By Elizabeth Marteijn. The Palestinian people have usually been associated with Islam. People often think of politically dominating groupings like Fatah and Hamas. However, those who visit the Palestinian town Bethlehem at the Westbank, a town world famous as the birthplace as Jesus, will sooner or later be confronted by the facts: Christianity is evidently present in Bethlehem. In the centre of Bethlehem, the towers of different church denominations flaunt proudly in the sky. This summer I visited Bethlehem to conduct a research, in collaboration with the ‘AEI’ (Arabic Educational Institute), on the Arab Christianity of the Palestinians. In this article, I would like to share some of my findings and hope to raise awareness of the situation of this specific group of people.
The current Palestinian Christianity
Palestinian Christianity should not be dismissed. One can read in the statistics that around 2% of the Palestinians belongs to Christianity. But in Bethlehem, around 20% of the population is Christian, at least that is what Christians themselves claim. Of course, the question is how veracious these numbers are. Since the first centuries of the Christian era there have been Christians in the Arabic world; they are one of the very first converts. Some of the Christians who adhere to the so-called Palestinian liberation theology claim Jesus had to be Palestinian instead of Israeli – an interesting example of cultural appropriation of the figure Jesus. Another viewpoint of the Palestinian liberation theology is the claim on Biblical grounds that Palestinians have a right to the Holy Land. An organisation which is committed to this Palestinian liberation theology is the ecumenical institution ‘Sabeel’, which has its head office in Jerusalem, and brings perfervid partisans of the Palestinian liberation theology together. Organisations like ‘Kairos Palestine’ also draw attention to the situation of the Palestinian Christians.
A well-known pro-Palestinian sympathizer is the Dutch Catholic ex-Prime Minister Dries van Agt. Characteristic of the Protestant side of the Netherlands is the heated discussion about Palestinian Christianity within the ‘PKN’ (Protestantse Kerk in Nederland; Protestant Church in the Netherlands) and the organisation ‘Kerk in Actie’ (Church in Action). Some say the viewpoints of the Palestinian liberation theology is disputable. It is clear that the Palestinian Christians do matter internationally. At the same time the Arabic Christianity is completely current. The American theologian Todd M. Johnson recently published a controversial book with the title ‘World Christian Trends’, where he shared alarming data about the persecution of Christians including in the Arabic world. The media also informs us about the weakened position of Christians in Arabic countries during the so-called Arabic Spring, which is occurring now. The media shows us pictures of ruined – sometimes immemorial – churches of cities like Egyptian Cairo and Syrian Aleppo. Several media organizations like Elsevier, Christianity Today, and Open Doors describe how the Arabic Spring is becoming an Arabic Winter for the Christians: in the Arabic countries the Christian persecution is increasing the fastest.
Christian-Muslim relations in Bethlehem
Like in other Arabic countries, in most Palestinian villages Christians and Muslims have been living peacefully together for centuries. Yet Christianity in Bethlehem knows not only peace, but also turmoil. An elderly Christian lady told me how the Muslims took away the land of her son this month. She also tells me with pain in her heart about the changes that occurred during 1948, when the state Israel was established, and the former Christian village was overrun by Palestinian refugees with a Muslim background. Because of this, the religious composition of the village drastically transformed. This change is being reinforced through the lower birth rates of Christians compared to Muslims, and the leaving of Palestinian Christians to neighbouring countries or to North and South America. This exodus has been there for years and seems unstoppable. Because Bethlehem is the birthplace of the historical Jesus, Christians see it as a special place. The Christian-Muslim relations have been prescribed through the local Christian people as limited contact. As one interviewee stated: ‘Just saying hi and bye to your neighbour, but using the words ‘hate’ and ‘violence’ is one step too far’.
To give an image, the Mayor of Bethlehem is a Christian woman, something the Christians are very proud of. The younger generation appears to have more interreligious contacts than the older generation. Children of both Christian and Muslim parents go to the same school where friendships originate. A young Christian woman tells me how important her Muslim friends are to her: ‘A headscarf doesn’t make a difference for me.’ Christians have been invited on the Iftar meals during Ramadan (fasting) and congratulate their Muslim friends for Id-al-Fitr (Sugar Feast). It must not be forgotten that the Palestinians are people with a shared history. Mixed marriages is going too far, however, and the people usually buy at the shops of their own religion. This story would not be complete without the Israel-Palestine conflict, which arouses many different reactions among the local Christian population. Some say this conflict about the land, with a culmination during the siege of the Church of the Nativity in 2002 during the Second Intifada (rebellion), is narrowing the religious gap between Christians and Muslims because it creates a feeling of solidarity. Christians and Muslims experience the same problems daily, like the water shortage and the notorious wall of Israel. A middle-aged man, who shows me proudly that Israel gave him permission to travel past the wall, adds critically that Israel gives permission to Christians sooner ‘to make us Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims stand up against each other and cause an internal crisis’.
Jesus in Bethlehem
It is not possible to summarize the position of the Palestinian Christianity and the Christian Muslim relations in one word; it has many faces and many voices. The situation is complex, and the fast changes in other Arabic countries, the current peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and the international debate about an intervention in Syria, can make the situation be only more complex. One of the local reverends told me that I had only seen a small part of the situation, and that there is much more to it. I wonder if this situation might change soon, partly or completely. It seems like there is a continuity in history: where the evangelists of the Bible documented 2000 years ago there was no place for Jesus in Bethlehem, Bethlehem still looks filled with people of another faith. History is repeating: Jesus was driven away by a vindictive king called Herod, who didn’t want to know about Jesus, and now also the international community is looking the other way. There is little room for Jesus in Bethlehem, but people don’t seem to care.
Elizabeth Marteijn finished her Bachelor in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology last year and is now in the third and final year of her Bachelor Theology at the VU. This article is part of the Fieldwork 2013 series.