Christian clergy examine Church property destroyed
by Jerusalem Municipality
Many Americans are very naïve as to the complexities of the Palestinian situation. Before the 1948 creation of the State of Israel, when the Holy Land was in the British Protectorate of Palestine—and even before that when it was part of the Ottoman Empire—the Palestinian population was approximately evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. The Christians were Greek Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, or Roman Catholic. (The Melkite Church is a Byzantine Rite Church in Union with the Holy See.) Christians tended to be merchants and professional people living in the cities and towns; Muslims tended to be more farmers living in the rural areas. After 1948 the State of Israel made living conditions very difficult for the Palestinian population, giving them disproportionately low representation in the Israeli Knesset (Parliament), as well as funneling government money for urban development, schools, recreational areas, and hospitals to the Jewish settlements and mostly ignoring the Palestinians. Former President Jimmy Carter compared the treatment of Palestinians in Israel to the situation of Africans in South Africa under apartheid. One could not even call the Palestinians “second-class” citizens as they were excluded from the tremendous economic development the Israelis have been able to achieve. Water was cut off from their lands to irrigate the orchards and fields of Israeli farmers; schools were ramshackle affairs without books or the basic educational needs, children had no place to play or exercise but in the streets.
The Israelis were Jews who had in the late nineteenth century begun to migrate back to Palestine from the Russian, Austrian, and German empires where they often suffered discrimination at best and too often bloody pogroms aiming for their elimination. The horrors of the Nazi Holocaust convinced the world that the Jews needed a “homeland” where they could be secure from further attempts to wipe them out and in the years after the Second World War, the British protectorate of Palestine was flooded with Jewish refugees who came as settlers. They had to fight a dual war to establish their homeland—a war against the British for independence and a war against the Palestinian peoples for control of the land.
The Palestinian people, while called “Arabs,” are not the descendent of the Arab invaders who conquered the Holy Land from the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century, but are descendants of the ancient Syrian, Canaanite, Phoenician, Greek and Roman people who inhabited the land from antiquity. At the time of the Islamic conquest, these people were Christian and a significant number of the population, approximately half, remained Christian until the mid-twentieth century. As their life deteriorated under Israeli government, many opted to emigrate to the United States, to Canada, Australia and other nations. It was easier for the urban population—mostly Christian—to sell homes and shops and to leave than it was for those who livelihood was on the land—mostly Muslim. Today less than 10% of the Palestinian people who remain are Christians, but the Church is still a significant presence in the Holy Land as Christians—and Catholics in particular—support hospitals, schools, and even a University in the Palestinian territories.
Political pressure on the Israeli government from religious extremists in the ultra-Orthodox factions of society has caused the government to continue to harass the Palestinian people in hopes of forcing them to leave Israel. The ultra-Orthodox want the land entirely for Jews and believe that this is God’s destiny for this ancient land which God “gave” their ancestors. The Catholic Church (along with the Orthodox) is very concerned about the future of an Israel without the historic presence of its Christian peoples. There is fear for the survival of the shrines connected with the life of Our Lord, but there is also a concern for the people themselves to maintain their culture and faith in this hostile environment. For political reasons in our own country, the United States, news about the plight of Palestinians, and in particular Palestinian Christians, is often embargoed. If American Christians knew the truth about the injustices foisted on the Palestinians and the infringement on the religious freedom of Christians in the Holy Land, the political pressure on our government to review its Israel policy would be to Israel’s grave disadvantage.
I would suggest you might look to the Holy Land Ecumenical Foundation (http://www.hcef.org/) for more information about the plight of Palestinian Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox.