It was in a manger in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, that Jesus, The Prince of Peace, was born. The angels in a nearby field celebrated this great occasion by praising, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (Luke 2:14). However, through religion and history we have seen how the Christian minority, as soon as it came into being, suffered persecution from the Jewish authorities. One of their most ruthless persecutors, Saul, once he converted, became himself the victim of the same persecution.
Today, more than two thousand years after the birth of Christ, the Christians of Palestine are once again being threatened by the Jews; this time through the Israeli policies blindly supported by the U.S. in all their atrocities. Since the creation of Israel in 1948, through the current intifada (civilian uprising) on September 29, 2000, the Jews of Israel have systematically harassed, beaten, killed and expelled Palestinian Christians.
Today, the birthplace of Christ, Bethlehem and its suburbs of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, are encircled by Israeli tanks and heavy weapons which have imposed an economic blockade of the areas. In these areas there are numerous school, covenants, hospitals and churches all supported and run by the Palestinian Christians. There are over 55 churches located in these areas alone, including the Church of the Nativity and Rachael’s Tomb. Christian institutions such as the Holy Family Hospital, Christian Society for the Holy Land Hospital, Efta Institute for the Deaf and Dumb and the Children’s Village S.O.S. are all subjected to the ruthless military occupation of Palestine and its Christian communities.
Today there are over 50,000 Christian Palestinians located in the West Banks and Gaza Strip. The entire Christian community is Palestinian and like their Palestinian Muslim comrades, suffer the exact same brutal and humiliating experiences under Israeli occupation. In the past ten months, Israel has bombed Bethlehem and its suburbs with U.S. artillery and U.S. made Apache helicopters (source: news.telegraph.co.uk, “Israelis Mass to Attack Towns Run by Palestinians, 15 Aug. 01). Nader Abu Amsha, director of the Christian Aid-funded YMCA Rehabilitation Center in Beit Sahour called upon the international community for an international protection force (which Israel opposes) to protect the Palestinians in the West Bank. Mr. Amsha described the situation today, “they [Israel] have been attacking us from three directions with [U.S.-made] helicopter gunships- the worst attacks for monthsé people are terrified.”
The only thing that the Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, ask is for the international community to implement their human rights as other people do in other parts of the world. The Palestinians are not asking for unsubstantiated claims, but the rights enshrined in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international law. There have been numerous UN Resolutions that have addressed these rights. Security Council Resolution 242 and 338 provide for full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. UN Resolution 194 guarantees the rights of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors. While waiting for their rights under international law, the Fourth Geneva Convention is supposed to be protecting the Palestinians from the Israeli occupiers. Despite all these rights enshrined under international law, the Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, are being targeted daily by Israel through its military and government policies.
While the media may focus attention on the military confrontations and diplomatic maneuvering, there is also an economic war waged by Israel against the Palestinians. Israel has laid siege to the Palestinian territories for nearly a year now. For the Palestinian Christians living in Gaza, an area with the highest population density in the world, this area has been turned into a virtual prison. Factories have stopped producing, prices of commodities have skyrocketed, schools have been closed and some bombed by Israel, transportation has stopped, and fuel and electricity have been curtailed. Israel is trying to strangle the Palestinian economy and force its Christian community further into poverty and debt, and, as in the past, force the Christians to leave biblical Palestine.
Palestinian Christians have also been denied access to medical care. The Israeli occupation affects the old and young the most. Article 17 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states: “The parties to the conflict shall endeavor to include local agreements for the removal from besieged and encircled areas of wounded, sick, infirm and aged persons, children and maternity cases, and for passage of all religious, medical personnel and medical equipment on their way to such areas.” Numerous Palestinians have died at Israeli checkpoints denied access to emergency medical treatment. There have been over 170 Israeli attacks on Palestinian ambulances including: the death of two doctors, 112 emergency medical technicians have been injured, and 75% of the ambulances have been attacked by Israeli or settler gunfire. Many ambulance drivers have been forced from their vehicles at gun point and beaten by soldiers- one group beaten for four hours by Israeli soldiers. Palestinians in the occupied territories are suffering everyday and this does not include the countless psychological traumas that face the children.
Israel’s brutal attacks and blockades of the West Bank and Gaza intentionally target schools. More than half of the Palestinian population is below the age of 16, and hundreds of schools have been attacked, closed or seized by the Israeli army. Schools have been targeted by Israel and dozens of children and teachers have been killed. One school was surrounded and attacked more than 20 times by bullets and tear gas. Last December, the Israeli army surrounded the al-Sharageh school for girls in the Palestinian town of Tulkarem and opened fire injuring dozens of students. They did the same to numerous other schools, including the schools for deaf children.
These are not isolated instances of Israeli brutality, but a daily systematic attack on the Palestinians and their Christian communities. Israeli attacks on Palestinians occur everyday with alarming frequency and brutality. For example:
On August 27, 2001, Israel attacked the predominantly Christian village of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. The Israeli army seized residential homes and expelled the residents with their children during the night time raid. Additionally, they seized a girls’ orphanage and denied the Lutheran teachers and staff access to protect and comfort the orphaned children. Bishop Munib Younan, head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Holy Land, was distraught when he said, “it is totally unacceptable to enter church premises and frighten orphans” (source: Jerusalem Post, 28 Aug. 01).
On August 15, 2001, Israel sent a large contingent of armored and infantry troops to surround Bethlehem and its suburbs. That day, Israeli soldiers seized the homes of three Palestinian families and set up observation posts. These families were sent fleeing into the streets without any belongings and ordered to not come back (source: Jerusalem Post, 15 Aug. 01).
On August 7, 2001, Israeli troops backed by police prevented human rights activists and the Christian Peacemakers Team to bring blankets, tents and household supplies to Palestinian Christians who lost their homes when Israeli troop bulldozed them.
On August 3, 2001, 70 volunteers of Christian Peacemakers took it upon themselves to use their own bodies as human shields to protect the Palestinians in Beit Jala that had been attacked daily by Israeli guns and tank shells (source: AP, 3 Aug. 01).
Civil rights organizations and their Christian members are being marked for arrest and deportation by the Israeli Interior Ministry. The Israeli army frequently raids churches and arrests clergy. On May 30, 2001, Father John of the New Life Church was arrested then deported after Israeli police broke into his church (source: Israeli Ha’aretz, 7 Aug. 01).
On July 17, 2001, the Israeli army attacked Bethlehem with US made Apache helicopters killing four people only 400 yards away from the Church of the Nativity. Besides the two Palestinians killed, the injured included a 10-year old girl who lost an arm. One of the killed was Terra Sancta, a teacher in the Latin Catholic Patriarchate School.
Moreover, Israel does not issue entry permits to Christians who want to pray at their holy places in Jerusalem, even though it is their religious right to pray wherever they choose. Israel further discriminates against Christian pilgrims in Bethlehem by refusing to let them leave or enter the city even to see sick or injured relatives. In another, all too frequent occurrence at an Israeli roadblock, Rev. Clarence Musgrave, minister of St. Andrew’s Church in Jerusalem, described the difficulties facing Palestinians. “She [a Palestinian Christian] had to give birth at a roadblock. I would urge you recognize that there are prisons in what we call the Holy land” (source: The Herald, 24 may, 01).
Bethlehem’s Mayor Hanna Nasser, a Christian, is faced with the impending and inevitable Israeli military invasion of his beloved Christian city. Reverend Mitri Raheb, Pastor of the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, stated that “the worsening economic situation, due to Israel’s repeated closures, has led many to lose hope that there is going to be peace in the region.”
There is a widespread misconception in the United States that the plight of the Palestinian Christians is due to Muslim hostility. This perception is strongly contested by Palestinian Christians. The Palestinian Liberation Organization is led by Yasser Arafat-himself married to a Christian woman and committed to the rights of Christians in Palestine. The primary reason for Palestinian Christian suffering is wholly due to the hostility of Israel. The intolerable conditions of life under Israeli occupation whether in the West Bank, Gaza or Israel is encountered everyday through Israeli troops and settlers.
Palestinian Christians lament that few Christians in the United States even know they exist. Palestinians are incorrectly, and intentionally, perceived as only Muslims; yet at the highest levels there are Christians working and struggling in Palestine. One of the top Palestinian intellectuals with a record of championing civil rights, Hanan Ashrawi, a Christian from Jerusalem, was recently appointed director general of media affairs for the Arab League.
However, Israeli government policy has been to try and suppress the rights of Christians in Palestine by any means available. On May 5, 2001 in occupied Jerusalem, the Israeli government threatened to deport Dr. Hanna Atallah, prominent spokesperson for the Orthodox Church in the Holy Land because he was critical of the Israeli terror practices and repression against the Christians in Palestine. Israel threatened to deport Atallah if he was elected “Patriarch,” on the grounds that it was not permissible that a Palestinian be allowed to sit at the helm of the Orthodox Church in the Holy Land.
In another case, following his election, Ireneous I, the newly appointed patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Palestine stated that, “I will serve the church and I support the Palestinian people and their just issues.” Pursuant to laws dating back to the Byzantine Empire, the government(s) of the Holy Land has the right to approve or disapprove of all candidates for the office of patriarch. Despite the fact that Israel rejected all the nominees for the election of the new patriarch (the Palestinian Authority approved all of the nominees) and despite Israel’s attempt to interject lies of corruption and bribery in the church to subvert the rights of Christians in their practice of religion, Ireneous I was selected to lead the community in these grave times. After the death of the first patriarch, a secret Israeli government committee was established to figure out how Israel should intervene in such elections so as to control any organized Christian support of Palestinian rights. Included were representatives from Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry and Jerusalem City Hall. The fact that the Palestinians are Christians and that the churches have vast real estate holdings ha colade them the target of Israeli aggression (source: Israeli Ha’aretz, 14 Aug. 01).
Even more abhorrent, Israel has now created its own “Christian authority” in Palestine by naming a so-called Christian embassy in Jerusalem. The “embassy,” says local Christians does not represent the true church since it is staffed with and run by Jewish people claiming they are Christian fundamentalists who raise money under the guise of Christian initiative projects but actually funnel the money to support the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. These are the same settlements which house armed Jewish settlers that attack the Palestinians, destroy their property and vandalize their holy sites.
Numerous other Christian leaders have spoken to the world to support the plight of Palestinian Christians in light of the brutal and ruthless occupation by Israel. On August 10, 2001, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Dr. Konrad Raiser, described the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory as a “clear violation of international law” (source: Ecumenical News International, 10 Aug. 01). Additionally, the US’s largest Lutheran church called on the U.S. government to withhold all economic and military aid to Israel. In calling for such action, Lutherans said they were following the words of Jesus to comfort “the poor, the powerless and the outcast” (source: Los Angeles Times, “Lutheran Asks U.S. to Withhold Aid to Israel, 11 Aug. 01).
Many Christian groups have taken it upon themselves to condemn Israel for its human rights violations against the Christian and Muslim Palestinians. The United Methodist Council of Bishops passed a resolution on May 4, 2001 demanding a cessation of Israeli aggression. The resolution read, in part: “Whereas the basic freedoms and human rights of Palestinian people continue to be violatedé. We therefore call upon the United States government through Congress to use all measures possible, including the cutting off of all funding to the Israeli government, to insure that the following conditions are met: all human rights violations cease, buildings of roads for the purposes of dividing the Palestinian lands through the West bank and Gaza cease, no more Jewish settlements are built in the occupied territories, all home demolitions ceaseé”
Israeli laws discriminate against Christians
The Israeli military and settlers are only the tools in which Israel carries out its government based policies of discrimination and harassment against the Christians in Palestine. The official Israeli practices that discriminate on the basis of religion include:
The Israeli government, its entities, and the Jewish National Fund now control over 93% of the country’s land area. As a matter of policy the Government and the Jewish National Fund have enacted statutes prohibiting the sale or lease of land to non-Jews;
The Israeli Ministry of Religions allocates 98% of its budget to Jewish only institutions, despite the existence of Christian and Muslim minorities ;
The Israeli government has recognized only Jewish holy places under the 1967 Protection of Holy Sites Law, therefore denying government funds to the preservation of Christian religious sites;
The Religious Jewish Services Law (1971) authorizes the Minister of Religious Affairs to establish religious councils in Jewish towns and cities, councils which oversee the preservation and maintenance of religious institutions and cemeteries. There exists no corresponding council for Christians or Muslims;
The Law of Return guarantees immediate and automatic citizenship to Jewish immigrants of any nationality, but excludes native Christians and Muslims who were born there, and now forced to live in poverty stricken refugee camps, from returning.
Israeli citizens are required to carry ID cards with them at all times which indicate whether they are Jewish or non-Jewish.
The Israeli Knesset has introduced numerous bills to ban Christian missionary activity. Outrageously, Knesset bill 174c was introduced which would make it a crime punishable up to one year in prison to posses or distribute “any tract or publication in which there is inducement to religious conversion.” This bill would make it illegal to possess a copy of the New Testament.
It is absolutely necessary for all Christians to recognize that Palestinians rightly insist on an end to Israel’s five decade long occupation. Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, view this occupation, maintained by force and marked by daily inhumane sufferings, abuse and violence at the hands of the Israeli army and settlers, as a central cause of the current crisis. Israel has a fundamental right to security, but security will not be won by the ongoing annexation of Palestinian lands, blockades of villages, US- made F-16 and Apache helicopter air strikes on cities, destruction of crops and homes, and numerous other excessive uses of force.
After more than 50 years of Israeli persecution the millions Palestinians, many of whom are Christian, are still under an inhumane and brutal occupation, and the refugee status of nearly five million more Palestinians is still largely left unaddressed. The United States sends more than $6 billion each year to Israel. The Apache helicopters, tanks, F-16 jets and bullets that kill the unarmed Christians of Palestine are all a gift from the U.S. taxpayer. These first 11 months of the Intifada are just the beginning of the long war for the Palestinians in their quest for freedom and justice. Like the South Africans before them and the Americans that rose up against colonial oppression of England during the Revolutionary War, the Palestinians will overcome this horrific assault on the people of Palestine.
In the words of Bishop Riah Abu Assal of the Anglican Church of Jerusalem, “No wonder Christ continues to weep over Jerusalem.”
Mr. Omar Fayez is Attorney (International Law) in Chicago.