Skip to comments.In Land of Jesus, Christians Struggle [And blame the USA]
Posted on 08/01/2006 12:07:13 PM PDT by Incorrigible
In Land of Jesus, Christians Struggle
BY STEVE CHAMBERS
BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Nakla Qaber, whose Greek Orthodox roots stretch back generations in a Christian enclave on the West Bank, runs a successful restaurant at a time when most Palestinians are struggling.
But when it came time for his son and three daughters to make their own way in the world, they went off to college in the United States and Canada and never came back.
"Every time I go to services, I look around and see the number of worshippers declining, Sunday after Sunday," said Qaber, 63, who lives in Beit Jala, alongside the major Christian city of Bethlehem. "No one wants to leave his country, so this is a miserable thing, but if my sons and daughters stay overseas, someday I will follow them."
The exodus of Christians from the Holy Land troubles the faithful worldwide. With tensions rising in the past five years and economic conditions worsening, some have begun to whisper about a day when the native Christian population disappears entirely.
Now, with yet another war raging between Muslims and Jews, Christians once again find themselves caught in the crossfire. The vast majority are Palestinian Arabs living in the West Bank, who suffer the same frustrations and dangers as their Muslim neighbors.
Many of them blame the United States for failing to bring peace and stability to the region -- thereby allowing a rise in religious fundamentalism that has increased tensions for the descendants of the first Christians.
"Radical Islam does not even like moderate Muslims, so how can it be good for Christians?" said Jack Khazmo, a Syrian Orthodox Christian who edits a pro-Palestinian political magazine called al Bayader Assiyasi. "We Christians belong to this land and to our country, but the rise of radicalism will affect our presence."
Experts say the Christian population in Israel and the Palestinian territories has fallen steeply in recent years and may number only about 50,000. Since 1948, when Christians were estimated at 20 percent of all Palestinians in the region, their numbers have dropped to roughly 2 percent, according to the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, a group based in Bethesda, Md.
"There is a concern about losing the Christian presence in the Holy Land," said Antonios Kireopoulos, associate general secretary for International Affairs and Peace for the National Council of Churches. "We do not want only to be the caretakers of monuments. But we realize that the tensions and ongoing violence are real."
Local Christian leaders argue it would be disastrous if the native Christian population disappeared -- not just for a people so rooted in the land that they are often referred to as "the living stones," but also for regional stability. Wealthier, better educated and more closely tied to the West than most Palestinian Arabs, these Christians have long been a moderating force in the West Bank.
Still, members of the 15 denominations of Palestinian Christians often complain they feel invisible, even if they are part of much larger churches in the United States and Europe. Conservative Christians in America tend to support Israel, and many pilgrims visit holy sites in Jerusalem without realizing a native Christian population remains.
Even as they struggle, many Christians in the West Bank strive for influence within the Palestinian Authority. A Christian holds one Cabinet post in the Hamas-led government, seven are members of Parliament and others lead cities like Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jala, which together comprise a historic Christian enclave.
George Sa'adeh, deputy mayor of Bethlehem, said that despite occasional tensions between Christians and Muslims, the groups are generally united in calling for more freedom of movement for Palestinians and a reduction in tensions with the Israelis.
"All the people want peace, even Hamas," he said. "The people are frustrated. We must stop the killing, and I believe the United States has the power to make peace if it wants to make peace."
Peace and war are not abstract concepts for Sa'adeh, a Greek Orthodox Christian. One day in March 2003, when he was out shopping with his wife and two daughters, Israeli soldiers mistook his car for one carrying two fugitive terrorists.
They riddled it with machine-gun fire, wounding him and his 15-year-old daughter and killing his 12-year-old daughter, Christine.
Sitting in his office overlooking the Basilica of the Nativity, built 17 centuries ago on the site where tradition says Christ was born, Sa'adeh took out a wallet photograph of a smiling Christine and recalled how an Israeli group of bereaved families reached out to comfort him.
"Talking about peace and ending the war takes a lot of faith and courage," he said. "As Jesus taught us, we must forgive. But when I call for peace, I also call for justice and an end to the (Israeli) occupation."
Sa'adeh and other Christians need a special pass from the Israeli government to leave the West Bank and visit their churches in Jerusalem. Nisreen Kunkar, who handles public relations for Beit Jala, has been unable to visit the home of her in-laws in Jerusalem, although she has been married for years.
Such obstructions, a number of Christians said, inflame tensions in the West Bank and help persuade many of their religious brethren to emigrate.
Raji Zeidan, mayor of Beit Jala and a Christian, said one of the most confounding and frustrating things that has happened to his one-square-mile city in decades was the recent construction of a barrier separating Israel from Palestinian-controlled territory in the West Bank.
The 20-foot concrete wall, which the Israeli government began building in 2002 to keep out suicide bombers, snakes through the town, isolating stores, separating children from playgrounds and, most important in Zeidan's eyes, denying Christians access to their own land.
"Beit Jala is a small town, mostly Christian, and we own most of the undeveloped land," he said. "That is our only chance to flourish and develop, but now it is under confiscation because of the wall. If you lose all opportunities, what will happen? You will go."
Zeidan and other Christians interviewed downplayed tensions between Christians and Muslims, arguing they have much more in common with each other than with Israeli Jews.
Brothers Khader and Mitri Abu, both Greek Orthodox Christians, and their Muslim friends Ishmael Sorur, Abuzayed Odeh and Abu Iyad have known one another for longer than they can remember.
On a hot, sunny day in Bethlehem last week, the friends sat in an auto body store the Abu brothers own, watching the latest war news on Al-Jazeera.
"We are living together, and to say we are not is Zionist propaganda," said Khader Abu, 38. "We were born together, we went to school together and we live beside one another."
"We share all our life, the good times and bad times," Iyad added. "We congratulate each other on our holidays, attend each other's family weddings and family funerals."
The friends share a hobby of breeding chamois goats, with guidance provided by Odeh, a 51-year-old former quarry owner, on the fine art of producing goats with large, bumpy noses and fine, long coats.
As the militant leader of Hezbollah spoke on TV about a military action that had killed eight Israeli soldiers, the friends agreed that war with the Israelis was once again causing them suffering.
"It is the Israeli pressure that is driving younger Christians out of Palestine," said Mitri, 36. "These pressures and humiliations force us to leave."
Asked whether he was worried that the rise of Hamas would signal trouble for Christians, Mitri scoffed.
"We voted for Hamas because the other party (Fatah) are thieves," he said. "We want change."
But Kunkar, the spokeswoman in Beit Jala, said most voters in her town hadn't supported Hamas and were somewhat nervous about the future.
"I grew up beside Muslims, and our relationship is one of respect," she said. "But we know Hamas is a fundamentalist movement, so there was concern after the election that they might institute religious rules. So far, they have respected us."
Hamas is in an awkward position, she added, because while factions within the party want to moderate their positions in order to govern more effectively, war is strengthening the militant wing. She said the elimination of Western aid to the Palestinian Authority, which followed the Hamas victory in recent parliamentary elections, has increased economic hardships.
"The occupation has caused tensions for everyone here, and bombs don't differentiate between Christians, Muslims or Jews," said Sa'adeh, the deputy mayor in Bethlehem.
"But even though much of my family has moved away, I will never leave. I consider staying my obligation as a Christian."
Aug. 1, 2006
(Steve Chambers is a staff writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)
Not for commercial use. For educational and discussion purposes only.
I personally know an Orthodox Christian from Ramallah who would echo the sentiments of those quoted in this article. Though I also know several Coptic Christians from Egypt who would probably argue with them!
Thought at first it was a story about the Presbyterian Church.
What part of being an infidel do the ME Christians not understand.
"We voted for Hamas because the other party (Fatah) are thieves,"
Yeah, if I had the choice between THIEVES and MURDERING TERRORISTS, I would also.... moron idiots!
Until they have killed all of the Jews, then guess whose next up on the chopping block, unless one is willing to betray Christ and embrace Satan's favorite pet Allah.
As long as all the Jews are exterminated and the rest of the infidels live as third class citizens under allah...
Yeah, we've got some extra peace in the back room, don't we? Just wave the magic wand and make it happen.
They have been abandoned though, I don't hear much from the American Christian community about helping them out. They are definitely getting the short end of the stick in all this!
I think that the ME Christians have a burden we cannot easily understand. I do not like to see them sympathizing with Hamas, but they are struggling--big time. Some of them are staying even though they could come to the US just so that God can use them as a light in the darkness. I think I'd have periods of questioning, too, in their circumstances. In fact, I've questioned God during my life for a lot less reason than what they are experiencing! They are our brothers and sisters and we should support them. That doesn't mean always agreeing--do we agree always with our brothers and sisters here? But we need to support them in prayer.
Virtually anything which can replace oil is worth doing if we can bankrupt these countries and remove the only thing which makes them relevant in any way. We can start by using our own oil and forcing any Dems or RINOs who don't allow drilling here to spend a few months in Gaza to see why we shouldn't be buying oil from the Gulf.
Lot's of direct quotes in the article and only one comes even close to this bold statement.
So what do the Einsteins' children do about this? Why, immigrate to America, of course, the land Bush governs.
I guess this makes sense to someone.
They may be Christians but they are also Arabs, steeped in Jew hatred.
Yes, they are. You are exactly right.
People that stupid deserve Darwin Awards, not sympathy.
In his mind you did the exact same thing. Instead of voting for the thieves (Democrats), you voted for the murdering terrorists (Republicans).
I have read other articles about the Palestinian Christians siding with the Muslims. It probably is Stockholm Syndrome.
Well, they're the ones that live there, maybe naming the source of their trouble as they see it. But it is sure a lot safer to criticize Israel than it is to criticize Hamas, or Islam, or Jihadism.
A Wall Street Journal article this week mentioned that when Moslem terrorists in Iraq find out about Iraqis living in the US they hold their Iraqi relatives for ransom and threaten to kill them unless they come up with tens of thousands. And otherwise it's torture.
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