Faith in Bethlehem?

Faith in Bethlehem? January 27, 2005

January 15, 2005

The struggle to keep the faith in Bethlehem

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 leaving.

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 community now down to 21,500, barely a third of the Palestinian population.

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 experience.

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 the recent 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 Annunciation.

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 eyes.

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. Israel saw 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 Atallah Hanna, 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 a new 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 of extending 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.

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd. Thanks to FWD from Fr Victor Potapov.

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