What does the future look like for Christians who live in the Holy Land?

by Rev. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor

Read a version of this article in Dutch by clicking here.

In the Holy Land, there are several Christian churches, communities, religious congregations, organisations and various local parish communities. They exist, are present and active in Israel and in the Palestinian Territories. Great disillusionment and even fear is increasing among the Christians in the Holy Land, especially for Christian Palestinians. Many of them live between fear and hope.

What is the future for Christians in the Holy Land? What is or will be decisive for the coming generation: fear and despair or hope with perspectives for a normal life?

This article[1] tries to understand and analyse the current situation of Christians in the Holy Land. I try to look at these realities from a political as well as from a spiritual point of view.

People live in fear because of the inhuman reality on the ground and the possible outbreak of more violence. There is anxiety because of recent confrontational statements from U.S. President Trump, among others. There is concern because of a lack of perspective and a future for the younger generations. There is frustration since more and more “living stones” – local Christians – are emigrating from the Holy Land. And there is distress also because religious sites are becoming more museums instead of inspiring places to nurture and deepen faith.

Yet many continue to believe in a new future and that the prospect of solutions to the problems is feasible. They draw that hope from their Christian faith that says that life is stronger than misery or death. That hope keeps them struggling for a better life. It is called “Sumud”, meaning steadfastness.[2] Living with hope and faith of the birth at Christmas of the Prince of Peace, Christ as the Incarnation of God, peace on earth! A strong belief exists also in the resurrection of Christ saying that death does not have the last word.

Come and see

Many Christians from abroad who come to the religious sites as pilgrims or tourists will observe the current situation from a distance, although some of them do express their concern about what they are seeing. The Biblical notion of “come and see” is essential in trying to understand the ongoing situation in the Holy Land. To be present is already an act of solidarity.

You cannot visit the holy places in the Holy Land without seeing the context and wanting to know the situations in which the local populations live. Once you have seen the reality you will not get away from it. You want to make your own contribution to help improve the situation of the local population. Pax Christi International keeps calling its membership to visit the Holy Land and learn about the ongoing realities on the ground.

Staying or leaving?

Nevertheless, for the local residents and especially the Christians who were born and raised in Israel and Palestine and who really want to stay in their homeland, the recent developments in the political debate are particularly disappointing, even alarming. They must undergo much outside of their will. Locals have nothing to say about their own future. At best, solutions are imposed without input from the local population. They feel neglected. Are they strangers in their own land? They experience themselves as not existing!

People are living permanently in a dilemma: shall I stay or shall I leave my homeland? Education is of high quality. A basic problem is the lack of work opportunities. Many (young) people do emigrate. It is hard leaving your family and friends behind. Is the future abroad much better? Christians have been receiving more publicity – sadly often only because of the community’s worryingly high levels of emigration.[3]

Those who decide to stay have a strong faith and conviction. Their faith keeps them hoping for a better future. Although that faith is becoming very fragile. Therefore, community formation is of great importance here. Churches and communities or parishes play a very important role in bringing together believers to meet each other, to deepen their faith together, to support each other and to help each other. That mutual bond is of particular importance – not the least within minority communities.

Series of tragic historical events

This year it is exactly 70 years since the war broke out between Arab countries and the newly created country of Israel. The local population as well as the international community has been reminded repeatedly about the many tragic “anniversaries” of events that happened in the past and in the present. I mention a couple of them:

  • The Sykes – Picot Agreement[4] of 1916;
  • The Balfour Declaration[5] of 2 November 1917 (the promise to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine – a “national home for the Jewish people”);
  • The May 1948 declaration of the State of Israel, the Arab-Israeli war[6] and 70 years of Nakba in 2018,[7] the Palestinian exodus or “disaster”;
  • The Six Day War[8] in 1967 and the beginning of the occupation of the Palestinian territories[9] since then (East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza).
  • The de facto end of the Oslo Agreements of 1993.[10]

There is simply no peace process

Right now there seems no prospect of improvement in the relationship between Israel and Palestine at all. On the contrary, polarisation is on the increase and division is holding back the power. No initiatives are being taken to re-trace the peace process between the two peoples. The international community carries a great responsibility by allowing the conflict to muddle further. It seems that political leaders worldwide hear-nothing, see-nothing and do-nothing about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Why such a big passivity? Making statements from a distance – as the EU is doing – makes not enough difference on the ground.

A main blockage is the mainstream thinking in Israeli public opinion. It seems that no Israeli politician will ever make a deal with the Palestinians. The majority of Israeli politicians do not believe that there is any possible deal that can be put before the Israeli public without further fracturing the society and punishing the party and the politician responsible. The knowledge that no Israeli politician will support negotiations has become part of the framework of the problem. Creativity and political will are very absent. They prefer to do nothing. Challenging statements and provocative decisions continue to stir the mood.

There is an urgent need for a deliberate and decisive process to bring the two parties together and come to a negotiated solution, in full respect, as two equals. The peace process should be about freedom for everyone. I believe that it is up to the United Nations to act as a mediator and, above all, as a trigger for a process leading to an acceptable community solution for both peoples and for all populations, majorities and minorities. It is clear that the USA alone cannot play that role. Palestinian leadership has recently made it clear that the USA is no longer a credible mediator to lead the peace process.[11]

Following President Trump’s statement of 6 December 2017[12] to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and thus recognise the city as the capital of Israel, Pax Christi International responded with a statement referring to resolution 181 of 28 November 1947. That resolution states that Jerusalem should be the double capital for Israel (West) and of an Arab/Palestinian state (East) and it will be the Eternal City for the three monotheistic religions, with free access for all believers to the religious places in the Old City.[13] If the USA and other countries move their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognise that city as the capital of Israel (West) without mentioning the notion of having also Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital (East), it is another historical tragedy. Pax Christi International repeatedly stated that the city of Jerusalem should be an international city – a common capital – the headquarters of all things international and one where peace will find a well for the entire world to draw from.[14]

Keep the two state solution on the political agenda

Resolution 181 has never been implemented! Nevertheless, the resolution as well as most of the position statements of international players in the conflict between Israel/Palestine, not at least the UN and the EU, still keeps the two state solution as an option. With the further construction of (Jewish) settlements on the West Bank, the realisation of a Palestinian state has become an impossible matter.

I realize that this concept of two states is discussed a lot, for and against, and that the possible two states solution is under pressure and perhaps de facto no longer feasible. However, it is the only political proposal and the only basis for building politics on.

The Holy See has recognised both Israel and Palestine as two independent states and has been advocating repeatedly for getting that vision realised. For instance, the latest speech of Pope Francis to the Diplomatic Corps on 8 January 2018 clearly refers to that policy to be realised. The Pope said: “The Holy See, while expressing sorrow for the loss of life in recent clashes, renews its pressing appeal that every initiative be carefully weighed so as to avoid exacerbating hostilities, and calls for a common commitment to respect, in conformity with the relevant United Nations Resolutions, the status quo of Jerusalem, a city sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims. Seventy years of confrontation make more urgent than ever the need for a political solution that allows the presence in the region of two independent states within internationally recognised borders. Despite the difficulties, a willingness to engage in dialogue and to resume negotiations remains the clearest way to achieving at last a peaceful coexistence between the two peoples.”[15]

Keep status quo of Jerusalem

The status quo of Jerusalem, a city sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims, means that all the religious sites should be open and accessible for all believers. Jews should be able to pray at the Wailing Wall. Palestinian Christians are routinely prohibited from traveling to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, where the church commemorates Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection from the dead. Whilst Palestinian Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza strip are prevented from traveling to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The old city, which is holy for Jews, Christians and Muslims, should be an “open city”.[16]

Christians are a minority both in Israel as in Palestine. They have always been a pillar of society in the Holy Land. The tendency is to make Christians invisible in the region. Various sides want to claim the Holy Land as the exclusive possession of only one people. No party should ever be able to make an exclusive claim over a holy place – not at least over the holy city of Jerusalem.

Christians should be full citizens in Israel and in Palestine

The presence of Christians in the Holy Land remains crucial. They are part of the “mother church”. Christianity is born in the Holy Land. Christianity exists! Existence relates to numbers and figures. The overall tendency is that the number of Christians is rapidly decreasing and declining at an alarming rate.[17] The outside world believes that there are only Israelis (Jews) and Palestinians (Arabs) in the Holy Land. However, the reality is that there are also Christians present, Palestinian Christians most of them, Arabs indeed.

Presence relates to Christians’ role, activities and integration within their societies and with their fellow citizens facing the same destiny, namely living together in justice and peace. The Christian presence in both Israel and Palestine is significant because of its contribution to society, particularly in its service of education, health and relief work and in its evangelical language of love, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Therefore, Christians consider themselves as an indispensable part of society and call for full citizenship in Israel and in Palestine on the basis that they are not an island or a minority even if they are small in numbers. A Christian belongs to his people, to his country and to his society. They are not a group of people somewhere living apart in isolation. A visible tendency among Christians in the region is the isolation of Christians in their own neighbourhoods, institutions and clubs. The aim should be to establish a kind of secular society, in which all citizens are equal and not discriminated against because of their religion or ethnicity.  A religion cannot impose a model of society on the population. Religions can and must be sources for inspiration and meaning within a secular society.

Fragmented but unified within Christianity

The Christian community in the Holy Land is very mixed and fragmented.  Christianity as one of the three monotheistic religions is the general denominator. However, based on that concept, there are incredibly many different traditions, churches and communities.[18]

What are the present and the future of Christians in Israel and in Palestine? H.B. Michel Sabbah, Patriarch emeritus of Jerusalem and former President of Pax Christi International, has given a detailed address at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem about the identity of Christians in the region, 19/20 January 2015.[19] Patriarch Sabbah believes that Christians have a mission to love and contribute to the general human building of a fraternal society in the context of other faiths and different peoples.

In the Occupied Territories (East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza), Christians are under military occupation, dominated by a regime of checkpoints and other difficulties of daily life. All legitimate measures should be taken to put an end to this occupation and to attain independence and freedom. The ongoing occupation is a main source of conflict. This is structural violence because it systematically degrades all Palestinians, restricts their movement, confiscates land, devastates the economy and violates the basic rights, including the very basic right to a decent life.

Inside Israel, Christians are citizens. All migrants and all Arab citizens living in Israel – Muslim, Christian and Druze – are subject to second-class status, discrimination and marginalisation. They have duties and should have the rights of citizens. They are demanding equality and an end to all discrimination. Christians living in Israel, also tend to prefer emigration to other countries where Christian communities are more strongly present.

One of the main drives of most of the faithful of all the churches and religious communities is that they expect from their leadership to speak out for justice and to advocate for their rights. It is their duty to raise their voice not in the least in favour for the poor and the weakest. Christians and their leaders have to be on the side of the poor and the oppressed. Christians have a role to play in looking at the political realities from a critical distance but at the same time to be prophetic and speak out in favour of the common good of all the citizens in both countries.

Being part of the society means that Christians also have to care for all those who suffer around them, whatever their nationality or religion might be. “Divide and rule” is not their mission! They express solidarity and will unite people instead of divide. Christians engage in civil society bringing to it a discourse that focuses on basic human values like justice, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation as well as demanding the fostering of a civil society in which basic belonging is based upon citizenship rather than on religious, denominational or ethnic identity. Being human comes first. Religious or ethnic differences come next. Be pro-humanity!

Christians and “all people of good will” who remain to stay or wants to stay in the Holy Land need more international support and solidarity and especially help them creating a strong conviction, hope and faith to keep going and help to create “peace on earth.”

____________

[1] This article is a personal opinion by the author. It is not written in the name of Pax Christi International.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumud

[3] http://www.globalministries.org/news/mee/palestine-update.html

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sykes%E2%80%93Picot_Agreement

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balfour_Declaration

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_Arab%E2%80%93Israeli_War

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_Palestinian_exodus

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six-Day_War

[9] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2017/06/israel-occupation-50-years-of-dispossession/

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oslo_Accords

[11] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/14/world/middleeast/abbas-palestinians-trump.html

[12] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-president-trump-jerusalem/

[13] http://www.paxchristi.net/news/statement-pax-christi-international-calls-upon-un-security-council-members-strongly-oppose-us#sthash.tlgMOka4.dpbs

[14] https://www.paxchristi.be/sites/default/files/pci_wcc_status-jerusalem_2012.pdf

[15] Pope Francis at the Udienza al Corpo Diplomatico accreditato presso la Santa Sede per la presentazione degli auguri per il nuovo anno, 08.01.2018.

[16] https://www.paxchristi.be/sites/default/files/pci_wcc_status-jerusalem_2012.pdf

[17] https://imeu.org/article/palestinian-christians-in-the-holy-land

[18] http://www.seetheholyland.net/churches-in-the-holy-land/

[19] https://zenit.org/articles/emeritus-patriarch-of-jerusalem-considers-palestinian-christian-identity-in-mideast/

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