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Little room for Jesus in Bethlehem: The situation of Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem

Standplaatswereld 1By 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 anStandplaatswereld 2d 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.

One Comment

  1. Anabel Anabel

    This essay is very interesting because the broad perception if those global conflicts that are often presented as hinging on religious strife changes public consciousness. (Habermas: 2008) And now a days in the Western European context the change of conscience has been addressed as necessary not only in a political and social level, but also theoretical. Is interesting to establish a comparison of the now growing other faith communities in Europe and the U.S., and the historically diverse faith community of Palestine. While here in Europe the question is placed in whether there is such thing as secularization, and now we are having a return of religion. Or if it was never gone and is more a transformation marked by believing without belonging (Davie: 2013). And most of the political conflicts related to religion are given by the present immigration; the biggest difficulties are link up with the challenge of a pluralism of ways of life typical of migrant societies. In the conflicted Palestine the problem is not immigrant religion, but the immigrant economic and political interest that broke the ancient balance among the 3 faith communities (Jewish, Christians, Muslimism) with the Balfour treaty in 1917. In one hand as the dominant economies of West Europe (…) took off in the mid-post-war decades, there was an urgent need for new sources of labor. (Davie: 2013, 171). Is important to acknowledge the economic aspect of the ‘problem’, as long as there is a material interesting and is not reduced inly to religious aspects. And in the other hand there was decreased of the traditional churches: The crucial decades in this respect are the 70s and 80s: that is, precisely the moment when new forms of religious life (notably Islam) were beginning to embed themselves in Dutch society. (Davie: 2013, 179) So the conflict, specifically in The Netherlands, in between secularization and religion in one hand and between the two more imperative religious forms in the country right now. This 2 are Islam, because of the encouraged immigration from colonial territories (Surinam, Turkey and Marocco) (Davie: 2013, 172). It seams somehow that there is a hierarchy in terms of the ‘accepted’ religions, Islam is seams like a threated but is not the same treat for Christianity. The differences among the groups are not that radical, nor are their Cosmovisions or relations with religion itself. This can be seen in the research Pedagogies of Piety: Comparing young observant Muslims and Christians in the Netherlands. In his work Daan Beekers clearly shows how much both groups have in common.
    In this sense the Western destruction of Palestine, with the excuse of this being “A Land without a People for a People without a Land” (Muir: 2008) Is not only narrow minded and ignorant. It was an immigration driven by Western interest, and by a very oriental (Said: 1979). And the saddest part is that there is so much more to learn from that balance that was by us broken. There were people in this land, that maybe under the colonial conceptions undeveloped economically, but developed is of course not determined only by economy production. And they had reached a level of practical cultural, social and religious integration that multicultural Europe doesn’t seam able to place in a dialogical level. So who can help developed whom? And what is modern anyways.

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