The Death of Christianity in Bethlehem

Christians living under the Palestinian Authority (PA) are experiencing continual ill-treatment that Muslims do not.

After noting that there "has been a marked uptick in religiously motivated attacks by Palestinian Muslims on Christians in Bethlehem,"report from November 21 offers these examples:

Just over two weeks ago, a Muslim man was accused of harassing young Christian women at a Forefathers Orthodox Church in Beit Sahour near the city of Bethlehem. Soon after, the church was attacked by a large mob of Palestinian men who hurled rocks at the building while congregants cowered inside. Several of the congregants were injured in the attack.

The Palestinian Authority, responsible for security in the area, did nothing.

In October, unidentified gunmen shot at the Christian-owned Bethlehem Hotel after a video on social media associated the hotel with a display that included cardboard cutouts of a Star of David and a Menorah. ...

No arrests were made in connection with the shooting.

Perhaps the greatest shock to the community came in April when the Palestinian evangelical pastor, Johnny Shahwan, was arrested by the Palestinian Authority security forces on charges of 'promoting normalization' with Israel. ...

In January, a large group of masked men carrying sticks and iron bars attacked Christian brothers, Daoud and Daher Nassar, on their farm near Bethlehem. The Palestinian courts have been working to confiscate the farm that has been owned by the family since the Ottoman Empire.

The persecution of Palestinian Christians is, in fact, a longstanding problemaccording to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki, Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation:

Unfortunately, these recent attacks against churches are not new. Christians have been under attack in Bethlehem for many, many years. There have been bombings. There are near-constant physical attacks against Christians. They're going on a regular basis, ever since the Palestinian Authority took over.

According to Kamal Tarazi, a Christian man who fled from the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip in 2007, "The moment they [Hamas] took control [of Gaza], they started persecuting us, ruining our churches and forcing Christians to convert to Islam." Before fleeing, Tarazi tried to resist the Islamist takeover, and called on Muslims and Christians to unite against Hamas. As a result, "I was jailed several times," he said. "Do you know what a Hamas prison is? It is pure torture."

Numbers confirm that Christians living under the Palestinian Authority (PA) are experiencing continual ill-treatment that Muslims do not. In 1947, Christians made up 85% of the population of Bethlehem, an ancient Christian stronghold. By 2016, Christians had declined to only 16% of the population.

"In a society where Arab Christians have no voice and no protection it is no surprise that they are leaving," noted Justus Reid Weiner, a lawyer acquainted with the region.

The systematic persecution of Christian Arabs living in Palestinian areas is being met with nearly total silence by the international community, human rights activists, the media and NGOs.

Incidents of persecution are never reported by international media. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Christian Arab resident of Bethlehem emphasized that all of the most recent instances listed above were underreported even within Israel itself, before adding:

This needs to be heard for the purpose of educating the Jewish world and the Christian world about the state of Bethlehem. There are incidents happening constantly, whether it be neighbors against each other, or people in the streets, or even organizations and churches. Most times, it is a case of the Muslim community overpowering the minority, which is the Christian community.

Why is the persecution of Christians in Bethlehem and other areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority so unreported or under-reported? Certainly it is not because they experience less persecution than their coreligionists throughout the Muslim world, where the bulk of the world's persecution of Christians occurs.

This Christmas, it is important to remember that, due to ongoing but silenced persecution, Christianity is on the verge of disappearing in the place of its birth –Bethlehem, the scene of the Nativity. It is a silence that gives the Christmas song "Silent Night" an ominous meaning. "The persecution," the most recent report asserts, "is threatening the existence of the oldest Christian community in the world."

"The attacks by Muslims on Christians are often ignored by the international community and media, who seem to speak out only when they can find a way to blame Israel," wrote the Muslim journalist Khaled Abu Toameh.

Another disturbing situation is that the leaders of the Christian community in the West Bank are reluctant to hold the Palestinian Authority and their Muslim neighbors responsible for the attacks. They are afraid of retribution and prefer to toe the official line of holding Israel solely responsible for the misery of the Christian minority.

Open Doors, a human rights organization that follows the persecution of Christians, reports that Palestinian Christians suffer from a "high" level of persecution:

Those who convert to Christianity from Islam, however, face the worst Christian persecution and it is difficult for them to safely participate in existing churches. In the West Bank they are threatened and put under great pressure, in Gaza their situation is so dangerous that they live their Christian faith in utmost secrecy.... The influence of radical Islamic ideology is rising, and historical churches have to be diplomatic in their approach towards Muslims.

The unique situation of Palestinian Christians –living in a politically contested arena where "public image" and therefore opinion is everything– also explains the lack of exposure. A report by Dr. Edy Cohen documents more instances of persecution of Christians. All occurred back-to-back, just before the report's publication, and none of which were reported by so-called "mainstream media":

April 25: "[T]he terrified residents of the Christian village of Jifna near Ramallah ... were attacked by Muslim gunmen ... after a woman from the village submitted a complaint to the police that the son of a prominent, Fatah-affiliated leader had attacked her family. In response, dozens of Fatah gunmen came to the village, fired hundreds of bullets in the air, threw petrol bombs while shouting curses, and caused severe damage to public property. It was a miracle that there were no dead or wounded."

May 13: "Vandals broke into a church of the Maronite community in the center of Bethlehem, desecrated it, and stole expensive equipment belonging to the church, including the security cameras.... [T]his is the sixth time the Maronite church in Bethlehem has been subjected to acts of vandalism and theft, including an arson attack in 2015 that caused considerable damage and forced the church to close for a lengthy period."

May 16: "[I]t was the turn of the Anglican church in the village of Aboud, west of Ramallah. Vandals cut through the fence, broke the windows of the church, and broke in. They desecrated it, looked for valuable items, and stole a great deal of equipment."

These attacks, which occurred over the course of three weeks, fit the same pattern of abuse that Christians in other Muslim majority regions habitually experience. While the desecration and plundering of churches is prevalent, so too are Muslim mob uprisings against Christian minorities –who tend to be treated as dhimmis, or second-class citizens under Islamic governance who supposedly should be grateful to receive any toleration at all. If and when they dare speak up for their rights, as occurred on April 25, "[T]he rioters in [the village of] Jifna, called on the [Christian] residents to pay jizya –a head tax that was levied throughout history on non-Muslim minorities under Islamic rule. The most recent victims of the jizya were the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria under ISIS rule."

Worse, as often happens when Christian minorities are attacked in Muslim majority nations, "Despite the [Christian] residents' cries for help [in Jifna] the PA police did not intervene during the hours of mayhem. They have not arrested any suspects." Similarly, in the two church attacks, "no suspects were arrested".

While Palestinian Christians suffer from the same patterns of persecution as their coreligionists in other Muslim nations, including church attacks, kidnappings and forced conversion, the persecution of Palestinian Christians has "received no coverage in the Palestinian media. In fact," Cohen continues, "a full gag order was imposed in many cases":

The only thing that interests the PA is that events of this kind not be leaked to the media. Fatah regularly exerts heavy pressure on Christians not to report the acts of violence and vandalism from which they frequently suffer, as such publicity could damage the PA's image as an actor capable of protecting the lives and property of the Christian minority under its rule. Even less does the PA want to be depicted as a radical entity that persecutes religious minorities. That image could have negative repercussions for the massive international, and particularly European, aid the PA receives.

The bread and butter of the PA and its supporters, particularly in the media, is to portray Palestinians in general as victims of unjust aggression and discrimination from Israel. This narrative would be jeopardized if the international community learned that it is Palestinian Muslims who are persecuting their fellow Palestinian Christians –solely on account of religion. It might be hard to muster sympathy for a professedly oppressed people when one realizes that they themselves are doing the oppressing of the minorities in their midst– and for no other reason than religious bigotry.

Because they are so sensitive to this potential difficulty, "PA officials exert pressure on local Christian[s] to not report such incidents, which threaten to unmask the Palestinian Authority as yet another Middle East regime beholden to a radical Islamic ideology," Cohen concludes.

Certain Palestinian Christians are also complicit. Mitri Rehab, a Palestinian academic and Lutheran clergyman living in Bethlehem, insists in his recent book, The Politics of Persecution, that whatever persecution Christians may experience in the Middle East has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with Western or Israeli actions. In his attempt to lay blame on everything else, he even offers a section in his book on "climate change [which] will take its toll on the Christian community."

Finally, the Palestinian Authority does not merely suppress news of Christian persecution; it actively advertises a false picture. Despite the rapidly dwindling number of Christians in Bethlehem, "The fact that the PA continues to make sure that there is a Christian mayor in Bethlehem is only window dressing," according to Rabbi Wolicki.

It's a show used to convince the world that Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christianity is still a Christian town. It is not Christian. It is Muslim in every regard.

This Christmas, it is important to remember that, due to ongoing but silenced persecution, Christianity is on the verge of disappearing in the place of its birthBethlehem, the scene of the Nativity. It is a silence that gives the Christmas song "Silent Night" an ominous meaning. "The persecution," the most recent report asserts, "is threatening the existence of the oldest Christian community in the world."

© Gatestone Institute