Christians in Palestine-Israel under pressure, but not bowed

By Ecumenical News International
April 28, 2008

This Easter season, Jerusalem Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan received visits to his office from a string of journalists. It happens every year at this time, with reporters wanting to write about the Holy Land during Christianity's most important annual festival - writes Judith Sudilovsky.

"I feel there is a trend to show that Palestinian Christians are living in a difficult situation," Bishop Younan told Ecumenical News International. "Of course, there are some cases [of Muslim-Christian tensions] but people exaggerate them, especially on the Christian right."

Younan acknowledged that there was ignorance about Christians in some sectors of society in the region, and that social problems existed that needed to be tackled. Still, he believed that Palestinian Christians are not being persecuted by the Palestinian Authority, or Muslims, or by the State of Israel, or Jews.

The Lutheran leader said that while individual Muslims or Jews, or certain groups within the population, may feel animosity towards Christians, neither the Israeli or Palestinian government condones it.

Sometimes, he noted, disagreements that begin between two people can develop into a Christian-Muslim conflict when those involved are of the different religions.

The bishop added that Christians were free to worship in their churches, and pastors were free to preach in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Still, one prominent Christian from the West Bank, who requested anonymity, told ENI that on the streets Christians do not deal with government officials but individual Palestinians, who are not bound by governmental standards.

"On the official level you don't find any discrimination," he said, "but the problem is with those who enforce the laws. Many of them are racists … If there is a fight, immediately they will be against the Christian."

ENI's contact said that the heads of Christian churches in Jerusalem are aware of the situation but afraid to talk about it.

In a 40-page pastoral letter issued before his scheduled retirement in mid-2008, Jerusalem's senior Roman Catholic leader, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, noted the good relationships that exist between Christians and the Muslim civil and religious authorities.

"But it should also be said that relations between Muslims and Christians have not yet reached their perfect equilibrium. This is a matter of a long and slow path that must be perfected every day," Sabbah wrote in his 1 March letter.

Moderate Muslims and Christians needed to work together to counter increasing Islamic extremism, he added.

Christians make up less than two percent of the population in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and are a minority among their Jewish and Muslim neighbours in the Holy Land.

Israel's Declaration of Independence establishes the country as a Jewish State, and the draft Palestinian Constitution declares Islam as the official religion of the Palestinian state.

Bishop Younan said Christian leaders will continue to insist that the Palestinian constitution should stipulate equal rights for Christians. For the moment, however, discussion on the constitution has stopped because of other pressing political issues, he explained.

"If you want to give a religion to a state, it must answer what will happen to the others. Will they have equal rights and responsibilities?" said the bishop. "For this reason I want a Palestinian state to be a modern secular state that respects the three monotheistic religions [Judaism, Christianity and Islam]."

Younan said he and other church leaders had investigated 21 cases of theft of Christian properties in the Bethlehem area since 2002. In these cases, he added, a group of unknown criminals had forged documents in order to take over the lands of absent Christians. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Bethlehem Governor Saleh Tamari had also spoken out against the incidents and are following up each case individually, he said.

The bishop told ENI that he had been heartened by the verbal support given to the Palestinian Christian community by leaders such as Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah.

"All of them believe there is a role for Christians here, and that Christians should not leave. I am encouraged by these leaders," he said.

Yet, some Christians do speak about feeling intimidated by Muslims, of preferential treatment of Muslims in the workplace and at government offices, and of the different approach that Christians have to issues such as socialising between men and women, and women's dress. However, many secular Muslims also have similar complaints.

Robert Handal, aged 53, a Christian resident of Ramallah, the Palestinian administrative centre, noted that in one northern Palestinian village there is growing friction between Christian and Muslim residents.

"There is a big fight between Christians and Muslims, and the mentality of these people," he said.

Bishop Younan blamed growing religious extremism on a lack of justice and the failure to find a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This, he said, was especially the case in Gaza where, among other incidents, a Christian man had been murdered and the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) building attacked.

Younan said he was worried about the situation in Gaza because it was unclear where the situation there is headed. "We will witness a growth of extremism, and we moderates will become a minority," he said. "That is why now is the time to find a solution."

Extremism, he concluded, can be curtailed by three things only: justice, education and interfaith dialogue.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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