Eugenie Tabourian, my nonagenarian maternal grandmother, passed away recently. She was an Armenian Christian from Jerusalem. Our whole family are Jerusalemites, in fact, dating back to the time when my grandparents fled Ottoman Turkey during the Armenian genocide of 1915.
Indeed, the Holy Land was once bustling with local Christians, and two of the four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem (the Christian and Armenian ones) were a living testimony to their millennia-old presence. Today, many indigenous Christians - including members of my own family - have left this golden city (as the prophet Zechariah described it) in search of fresher pastures that provide more viable political and economic alternatives.
So what do Christians witness to in a holy land that is host to many hurried pilgrimages?
According to sociologists, Christians some sixty short years ago constituted over 25 per cent of the overall Palestinian population in the Holy Land, and almost 80% of the southern triangle of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Today, those numbers have dwindled alarmingly, due largely though not exclusively to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a nutshell, Christians have alas lost hope in a land that once witnessed the salvific birth of hope.
Ever since the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land in 1967, Israeli settlers have relentlessly colonised Palestinian land - often encouraged, and frequently funded, by successive Israeli governments. The physical, demographic and economic integrity of the land - and thereby of its native people - has been eroded by deliberate Israeli occupation policies that are not only contrary to International law and UN Resolutions but that also strive to get rid of Palestinian demography (the people) whilst retaining Palestinian geography (the land).
The concomitant discrimination has resulted in unemployment, poverty, socio-economic meltdown, strangulated despair and violence. Is it any wonder that Palestinian Christians emigrate in large numbers?
But in focusing upon the vagaries of Israeli occupation, it is also honest to consider two other contributory factors.
Over the past decade or more, some Muslims have become increasingly less tolerant of people who do not share their faith or system of beliefs, at times considering Christians as heretics although they too are Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book). Such attitudes are in part due to an erroneous belief that those Christians are politically or historically linked to the larger Christian Church in the West (Greece, Rome, London) or to the Crusades that Osama Bin Laden froths over in his ‘messages’.
Such positions generate structural violence whereby Christian shops are at times the last ones to be frequented for business or where Palestinian Christians are the last to receive financial aid from local authorities. Talk for instance to a Christian ironmonger, butcher, secretary, verger or grocer, and one detects grave concerns simmering under the veneer of pan-Palestinian solidarity.
The twin tensions arising from Israeli occupation practices and inter-religious issues are also exacerbated by fundamentalist evangelical Christian constituencies in the West (most acutely in the USA) purporting that our faith should support Israel unquestioningly because God chose the Israelites as His people and entered into a Covenant with them. It is therefore incumbent upon Christians to defend Israel (as a political entity) and Israelis (as a demographic entity) over the whole of biblical land of Israel (as a geographic entity).
I believe that such Christians are misreading Jesus’ ministry and also harming their brothers and sisters in faith by adhering rigidly to the tenets of the Old Testament, ignoring the transforming message of the New Testament, being selective in their scriptural and prophetic quotations and overriding issues of peace and justice.
Paradoxically though, many Evangelicals also believe that the Messiah’s Second Coming (and therefore the fulfilment of prophesies in the Book of Revelation) is through the in-gathering of Jews (in modern-day Israel) so they could be converted to Christianity. Yet, there exists today a political alliance between both parties whereby Jews overlook the underlying eschatological motivations of those Western Christians in return for their unstinting financial-political support of Israel.
Altogether, the small communities of Living Stones in the Holy Land - whether Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant - face severe existential challenges. They strive to bear witness to the commandments of love, inclusiveness and reconciliation in the faith-led belief that Jews, Christians and Muslims are united through Abraham and Sarah and are hewn from the same rock (as written in the Old Testament).
So perhaps we - globally - should show added sensitive appreciation for the life and witness of those indigenous Christians who have lived in the land of the Bible for two millennia and support them more concretely instead of considering them an alien sect or even helping marginalise them.
After all, is that not what our Christian fellowship asks of us? Is that not what Jesus’ love for the neighbour - let alone for the brother or sister - demands of us too? Or is the bedrock of our Christian faith simply a pick-and-choose one rooted in broad hints of prejudice or, dare I even say it, racism?
(c) Harry Hagopian is Ecumenical, Legal & Political Consultant to the Armenian Church in the UK. Former Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches and a recognised regional expert, Dr Hagopian is a coordinator of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) and a lobbyist for recognition of the Armenan genocide. His website is: http://www.epektasis.net/ This article is reproduced with kind acknowledgment.