The Mar Elias Church, a Greek
Orthodox Monastery in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is the center of Palestinian
Palestinian Christians represent the “Mother Church” of Christianity, the Jerusalem community spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles, being descended from the converts made the Apostles at Pentecost. They are mostly Greek Orthodox and Melkite Catholic (Arab Catholics of the Greek Rite in union with Rome) with smaller communities of Copts (both Catholic and Orthodox), Syrians (mostly Orthodox, some Catholics), Chaldeans (in union with Rome), Maronites (in union with Rome), Armenians (both Orthodox and Catholic) and some smaller Protestant (Anglican Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist) congregations. At one time Palestinian Christians made up as much as 20% of the indigenous population of what is today Israel and Palestine. We think of the Palestinians as Arabs but the majority are descendants of the ancient peoples of Palestine who have lived there since before Joshua led the People of Israel into the land promised them: that is to say that modern Palestinians are descended primarily from the Canaanite, Phoenician, Philistines and other peoples mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. During the period of Greek Rule under the Seleucid kings they, unlike the Maccabean Jews, renounced their various belief systems and adopted the Greek deities. Under the more tolerant Roman rule they became very syncretic religiously borrowing belief systems from various sources according to their particular choices but culturally they remained Graeco-Syrian having lost their particular ancient identities as Philistines, Canaanites, etc. When the Jews were expelled from Roman Palestine after the Bar Kokhba revolt (123-25 CE), this indigenous Graeco-Syrian population was left in the land. Christianity, preached by the Apostles at Pentecost and afterward drew many converts and by the time that the Christian religion was legalized in the Roman Empire, most had already become Christian and were well established in the Christian faith. The Persian conquest of 614 was devastating to monasteries and churches, the Persians being Zoroastrians and harassing Christians, but the Byzantine reconquest was quick and the effects of the Persian persecution was not long term. It was only two decades later, however, in 636 that Arab forces under the Caliph Umar, the second Caliph after Mohammed, conquered Palestine. There was no persecution of Christians under Islamic rule of Palestine though Christians and Jews, called dhimmi under sharia law, were subjected to a higher tax rate than the Muslim population. This tax for non-Muslims was called jizya and it was in lieu of military service which was restricted to Muslims. The tax burden could be quite heavy, especially on the rural population who eked out a living by subsistence farming. Over the centuries many rural Palestinians adopted Islam to escape the jizya while the merchant classes in the town were more prosperous, able to pay the tax, and remained Christian.
After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 many Arabs in the new country felt the effects of discrimination and chose to leave for North or South America as well as for former British dominions in Australia and South Africa. (Palestine had been a British Protectorate from the end of World War I until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.) In a similar way when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the Six Days War (1967), many Palestinians decided it was time to emigrate. Urban merchants can convert their business to cash far more easily than farmers whose wealth is in their land—a land that is poor to begin which and which now became subject to seizure at whim as the ‘settlements’ go up on what had been Palestinian farms and orchards. Consequently the Christians have been quick to emigrate while the Muslims economically do not always have the same freedom. The Christian population in Israel/Palestine has now diminished to less than 3% from a pre-State of Israel high of perhaps 10%. According to the Latin Patriarchate (The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Jerusalem), the Christian Population is being driven out by a combination of Israeli policy towards Palestinians and Muslim prejudice against Christian Arabs. There is great danger of the Christian population disappearing from Israel/Palestine and Christians losing a heritage that goes back to the preaching of Jesus. We will look at the problems of other Christian communities—the Copts (Egypt), the Chaldeans (Iraq), and the Maronites (Lebanon) in future blogs.