The Struggle to Keep the Faith in Bethlehem
January 15, 2005
by Michael Binyon
After 2,000 years Christianity is in danger of extinction in the land
of its birth.
FOR the first time in several years, a few rays of hope have begun to
shine over Bethlehem. The recent elections for a Palestinian president
passed off relatively peacefully and fairly, despite complaints about
Israeli barricades and bureaucracy. Almost twice as many visitors as
last year thronged Manger Square to celebrate midnight Mass at
Christmas, and there were also more Orthodox Christians who came to
celebrate at their Christmas on January 7. Could this mean that the
terrible events of recent years – the Israeli siege of the Church of
the Nativity, the curfews, blockades and violence – may now be
followed by desperately needed calm and stability?
Christians in Bethlehem ardently hope so. For, despite the brief
upsurge in pilgrims and tourism, there is a bleak midwinter.
Unemployment, economic collapse and emigration have devastated their
community. Many fear that Christianity, after 2,000 years, may soon be
extinguished in the land of its birth.
For hundreds of years and throughout Ottoman rule, Christians formed a
majority in Bethlehem. In the last century they were 90 per cent of
the population. But since the Israeli occupation, and especially
after the start of the first Palestinian intifada, they have been
Since the Pope’s visit in March 2000 (six months before the second
intifada and when there was still hope of a political solution with
Israel), an estimated 3,000 people have moved abroad. They have left
behind a communitynow down to 21,500, barely a third of the
Christians with education, savings or ambition are leaving for
America, South America, Canada, Australia – anywhere where they can
escape the occupation and economic stagnation. Those who remain are
increasingly old, poor and despairing. They cannot even reach the
churches of nearby Jerusalem without difficulty. The new separation
fence hems in the little town, and Israeli checkpoints make what was
once a short and easy journey over the stony hills a frustrating
In Jerusalem itself, the Christians are equally demoralised. Their
numbers, too, are falling fast. At the time of the British mandate,
Christians formed about 10 per cent of the Palestinian population. Now
they are probably no more than 2 per cent.
It is not simply that many are leaving. The Christian birthrate is
about half that of Muslims. And Christians find themselves caught
between two communities. They have suffered as much as their Muslim
neighbours from therecent violence. But many say the Muslims believe
them to be less active in the struggle against occupation, and they
are seen as more ready to co-operate with the Israelis – a perception
that makes for bad blood between the two communities.
These mutual suspicions were intensified by the Christian-Muslim
clashes that took place in Nazareth in 1999 over the proposal to build
a mosque, authorised by Israel, next to the Basilica of the
In Jerusalem, the Christians are suffering, as in Bethlehem, from the
lack of pilgrims and tourists. But in recent years they have come
increasingly into conflict with the Israelis over the management and
status of their churches. Partly this is because of the churches’
extensive land holdings, partly because Israeli settlers are
determined to expand their presence in the Old City, and partly
because Christian clergy now identify themselves more than before with
the Palestinian cause and have become suspect in official Israeli
The leadership of the Greek Orthodox Church, which has the largest
Palestinian membership, has run into conflict with Israel over its
appointments. The present Patriarch, Irenous I, is 140th in a direct
line of succession. His appointment was confirmed only in the autumn
after a two-year delay. Israelsaw him as too close to Yassir Arafat,
and delayed recognition of his appointment through a court case
accusing him of anti-Semitism, finally dismissed by the Israeli
Supreme Court. Another priest of Palestinian origin, Father
AtallahHanna, was appointed church spokesman in Jerusalem in 2001 and
became outspoken in denouncing the occupation. He was frequently
stopped and questioned, placed under house arrest and finally
disinvested by the Patriarch under Israeli pressure.
Other denominations have had other disputes, many concerning land
sales. The St John’s Hospice building in the Old City was occupied by
a group of Jewish settlers, causing general concern among Christians
at the lack of an official response.
One of the main concerns is the Christian claim that Israeli
authorities are indifferent to the observance of the age-old status
quo – the complex balance between the various factions which has for
centuries maintained a precarious peace between the Greek Orthodox,
the Armenians, the Latins, Copts, Ethiopians and others who claim
rights in the custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In the negotiations leading to the establishment of diplomatic
relations with the Vatican, Israel signed a Fundamental Agreement in
1993, giving the Vatican also an official say in church affairs in
Jerusalem. This has yet to be ratified by the Knesset.
Samuel Jacob Kuruvilla, a specialist in Middle East politics at Exeter
University, details many of the clashes in the current issue of the
Palestinian journal al-Aqsa. He argues that recent Israeli proposals,
such as opening anew entrance to the Holy Sepulchre and ending the
800-year tradition that entrusts its keys to two prominent Muslim
families, have elicited intense suspicion from Jerusalem’s Christians
who fear that they will upset the status quo.
`The churches were suspicious whether the Israelis had any plans
ofextending a foothold into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre much as
they had done on the Temple Mount,’ Kuruvilla said. They feared that
the Israelis were planning ` to do what no rulers of Jerusalem had
ever succeeded in carrying out, namely to interfere with the sole
right of the churches themselves to manage affairs within the
precincts of the church’.
Church frustration is directed not only against the ruling
authorities, however. Kuruvilla said that many Christians in Jerusalem
were angry that the European powers had failed to recognise the
sensitivities and traditions of historic churches in the land in which
they were born.
© Michael Binyon