Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas in the Holy Land

Will the most memorable Holy Land image of Christmas 2005 be the siege of Manger Square in Bethlehem last week by hundreds of gunmen from the Aksa Martyrs Brigades?

And if it is, what does this foreshadow for a Christian Arab minority destined to live under a sovereign Palestinian state?

The gunmen, underscoring the lawlessness to which Bethlehem and other places in the Palestinian Authority are subjected, held up the municipality demanding jobs with the PA’s security forces.

In light of the season and international attention focused on the nearby Church of the Nativity, revered as Christ’s birthplace, the PA moved to quickly find a solution to the standoff. A short while later Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh urged foreigners to visit his “peaceful city,” saying: "There’s no reason tourists shouldn’t come. Our great city depends on tourism for its economic survival.” Palestinian officials, though, need to start thinking about Christians – Palestinian Arabs as well as visiting pilgrims – not only as sources of tourist revenue, but as having a rightful connection to this shared and holy place.

The sad fact is that many Christians no longer feel at home in a city that was once over 90 percent theirs. Today Christians comprise less than a quarter of Bethlehem’s population. And their numbers are constantly dwindling. While it may be good public relations, it isn’t enough for PA officials to attend Christmas services once a year. Christians must be made to feel safe in a Palestinian political environment which is increasingly taking on Islamist overtones.

With (anticipated) Palestinian sovereignty also comes responsibility. Is the Palestinian leadership – which polls now suggest will include members of the Islamist Hamas movement – ready, as well as able, to protect minority Christian Arabs from discrimination and intimidation?

If history is any indication, there is plenty of room for concern. The Aksa Brigades who commandeered Manger Square last week had no qualms, a few years ago, about turning Beit Jala’s Christian residents into virtual human shields by firing from their homes into Jerusalem’s nearby Gilo neighborhood. In the spring of 2002, they also overran and occupied the Church of the Nativity for a month.

Paradoxically, many Christians outside the region worry that if they publicly criticize the powers that be in the Palestinian Authority, they will only be making things worse for their brethren who live there.

The situation is further complicated by those Palestinian Christians who associate themselves with fading Arab nationalism in general and the Palestinian national struggle in particular. Conveniently, key PA spokespeople such as Hanan Ashrawi are Christian. And it is in their obvious interest to spotlight Israel’s missteps vis-à-vis Arab Christians in the Holy Land even as they do their best to shield PA wrongdoing.

Yet it is not enough, particularly on this day, to point to PA transgressions. Inside Israel, Christian Arabs sometimes find themselves wedged between an indifferent Jewish majority and an increasingly assertive Muslim minority.

Though 80 percent of the approximately 150,000 Christians across the Holy Land are Arab, the community is heterogeneous. For instance, the Copt, Armenian, Ethiopian and Syrian denominations are non-Arab. And Israel’s failure to recognize Christian diversity and make affirmative efforts to reach out to non-Arab Christians remains an appalling failure.

On the bright side, Israel is one of the few countries in the region where Christian communities have grown and thrived in recent decades. Israel’s Arab Christians maintain among the highest matriculation scores of any population; proportionally, Arab Christians also produce very high numbers of university graduates.

On the other hand, across the denominational and ethnic divide, Christian leaders complain – some irately, others with understanding of our security dilemmas – that the Jewish state does not always treat them with respect or sensitivity.

Even as we express disquiet for the well-being of Christians under Palestinian jurisdiction, we must not lose sight of our own shortcomings. It is in Israel’s interest to foster the natural alliance with Christendom. But more importantly still, Judaism demands we respect the “stranger among us.”

We wish our Christian readers marking the festival of Christ’s birth (and those in the eastern tradition who observe the holiday on January 6) a Merry Christmas and a peaceful 2006.

– The Jerusalem Post Christmas Day Editorial, December 25, 2005

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