demographic are overwhelmingly against the modern state of Israel and its expansionist policies. They point out that Israeli bulldozers level Christian villages just as they do Muslim villages. Christians also certainly suffer from occasional random acts of violence from West Bank and Gaza Islamic fundamentalist groups, but the consistent message of Palestinian Christians is that they are ultimately victims of multiple decades of Israeli persecution and land grabs.
Within the West Bank and Gaza, a Christian Palestinian resistance movement centered in places like Beit Sahour – the Christian village (outside of Bethlehem) which pioneered a nonviolent resistance movement during the First and Second Intifadas - has gained some international attention during both Intifiadas.
In 1989 for example (during the First Intifada), diplomats from Britain, France, Belgium, Greece, Italy, Spain and Sweden attempted to gain access to Beit Sahour during a complete Israeli siege and blockade of the Christian town. These diplomats were prevented from entering as the Israeli Defense Forces did house to house searches and seizures. During the Second Intifada, multiple Christian youths were killed and wounded as the IDF again attempted to bring the town into compliance.
Middle East Christians and American Misconceptions
More broadly, there are over 14 million Christians living in the Middle East (most are Eastern Orthodox, followed by Catholics), and these Christian communities, in their ancient origins, predate the existence of Islam. Further surprising for Western audiences to learn is that Arabic as a spoken language was used by Christians six centuries prior to the writing of the Koran, and Church history testifies to the presence of at least one Arab bishop at the Council of Nicaea, where the doctrine of the Trinity and the divine nature of Christ was formalized and promulgated.
The Church of Saint Porphyrius is the oldest active church in Gaza city (dating back to 425 A.D.). Located in the Zaytun Quarter of the Old City, it is named after the 5th century bishop of Gaza, Saint Porphyrius, whose tomb is situated in the northeastern corner of the church. Image source: Al Azhar University, Gaza.
When most American Christians read the Bible and see names of ancient cities like Antioch, Damascus, Tyre, Sidon, Nazareth etc… identified with the earliest foundational Christian communities, this is often for them a sort of distant, mythic reference to a mysterious and obscure moment in time when “Biblical figures” happened to briefly stroll these ancient Eastern streets prior to these regions being engulfed in Islam. But even the popular idea that a “sea of Islam” definitively and with finality took over the whole Middle East in the 7th and 8th centuries is a myth – many urban centers, especially in the Levant remained entirely Christian throughout the middle ages and into the modern period.
Many of the Middle Eastern cities named in the Book of Acts still have skylines dominated by crosses and Byzantine style church domes to this day. Holy Cross Orthodox Church in the Qassaa neighborhood of Damascus, for example, counts about 10,000 people as members. One can even visit large urban churches in the Gaza Strip like the one pictured above.
Concerning Pence's imminent visit, it is unlikely that relations between Palestinian Christians and the US administration will improve even should church leaders decide to engage in formal dialogue. It will be interesting to see what develops.