Although some people think that the term "Palestinian" implies a person is a Muslim, Palestinian Christians also exist and their ancestry in the Holy Land goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. As in the East Mediterranean at large, Christians in Palestine were gradually Arabized during the early centuries following the Muslim occupation of the area in the seventh century. Despite their small proportion of the Arab population, Christians have played a significant role in the Palestinian Arab national movement, society, and culture. More recently, the millennium year and the Pope's visit to the Holy Land focused worldwide attention on this small but significant Christian minority.
Notwithstanding their prominence, the Christians have suffered a serious demographic setback during the past fifty years to the extent that some church leaders have expressed apprehension regarding the very existence of Christian communities in the Holy Land: Is Christian life liable to be reduced to empty church buildings and a congregation-less hierarchy with no flock in the birthplace of Christianity? In reply, we survey the demographic trends, main features, and dilemmas of the Christians in the Holy Land.
Assessing the demographic trends of the Christians in Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA)-as well as in Jordan-is not an easy assignment for two reasons: First, the small numbers of Christians and their division into numerous small churches and denominations makes census difficult. Any discrepancy in the size of a denomination will show a bigger inaccuracy in its proportion of the population. Second, demographic trends such as migration and birthrate, ethnic, and religious affiliation are very political issues in the Middle East. For example, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics has until recently published only data on religious groups but not on national ones. The PA and Jordanian bureau of statistics do not publish information on religious groups at all. Hence, official statistics regarding migration and data on ethno-religious groups is often inaccurate, if it even exists. Conversely, churches and small denominations often inflate their membership figures.
Nevertheless, some trends are clear: During the first several hundred years of the rule of Islam, Christians gradually became a minority in the Holy Land. Further, the proportion of Christians in the Palestinian population has steadily decreased since World War I as the result of constant Christian emigration and a higher Muslim birthrate. Christians began migrating from Palestine during the late nineteenth century, both in search of better economic opportunities and to escape harsh Ottoman treatment and conscription on the eve of World War I. The Christians' concentration in towns, and their education in European missionary schools, facilitated their migration and settlement abroad. The emigrant communities have kept strong family, community, and village links when emigrating. For example, Christians from Jerusalem often headed either to Australia or North America, the people of Ramallah tended to relocate to North America, while families from Bethlehem headed to South America. According to local Christian sources, the daughter communities in North and South America had already outnumbered their mother communities by 1948.1
The Christians in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip today form a small minority within the Palestinian Arab society. According to the most recent estimate by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, at the beginning of 2000, there were approximately 130,000 Christians in Israel including East Jerusalem, 107,000 of whom were Palestinian Arab; they formed 2.1 per cent of the total population of the state.2
The PA official census of 1997 did not publish data on Christians or any other minority within the PA because this is considered a "sensitive issue" by the PA. According to the estimate of Ibrahim Kandelaft, adviser to the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on Christian affairs, the Christians in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip numbered 37,500 in 1997 out of a total 2,895,707 population according to the PA census. In early 2000, a PA official website estimated the total number of Christians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip to be 50,000, a figure that approximately conforms with the findings of this research. Their conclusion, however, that the Christians form 3 percent of the total Palestinian population in these territories is inflated.3 Based on the estimated numbers of Christians and on the official figures according to the PA census of 1997, the Christians form 1.3 per cent of the total Palestinian Arab population in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) and the Gaza strip.
The Christians in Israel and the territories are characterized by unusual heterogeneity; indeed, they are a microcosm of Christianity at large, representing nearly every existing major Christian denomination. For example, no fewer than fourteen churches and denominations exist in Jerusalem.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the main Christian centers in Palestine were Galilee in the north, most obviously in the vicinity of the Christian town of Nazareth, and the expanding coastal towns of Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, and Gaza. Jerusalem, the capital and the administrative center of mandatory Palestine (1917-48) became the largest center of Palestinian Christians owing to the relatively high degree of security and opportunities for work that it offered for the middle class, to which a large proportion of the Christians belonged. Bethlehem, on the southern border of the expanded Jerusalem municipal boundaries since 1967, and Ramallah, on Jerusalem's present northern municipal borders, together with their neighboring Christian villages formed traditional Christian enclaves. Christians experienced unprecedented security and prosperity during the 30-year British mandate. The termination of the mandate and the 1948 war caused the exodus of Christians, particularly from the coastal towns and Jerusalem. Just as with their Muslim neighbors, Palestinian Christians were dispersed in the neighboring Arab states and those who remained within the boundaries of mandatory Palestine came under the rule of three political entities: The State of Israel, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and Egypt. Following the 1967 war, Israel gained control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Since 1994, the PA has gradually assumed charge of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
Unlike the Maronites, who maintained autonomy in Mount Lebanon from early in the Islamic era, the Christians in Palestine have been dispersed within and dependent upon the predominant Muslim society. Still, they have remained not only a religious group, but also a distinct social, economical, and cultural one. By 1920 the majority of Palestinian Christians had become urbanized, whereas the majority of the Muslims remained rural throughout the mandatory period and until the 1960s. Christians formed a salient portion of the Palestinian urban middle class; they had higher and Westernized education, smaller households, and a lower birthrate than the Muslims. Christians have been active in the Palestinian and Israeli political, social, and economic arenas by far more than their numerical strength in the Arab population, due to their greater Westernization, their knowledge of Western languages, and their better contacts with the West through their churches' headquarters and larger diasporas in the West.
Ever since the establishment of the Palestinian Arab national movement in the early 1920s, Christians have distinguished themselves in the political-cultural dimensions of the movement. Throughout the British mandate, they were active in the struggle against Zionism, most significantly in presenting the Palestinian national cause to the Western public and governments. In contrast, Christian participation on the operational level, in riots and demonstrations, was minor. This might be explained by several factors, first and foremost the Christians' historic tradition as a protected minority. Unlike in Lebanon where the Maronites never came under direct Muslim rule and their autonomy also included the use of arms, the Christians in Palestine, as elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, were dhimmis (non-Muslim protected people) and as such were deterred from carrying arms and joining the army, and depended on the Muslim majority for their security. They internalized this dependence on the Muslim majority as a social characteristic that persisted even after the Ottoman reforms of the nineteenth century abolished these rules. Their becoming town dwellers, with a higher proportion of educated middle class than the Muslims, made them a more peaceful element of the Arab population. This was demonstrated even during the mandate by a low rate of heinous crimes in which they resembled Jews rather than Muslims.4 Furthermore, the Christians worried that Muslim religious emotions aroused against the Jews might subsequently be turned against them.
Despite the Christian contribution to the Palestinian Arab national movement, their relations with it have been ambiguous. Except for a short time during the movement's formative stage, the influences of Islam on the movement and its affiliation with it have been conspicuous. This affiliation was already obvious in 1922 with the election of the Jerusalemite mufti Hajj Amin al-Husayni as the chairman of the Supreme Muslim Council in Palestine; at the same time, he became the Palestinian Arab national leader and chairman of the Palestinian Arab congresses and delegations.5 While identifying themselves wholeheartedly with the Palestinian struggle against the Zionist movement in Palestine, the Christians were hesitant about the struggle against the British mandate. They were apprehensive of the growing influence of Islam over the Palestinian Arab national movement and of Muslim suspicions that Christians were collaborating with the West. Hence, the Christians found themselves in a marginal position within the movement.
Demographics – Israel
Christians constitute 2.1 percent of Israel's total population. Some 83 percent of the Christians are Arab, representing a significant minority of 9.6 percent of the total Palestinian Arab minority in the state, which itself forms approximately 18 percent of the total population of Israel.6 The Christians in Israel thus form proportionally one of the largest Christian minorities within Arab populations in the Middle East. The Christians numbered 139,000 or 11 percent of the total Arab population in mandatory Palestine in 1945.7 Their proportion increased to 21 percent of the Arabs who remained within the boundaries of the state of Israel in 1949. (See Table 1, left.) This proportional increase was partially due to the Israeli authorities more favorable attitude toward Christians rather than Muslims during the 1948 war. Hence Christians were more often allowed to stay in their villages during the occupation of Galilee. The Israeli authorities were also more lenient regarding the return of Christian refugees to their homes soon after the war. The Israeli attitude was influenced by the fact that Christian villages were by far less involved in hostilities against Jewish settlements than Muslim villages were; the Israeli authorities also took into consideration intervention in favor of Christians by Western churches.
The proportion of the Christians in the Arab population in Israel gradually decreased from 21 percent in 1949 to 13 percent in 1990, and to less than 10 percent at the end of 1998. This decline has been due mainly to the higher birthrate of the Muslims and the continuous emigration of the Christians. The case of the town of Nazareth is indicative of the Christian demographic ebb and flow. By the nineteenth century, Nazareth had grown from a small village to the regional capital of Galilee with a Christian majority as a result of the enterprise of the local Muslim ruler and the activity of the Western churches. During the British mandate, it flourished despite migration of Christians to the expanding coastal towns. But the 1948 war caused a drastic change in the town's population. It absorbed many refugees, the majority of whom were Muslim, and the town's boundaries were expanded to include several neighboring villages with majorities of Muslims as well. Hence, by 1961 Nazareth was about to lose its Christian majority. (See Table 2, right.) However, it has remained the largest Arab town and the largest Christian center in Israel. By the end of 1995, 18,500 Christians resided in the town, forming 36 percent of its total population.
Over 90 percent of the Christians who resided in the state of Israel following the 1948 war were Arabs, while the rest belonged mainly to the Armenian and Syrian churches (or Western staff of denominational churches). The Israeli statistical abstracts of the early 1990s showed a considerable increase in the Christian population due to immigration. This new phenomenon corresponded with the waves of immigration to Israel from the ex-Soviet Union states, which included unprecedented numbers of Christians or non-Jewish family members of immigrants, who accompanied their Jewish relatives to Israel in accordance with the Law of Return. A correlation exists between the total annual growth of Christians in Israel and the peak years of immigration from the former Soviet Union and to a certain extent from Ethiopia. Hence, the numbers of non-Arab Christians grew disproportionately due to immigration in the 1990s. From 1998 onwards the statistical abstracts started registering those immigrants of the ex-Soviet union countries who were not accepted as Jews by the Orthodox Jewish establishment or declared themselves as not belonging to any religion, under the rubric of "religion unclassified." This latter group outnumbered the total number of Christians in Israel in 1998.8
Another source of potential growth of the non-Arab Christians within Israel is the foreign worker community estimated at present to be over 200,000. The majority of foreign workers come to Israel from Christian states such as Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Rumania, and Hungary in eastern Europe, the Philippines and Thailand in Asia, Nigeria in Africa, and several countries in South America. Although they have not been granted Israeli citizenship and are not encouraged by the Israeli authorities to settle down, some of them do—by marrying local people or by staying illegally after their working license expires. Several churches in Jaffa and Haifa that became historical monuments following the 1948 war have recently revived their active communal life. Altogether the immigration from the ex-Soviet Union countries and from Ethiopia together with the advent of Christian foreign workers have created a new group of Christians affiliated with the Israeli Jewish-Hebrew cultural identity and whose national identity is Israeli, while being unaffiliated with the Jewish religion. According to the Israeli bureau of statistics estimate, this group numbers 23,000 people, and constitutes 17 percent of the total 130,000 Christians in Israel today.9
In today's Israel, the Christian Arabs form a distinct socio-cultural group whose demographic profile resembles that of the Jews rather than the Muslim Arabs. The average number of births for a Christian woman is 2.6, a little lower than that of a Jewish woman (2.7) and far lower than that of a Muslim Arab (4.8 per woman). In 1998 the average Christian household had 3.6 members per unit, a little higher than the Jewish 3.2 and by far lower than the Muslim household (5.4 per family). The average Christian finished twelve years of schooling, compared with the average Muslim who finished nine.10
The Israeli statistical publications do not provide data on emigration, which makes it difficult to assess the dimensions of Christian emigration from the country. But one can say that continuous Christian Arab emigration from Israel, together with a lower natural growth rate than among Muslims, is liable further to diminish the significance of the Christians within the Palestinian Arab population of Israel.
Demographics – Jerusalem
The Christians in Jerusalem form a distinct group due to unique religious, cultural, and social features as well as the political position of the city. Being the site where Jesus spent his last days and where he was buried, nearly every Christian church and denomination has a representation in the Holy City. During the nineteenth century, Jerusalem attracted the attention of the Western powers and in addition to church educational and philanthropic activity, it also gained from the Ottoman government the special position of an independent district due to the interest and rivalry over its Christian holy places. Jerusalem is the residence of three patriarchs: the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox and the Latin (Roman Catholic), as well as the representative bishoprics of major Western churches such as the Anglican (Evangelical Episcopal) and Lutheran.
Paralleling the trend of migration abroad, Jerusalem had been, from the nineteenth century, a target of internal Christian migration from the countryside and the traditional inland towns such as Bethlehem and Nablus. It offered better opportunities for education and work and a greater degree of security, being the capital of mandatory Palestine and the center of activity of the Western churches. As a result, the Christian population in Jerusalem more than doubled by the end of the British mandate and became the largest Christian center in Palestine. Nevertheless, the Christians lost their majority within the Arab population of the city by 1931 owing to the Muslims' higher birthrate and wider immigration into the city. (See Table 3, page 37.)
The 1948 war divided Jerusalem into two cities and thereby brought about fundamental changes. The new western suburbs became Israeli-Jewish, while the Old City and eastern suburbs became Jordanian-Arab. This division greatly affected Christians, nearly half of whom had resided in the well-to-do western suburbs of the city; many sought refuge in the Old City. East Jerusalem, like the rest of the West Bank, stagnated economically throughout the 1950s. This led to large-scale Christian emigration to east of Jordan and to the West, drastically reducing the size of their population in Jerusalem from 29,300 in 1944 to 11,000 in 1961. Meanwhile, the greater Muslim birthrate and expansion of Jerusalem's municipal boundaries to include the Muslim village of Silwan, further diminished the Christian percentage of the Arab population from 49 percent in 1944 to 18 percent in 1961. (See Table 3.)
The 1967 war spurred a second wave of Christian emigration, though much smaller than that of 1948, resulting largely from the wish to remain united with family members who had already established themselves in Jordan or in other Arab states. Although Israel officially united Jerusalem, annexing the Old City and eastern suburbs, eastern Jerusalem has remained economically and socially distinct from western Jerusalem and closer to the West Bank.
Under Israeli rule, Jerusalem's Christian population decreased both absolutely and proportionately, due to a combination of the smaller Christian birthrate, higher emigration, and the expansion of city boundaries to absorb more Muslim communities. As Israeli-Palestinian tension remained high, many Armenians and Syrian Christians departed, wary of being caught amid civil and national clashes between Jews and Arabs.
There are also economic motivations for emigration. The Christian middle class has been hard hit by inflation, a lack of affordable housing and, especially since 1973, a lack of proper employment for university graduates. The existence of family and community branches in Amman and in the West has facilitated Christian emigration to these places. A certain number migrated to the West Bank, particularly to Ramallah which has developed tremendously since the establishment of the PA in 1994. While the Muslim middle class has likewise been hard hit, their decline has been offset by Muslim migration from rural districts to Jerusalem, particularly from the Hebron area, as well as by their higher birthrate.11
Demographics—West Bank and Gaza Strip
As elsewhere, the proportion of Christians in the West Bank since 1948 has experienced a continuous decline (see Table 4, page 38), though the numbers grew in Ramallah and Bethlehem owing to their absorption of Christian refugees. Even though this Christian population grew in absolute terms during the past decade, it has declined proportionately to Muslims due to the latter's higher birth rate.
The first intifada, the Palestinian uprising in the Gaza Strip and West Bank that began in December 1987, had a major impact on Christian demography. Islamist groups spearheaded violent actions against Israeli rule. Christians were hardly involved in the violence, basically owing to their traditional socio-cultural features. Belonging largely to the middle class with a higher and more Westernized education than the Muslims, they continued their usual abstention from violence during the mandate and acted rather as spokespersons of the Palestinian national movement. Nonetheless, Christians suffered the consequences in the closures of the West Bank, including the Bethlehem and the Ramallah areas, as well as through the economic deterioration and unemployment that closure entailed.
Above all, the rise of Islamist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad bolstered Islamist influence over Palestinian society. These factors implied a range of problems—social deterioration, growing insecurity, a lack of foreseeable political solution—and spurred further Christian emigration. According to a 1992 survey conducted by Bernard Sabella of Bethlehem University, 35 percent of the Christian population of the West Bank emigrated between 1967-92 (47 percent to the United States) versus only 16 percent of the Muslim community during that period.12 The Oslo accord in 1993 and the hopes for a peace settlement over the next few years temporarily changed the trend of Christian emigration and aroused hopes for a better future. Deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has cut down these hopes and a large-scale emigration resumed in 1997.
The Christians in Bethlehem have been particularly affected by closures of the West Bank, cutting the town off from nearby Jerusalem. A majority of Bethlehem's Christian population is engaged in the pilgrim and tourist industry, which depends on free movement between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. They are also deeply attached to Jerusalem culturally and economically since it houses the church headquarters as well as educational and cultural institutions.13 The establishment of the PA, with its borders separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, further isolated and eroded the position of Bethlehem's Christians. Like all the West Bank residents, Christians of Bethlehem need hard-to-get permits to enter Jerusalem.
The second intifada that began in September 2000 further deteriorated the position of the Christians in the PA, particularly those in the quiet, largely Christian town Beit Jala. Armed Palestinian elements chose Beit Jala (near Bethlehem) as their base for sniping at the neighboring Jerusalem quarter of Giloh. Their goal was self-evident – to direct international attention any retaliatory bombardment of this Christian town by the Israelis. The Israeli reaction did come, and it forced a large number of Christians to evacuate. Many headed abroad; the Israeli authorities facilitated their emigration to the United States and Canada.
The small Christian community in the Gaza Strip numbered 2,500 in 1997 and, according to Ibrahim Kandelaft, has expanded to approximately 3,000 today; the majority reside in Gaza city where the Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches predominate. A few hundred Christians belong to the Coptic and Anglican churches. Table 5 illustrates the proportion of Christians in Gaza declining from 0.9 percent in the late mandatory period to 0.2 percent in 1997.
The Christians in Israel are a minority within a minority. During the early years of the state, they filled the gap created by the exodus of the traditionally Muslim Palestinian Arab leadership. Forming a large proportion of the Arab educated middle class, Christian leaders became spokespersons for the Arab minority in Israel and a salient part of its Arab political leadership. During the 1950s and 1960s, Christians accounted for about 50 percent of the Arab members of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), exceeding by far their proportion in the Arab population. So did their numbers in professional organizations and the local government, where they often served as the voice of all Palestinian Arabs in Israel. Christians, and in particular Greek Orthodox, have been particularly active in the Israeli communist party, a Jewish-Arab party which was until the late 1970s the only legal party in Israel that expressed the Arab national aspirations in the state.
Being largely urbanized and in many cases closer to the Jews rather than the Muslims in their social features, Christians have been amalgamated within Israeli Jewish society to a greater extent than the Muslims. Many Christians live in mixed Jewish-Arab towns such as Haifa, where they numbered 15,600 in late 1998 and account for more than 50 percent of the Arab population of the town which in turn represents 10 percent of the total population of Haifa. Living in mixed Jewish-Arab towns allows Christians (as well as moderate Muslims) a more Western life style than is possible in the traditional Arab towns and villages. Nevertheless, many Christians complain of social rejection by their Jewish neighbors and colleagues.
The Israeli government has not treated the Christians as a distinct group separate from the Muslims, as it has the Druze. Religious freedom and the autonomy of the Christian communities have been respected; however, Christians as individuals have been treated by the government as an integral part of the Arab minority.
A new trend of integrating Arabs in the state took place from the late 1970s and reached its peak during the Labor government of Rabin and Peres (1992-96), due to the inclusion in the ruling coalition of Meretz, a left-wing secular Zionist party. Their efforts improved the position of the educated Arab middle class in general and the Christian urban and professional middle class in particular. In the 1996 elections, Meretz won relatively greater support from Arabs (especially Christians) than from Jews, due to its efforts to improve the Arab position and its advocating secularization and equal civil rights.
Despite their political solidarity, Christian-Muslim relations have deteriorated in Israel since the 1980s. The rise of a Muslim professional middle class has enhanced economic competition and Christian anxiety over their marginalization. The emergence of the Islamist movements in Israel, though far milder than those in neighboring states, has further aroused a sense of vulnerability and insecurity. A local dispute between Muslim and Christian families in the village of Tur'an in Galilee erupted in April 1997 into a violent inter-communal dispute that peaked in the killing of an innocent Christian resident by a Muslim villager. Though a conciliation (sulha) took place and the killer was sentenced to jail, tensions between Christians and Muslims in this village still prevail.
A conflict in Nazareth over a state-owned tract of land in the town center, right by the Church of the Annunciation, has deepened the gap between Muslims and Christians of the town and exposed Christian vulnerabilities. The crisis emerged in part from demographic changes that turned the Muslims into the majority in town. (See Table 2.) Many of them desired to end those Christian features of the town symbolized by the Church of the Annunciation. The disputed tract of land had been given to the Nazareth municipality by the national government in 1995 for use as a park and tourist center. Islamists in Nazareth rejected this plan and instead demanded that a large mosque be built on this site, claiming it had belonged a Muslim endowment (waqf) and had been the site of an important mosque. They took over the land in early 1997, squatted there, and began using it as a mosque. The police did not intervene and the issue turned into a sometimes violent Muslim-Christian conflict that culminated in 1999 at Easter when Islamists openly attacked Christians and moderate Muslims. Several government figures publicly supported the Islamists' demands.
When Ehud Barak formed a Labor government in mid-1999, he appointed a committee to study the issue and it recommended expanding the space recommended by the previous government for the mosque on the disputed land and providing state support for its construction. The construction there would not start until after the pope's visit to Nazareth in 2000, however, and the protest tent would be evacuated for the pope's visit. The government accepted this recommendation, to the despair of Christians. Their protests, backed up by the Vatican, did not alter the government's decision. To rub salt in the wound, the Islamists did not even evacuate the tent during the Pope's visit, nor did the police force them to do so. They even interrupted the pope's mass in the Church of the Annunciation with amplified calls to prayer. As of this writing, the Israeli government has suspended its approval and support of the plans to construct the mosque. In reaction, the Islamists have threatened to build it anyway and to engage in disturbances.
This dispute has immensely deepened the breach between Muslims and Christians in Nazareth, causing many of the latter to leave for other parts of the country or to emigrate abroad.
Politics—The Palestinian Authority
The Palestinian Authority has established authority throughout most of the Gaza Strip and in portions of the West Bank that are over 98 percent Muslim Arabs and less than 2 percent Christian Arab.
Islam is the official religion of the PA, though it has publicly expressed its respect towards the Christian churches as "official national institutions," in the words of Ibrahim Kandelaft.14 Thus, Christmas is recognized as an official holiday: Arafat attends the Holy Mass that day and maintains an official reception on Christmas day. PA officials have often referred to Jesus as "the Palestinian prophet."15 The PA also seeks to strengthen its international position in the negotiations over the status of Jerusalem by proving that Christians and their holy places are protected under its control. Hence Arafat has put forward as his mission "the protection of the Christian and Muslim Holy places" (in that order). Arafat's efforts won demonstrations of solidarity and support from the heads of the major churches in Jerusalem for PA rule over the whole of the Old City of Jerusalem.
The majority of the churches' headquarters in Jerusalem underwent an Arabization process under Israeli rule following 1967, culminating in the election of Arabs to head the Anglican and Lutheran bishoprics and, finally, an Arab as the Latin patriarch (meaning, the Roman Catholic top official) in December 1987. These church heads became more active in support for the Palestinian cause but even non-Arab church heads (the Armenian and Syrian) that hitherto had abstained from taking a stand in the Arab-Israeli conflict now joined in by vocally opposing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
The Church leaders' support had particular significance in the non-violent tax revolt of the Christian small town of Beit Sahur in 1989, which effectively presented the Palestinian cause to the West. Christian clergy and laity have played an active role in trying to link Palestinian Arab identity historically to ancient Palestine. A major contribution towards that end was made by Na'im Ateek, an Evangelical Episcopal pastor whose 1989 book attempted to create a religious ideology that demonstrates a biblical basis for Palestinian Arab national roots in the Holy Land.16 Several Christians have been prominent in the PA institutions, most notably Hanan 'Ashrawi, perhaps the Palestinian cause's most eloquent spokesperson in the West. The late Elias Freij, the long-time mayor of Bethlehem known for his moderation and later the PA's minister of tourism, was another prominent PA member.
Six out of the eighty-eight seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council have been reserved for Christians through a district electoral system, with two each for Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and one each for Ramallah and Gaza. Altogether the Christian representatives constitute 7 per cent of the total members of the Legislative Council, more than double their proportion in Palestinian society. This disproportional representation is a further indication of the PA desire to allow the Christians a sense of security and to give them a voice in representing their enclaves and their special needs, in light of their small and declining proportion. It is also a recognition in their potential contribution to the PA parliamentary work and nation building institutions.
While Christians have been well integrated into the Palestinian social and cultural elite, Muslim-Christian relations among the common people have been more complex and they differ between Ramallah and Bethlehem – two Christian towns that lost their Christian majority in the 1950s because of the influx of refugees, mostly Muslims, in camps on the outskirts of towns, continuous Christian emigration abroad, and a much lower birthrate than that of the Muslim refugees. The establishment of the PA administrative and political institutions in Ramallah in 1994 has spawned an unprecedented economic boom. The town enjoys a more open life style, due to a combination of the town's Christian roots, the return of members of the American diaspora, and foreign investment. Christians are prominent in the business community that caters to the administration as well as in the intellectual professional groups of the town. This new prosperity has decreased emigration from Ramallah, though the second intifada is likely to reverse this trend.
The situation differs in Bethlehem and its neighboring villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahur. Bethlehem has stagnated economically particularly following the recent years of closure, and, as the site of the Church of the Nativity, has kept a traditional religious character. Christians have become increasingly apprehensive of the growing influence of Islamist groups and the PA's attempts to accommodate them. Christians fear an imposition of Muslim religious codes on their public life such as the prohibition of alcoholic drinks and restrictions on women's public dress. They also are wary of the purchase of lands by Muslims, which threatens to reduce Christian influence in the Bethlehem area.
At present there are Christian mayors in several traditional Christian towns. According to the Jordanian elections regulations that are still in force in the West Bank, the mayor is nominated by the government (meaning today the PA). This has enabled the PA to nominate Christian mayors to the traditional Christian towns and villages such as Bethlehem and Ramallah even though they lost their Christian majority. According to the new local council elections' regulations designed by the PA—but not yet put into effect, however—mayors will be nominated by the council members in their towns. Christians fear that these new regulations will open the way to the nomination of Muslim mayors to the traditional Christian towns.17
The PA's administration in the Gaza Strip has generally bettered the condition of the middle class to which many Christians belong. The end of the intifada saw a return of public order and Gaza City has become cleaner under the PA. While the economic situation remains dire, construction projects and leisure resorts have provided some jobs. The new reality has decreased the influence of the Islamic fundamentalist groups on public life. According to Ibrahim Kandelaft, local Christians plan to construct new churches in the city, a confidence indicator for life under the PA.18 The second intifada has had a negative impact on these signs of prosperity. There were even several cases of physical attacks on Christians in Gaza, influenced by Islamist incitements against Israel and the Christian West.19
Despite their continuous demographic decline, Christians in Israel and in the PA have remained prominent in political and socio-economical arenas; however, their position has eroded with the advent of Islamism. Looking ahead, Christians are unlikely to disappear from the Holy Land, although some of their smaller traditional communities may continue to lose their ability to function as vibrant socio-cultural Christian entities.
The fate of Christians in Israel and to a greater extent in the PA is closely connected to the ebb and flow of diplomacy. Resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict may draw them from their present marginal position to the center of Arab society. As traditional entrepreneurs and white-collar professionals and having the experience of living within two cultures, the Muslim and the Jewish ones, they can now convert their historic disability into an advantage and use their experience to become a link between Israel, the PA, and the Arab world at large, thereby playing an important economic function.
Contrarily, deadlock in the peace process implies the isolation of Christians in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and the growing influence of Islamists. The second intifada has created serious repercussions on the Christians in Israel and more so in the PA. The Christians in these towns have reluctantly become hostages of Palestinian snipers and heavy Israeli retaliation. If continued, this crisis is liable to increase Christian emigration and cause a drastic decline of the already dwindling Christian population.
Daphne Tsimhoni, research fellow at the Harry S Truman Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of Christian Communities in Jerusalem and the West Bank since 1948 (Praeger, 1993).
1 Daphne Tsimhoni, Christian Communities in Jerusalem and the West Bank Since 1948: An Historical, Social, and Political Study (Westport: Praeger, 1993), pp. 18-19.
©1994-2013 The Middle East Forum E-mail: info (at) meforum (dot) org Daniel J. Pipes