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Palestinian Christians under occupation

Palestinian Christians under occupation

Kamal Farah

Ambulance Checkpoint

Ambulance Checkpoint

As local Christians of the Holy Land, Palestinian Christians form a part of the historical Christian community dating back to the apostles’ time as recorded in the book of Acts, ‘The believers who were scattered went everywhere, preaching the message. Philip went to the principal city of Samaria and preached the Messiah to the people there…’  (Acts 8. 4-25). ‘When did you convert to the Christian faith’?, asked a friend of mine who came to visit the Holy Land, and who, like many others, thought that Christianity in this country was brought by missionaries from the West, not realising that the first Christian missionaries came from this land.

The number of indigenous Christians in Palestine (West Bank and Gaza), is about 60,000, belonging to many different Christian denominations; Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants. The severe policies imposed by the Israeli occupation against Muslims and Christians in Palestine has forced many Christians to leave their country of birth, looking elsewhere for a more secure life where human beings are treated and respected as citizens. As a result, the number of Christians is decreasing drastically.

What are the major problems that Palestinians are undergoing in their homeland?

Land Confiscation.

Being in the land and owning this land is the fundamental problem of the occupation.  The Israelis, using all kind of pretexts, continue to expropriate and confiscate Arab land and create and/or expand illegal settlements in the West Bank. The silence of the international community and the absence of equal human rights implementation on all nations and for all nations, is a central factor in the suffering of the Palestinians. The United Nations, who created the state of Israel in Palestine in 1948, has recognized the full right for Palestinians to have their own state. As nothing has changed in sixty-five years, Palestinians feel they were never the real concern of the United Nations.

Lack of Human Dignity.

You may live without bread, but never without human dignity. The way the population is treated by the occupation forces leaves Palestinians feeling deprived of their human dignity. A Wall of separation surrounds the entire West Bank creating a feeling of imprisonment. The population have no rights to move freely inside their own territory, with fixed and flying checkpoints controlling access to their fields, schools, mosques, churches, markets and hospitals. Young and old, male and female, are subject to daily harassments and humiliations by the soldiers and the Israeli settlers who are often protected by the soldiers. The fact that the West Bank is cut off from Israel prevents Christians meeting with their sisters and brothers inside Israel and divides the country into two different communities ignoring each other’s real situation and often preventing solidarity and sharing with each other. Take their land, destroy their trees and agriculture, and just give them some bread is the worst you can do to a person. Unfortunately this is how it is for all Palestinians, whether Muslim or Christian.

Loss of Freedom.

Non-Governmental Organisations are active among Palestinians in the West Bank, but with all they do, it seems they are unable to restore what has been lost; they offer bread but not the bread of life; they help survival and give assistance in various ways, but so far not a free and dignified existence. Palestinians are deprived of an officially recognized nationality. They have a special ID card telling immediately that they are from the West Bank, because their nationality is ‘to be determined’. It is not yet determined because there is no Palestinian sovereign state but just a Palestinian Authority. Living under occupation, Palestinians have no rights on sovereignty, on currency, on determined borders, on an army; they have no sea, no airport. They can’t travel for worship or for holiday celebrations to Jerusalem without restrictions and special permits, which are not easy to obtain.

Where does the Church stand in all of this?

The Church, all Churches, throughout the centuries, inspired by the Holy Spirit, has carried the responsibility of providing the local population with education, health care and advocacy, especially where the State, the government or authorities have failed to do so.

Education.

The Church, still faithful to this ministry, has schools open to all, regardless of their denomination or religion. Given the number of Christians, most of the students who attend these schools are Muslim. A natural acceptance and respect for their faith is a part of the curriculum. Muslim students receive religious education from Muslim teachers. Christian students have their own religious education as well.

Health.

Health care is even more urgent. The Church hospitals and clinics are functioning for all and give priority to the poor who have no health insurance. The West Bank is still without the availability of health insurance and the poor may not be able to afford hospital fees. These hospitals are short of sophisticated medical equipment and therefore are not capable of treating all medical conditions. There is no choice but to send urgent cases to Israeli hospitals across the wall but this is not without serious problems. Many patients have to take the chance of getting through, or not, at the checkpoints. Charitable organizations are contributing generously to sustain these hospitals and without their support many would have to close. 

The third field of Church ministry is advocacy. The prophetic voice of the Church must speak out against social injustice and various forms of persecution. Many churches are deeply engaged in this crucial role. A few Church leaders need to be reminded of their commitment to keep the Church free from their personal agenda and plead the cause of human rights and human dignity for their own faithful congregations even if

they have to stand against the powerful Israeli settlers with their attempts to control all economic and water resources.

Is there hope for a better future?

Young Palestinian Christians expect a stronger church commitment and a more visible church unity. They are not satisfied with the traditional declarations often issued by the Church leaders. They need to see the church caring more for university education and encouraging people to remain in their country, keeping hope alive for a better future.

Churches all over the world have expressed concern about the future of the Christian presence in the Holy Land and they are right to do so. Palestinian Christians are grateful for all those who have contributed generously to Church institutions in Gaza and the West Bank. However we need Church leaders who give priority to the needs and expectations of the young. Church institutions are necessary and helpful in many regards but a Church reduced to an institution and without serious care given to listening to the younger generation is a Church on its way to death.

Church unity in the Holy Land is vital and even more vital is a reorganization of church priorities. Many bishops and Church leaders spend most of their energy fund raising and each of them claims abroad that their institutions and funds are for all Christians of the land, but when the generous donations reach a Bishop’s hand, they become strictly the possession of the Church that the Bishop leads. If students from another denomination apply for a scholarship, they are denied any assistance and sent back to their Church empty handed. Thus it is not surprising if young people start to question the Church’s credibility and the leaders’ declarations and policies.

Christians in Palestine are an integral part of the population though they have their proper prerogatives; living between hope and despair, light and darkness. They still repeat the Emmaus prayer ‘Stay with us Lord, for it is dark.’ (Luke 24:29). Palestinians in general and Christians in particular still believe that salvation comes from God and from those who honour his Name and his will. They keep hopeful despite all the contradictory signs. f

Fr Kamal

Fr Kamal

The Rev’d Canon Dr Kamal Farah is a Palestinian priest in the Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Recently he has been Course Director at St George’s College Jerusalem.