By Rev. Alex Awad
Originally printed in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2019 issue
Rev. Dr. Alex Awad is a retired United Methodist Missionary. He and his wife, Brenda, served in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem for more than 25 years, as pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church, dean of students at Bethlehem Bible College, and director of the Shepherd Society. Awad has written two books, Through the Eyes of the Victims and Palestinian Memories. Rev. Awad is a member of the Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace (PCAP).
ISRAEL’S APOLOGISTS never seem to tire of pointing a finger of accusation at the Palestinian Authority (PA) with allegations that the PA persecutes Palestinian Christians. Hence, they say, the decline of the indigenous Christian population in the Palestinian territories.
Jesus had words to describe such accusers: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:24 NIV.) The camel in the room is the occupation, and Israel’s apologists want to shift blame from the massive crimes of the occupation to place the PA in the defendant’s seat. These accusers are not willing to look at the thousands of dunums of land that have been confiscated from Palestinian Christian landowners by Israeli settlers and government agents.
They turn their eyes away when Israeli bulldozers demolish Palestinian Christian homes and farms, and they keep totally silent when thousands of Palestinian Christians, like me, lose the right of citizenship in their homeland because they left the country to study or to work overseas. If there were a systematic persecution of Christians in the Holy Land at the hands of the PA, I would be the first Palestinian Christian to travel the globe to expose these crimes against the Christian minority. I would seek the help of all majority Christian countries, the U.S., the U.N., and all human rights organizations to stop the persecution.
I love the Palestinian church, and I pray that the church in the Holy Land will continue to shine with the light of Christ to the world. I served the Christian church in Palestine for over 30 years. During these years I learned which party, in fact, is the one that poses the greatest threat to the Palestinian church. As any Palestinian—Christian or Muslim—will tell you, it is the Israeli occupation that is making life unbearable, for Muslims
and Christians alike.
The good news is that the PA and Hamas are not persecuting Christians. If the PA at any moment were to shift its policy and persecute Christians, the two percent Christian population would not endure for even three months in the West Bank. As for Hamas, if it merely threatened to persecute Gaza’s fewer than 2,000 Christians, Gaza’s Christians would, within days, run for the tunnels to sneak out of the Israeli-besieged enclave, and no Christian would be left in Gaza. But this is not happening. As I learned through my frequent visits to Gaza, Hamas leaders are bending over backward to make the few Christians in Gaza feel secure.
Regrettably, many of these accusations are generated by the Israeli Ministry of (mis)Information and then handed to Christian Zionists who stand ready and eager to receive these accusations and use them to smear the reputation of the PA without checking the facts. Here are facts that any decent researcher can investigate and verify:
1. Although the total number of Christians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is less than 2 percent of the total population, high-ranking Palestinian Christian leaders hold 7-10 percent of the top positions in the PA.
2. The number of Christian ambassadors to foreign countries relative to their percentage of the total population is quite high.
3. By law, several Palestinian cities and towns must always have a Christian mayor, even in cities like Bethlehem and Ramallah where the majority population is Muslim.
4. By law also, a number of seats in the Legislative Council are reserved for Christians, including two out of the seven seats for East Jerusalem.
5. Every Christmas Eve, the Palestinian president shows solidarity with Christians as he attends the Christmas Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity.
6. The PA declared that Christmas is a national holiday. Every Christmas a PA representative attends the Christmas tree lighting at the Church of the Nativity. In Israel, on the other hand, Christmas Day is a regular working day unless it falls on Saturday.
7. The PA considers all Palestinians, Muslims as well as Christians, equal citizens of the Palestinian state with equal rights for all. In Israel, however, non-Jews (Christians, Muslims and Druze) are second-class citizens according to Israel’s nation-state law.
All the above show that the PA is not only doing its best not to discriminate against Palestinian Christians, but is even favoring them. Naturally, Christians in the Palestinian state feel the pressure of being a tiny minority in a predominantly Muslim society and are even more sensitive to the threats of radical Islam, which endangers them as well as their Muslim neighbors. From time to time, frictions and injustices are experienced by the minority Christians as would be the case for any minority group anywhere in the world. However, these injustices are not initiated by the PA. Further, we must make a distinction between the pressures and irritation a minority experiences and outright persecution by government authorities.
Jewish colleagues have pointed out to me that Jewish Zionist organizations have also resorted to using the fear of Islam in appeals addressed directly to the Christians of Palestine. It goes like this: “We (Jews) understand that you, our Christian brothers and sisters in Palestine, are under threat from ‘Palestinian nationalism’ that threatens your well-being and survival in the Holy Land. The State of Israel can be the Christians’ best friend in helping preserve your presence in the Holy Land.”
“Palestinian nationalism” is code for Muslims. By casting the situation as a religious struggle, rather than as a clear case of human rights violations, this argument presents Muslims as hyper-nationalist terrorists, a threat to the “Judeo-Christian” way of life. The attempt to drive a wedge between Palestinian Christians and Muslims is cynical and not in accordance with the facts. The statements coming out of the churches of Palestine, e.g. the 2009 Kairos Palestine statement and the 2017 open letter of the National Coalition of Christian Organizations in Palestine, all speak of “us” as the Palestinian people—not the “Christians of Palestine.” The churches in Palestine speak for Palestinians—all Palestinians.
The biggest challenge to Christians in Palestine is the continuing Israeli occupation, which affects the Palestinians in every aspect of their existence. The impact of the occupation on the Palestinian economy is what causes many Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland. My own brothers and sisters who live in the U.S. and Germany point to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Israel’s discriminatory policies, and the consequent economic
challenges as the reasons why they left and would not return to live in their homeland.
Every Palestinian Christian family I know has relatives abroad who are either barred from returning to their homeland or who face being barred from even visiting by being turned back at the airport. The fact is that Israel works around the clock to reduce the Palestinian population of Israel and the West Bank and therefore makes it difficult and often impossible for Palestinian Christians who leave the country for the purpose of study or work to return to their homeland. Thousands of Palestinian Christians are challenged by these policies.
Zionist journalists and Christian Zionist defenders of Apartheid Israel can travel extensively up and down the Palestinian territories to seek evidence of Muslim persecution of Christians. They may find a few isolated stories here or there. However, if they stand on a hill in almost any Palestinian Christian village or city and are willing to open their eyes, they will see hundreds of visible indicators of Israeli wrongdoings against Christians. It is tragic when people who call themselves Christians are not willing to tell the truth but rather continue to strain out gnats while swallowing camels!