The violence in the latest Intifada has sadly claimed the lives of more than 400 people, most of whom are Palestinian. I wonder if people realize that many of those killed have also been Christian? The conflict itself has been painted as a Muslim versus Jewish conflict.
As a Palestinian-American, the foremost battle for me has been to increase awareness about the injustices and human rights violations against Palestinian civilians. People are generally surprised by the information, as we often hear how similar Israel is supposed to be to America. The other surprise comes when people learn that many Palestinians, like myself, are Christian.
In fact, Palestinian Christians are considered the “living stones” of Christianity as we are the direct descendants of the disciples of Jesus Christ. Christians make up about 10-15% of the world’s Palestinian population. Fundamentalist Christian ministers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson would have their congregations believe that if one does not stand by Israel, God would not forgive them. It is believed that for Jesus Christ to return to Earth, support for Israel must be whole and unconditional. What Falwell, Robertson, and like-minded ministers don’t tell their parishioners is that they are forsaking their Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters who are suffering under Israeli occupation. The fact is that Palestinian Christians not only have been killed, but many others have been maimed and disabled for life by Israeli bullets. Christians have also suffered under the inhumane Israeli siege by not being able to leave their small towns, go to their jobs, seek medical care, and attend schools. Churches were fired on by Israeli anti-tank missiles, and at least one car carrying Catholic officials was fired on despite the waving of a Vatican flag.
Among the most fervent players in the battle against Israeli occupation have, in fact, been Palestinian Christians. Let us not forget Palestinian spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi. Literary critic and Columbia University professor, Dr. Edward Said, speaks throughout the world about Palestinian rights. There’s Roman Catholic Archbishop Michel Sabbah and revolutionary leaders like George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh. It should be noted that six parliament seats were allocated to the 70,000 Christians of the occupied territories during 1996 elections.
My intent is not to bring about a divide between Palestinian Muslims and Christians. Rather it is to demonstrate how an important segment of Palestinian society has been completely ignored. The Israeli PR machine has spun this into a religious conflict, to its credit. Islam is widely viewed as a religion for violent fanatics, which is far from the truth of this serene religion. But which side would the West understandably side with?
To understand how secular this conflict actually is, I recall an exchange that a Palestinian female professor had with a feminist student back in 1988 — during the First Intifada. The professor had just stated that Palestinian women were among the first women in the Third World to launch an equal rights movement .
“Aren’t there still ways to go for Palestinian women to achieve equality with men?” asked the feminist. “What are they doing about it?”
The professor responded, “How can the women wage a serious battle for equal rights when their husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers don’t even have basic human rights.”
How this exchange sums up the conflict for Palestinians. The conflict transcends gender and religion. Palestinian Christians and Muslims have fought side by side é they are both struggling for liberation. A liberation of land, dignity, human rights, and security.
Even the battle for Jerusalem is, technically, a secular one. Consider that the keys to the Holy Sepulcher — site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection — have been entrusted to two Palestinian Muslim families from Jerusalem since the Crusades. Each morning, family members unlock the doors for Christians. This arrangement has helped keep the peace between rival Christian religions.
In terms of human sentiments? It is difficult to describe the emotions that overcome one’s self, particularly if Palestinian. Several years ago, I visited Jerusalem and stayed at a hotel on the Mount of Olives. Each morning, I opened my curtains and stared out my window, which overlooked the Old City. Despite visiting my parents’ villages, it was Jerusalem that made me awestruck. I finally understood the phrase: Jerusalem lives in the heart of every Palestinian. It didn’t matter if I was Christian or Muslim. The point was and is that I am of Palestinian descent.
As the unfortunate violence continues, it is important to recognize that, ultimately, this is a conflict between peoples, not religions. And for Palestinians, injustice and suffering have certainly known no religious boundaries.
Sherri Muzher is a Freelance writer for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and Former Executive Director of the Council for Palestinian Restitution and Repatriation.