A fight is currently being waged for the voice of Palestinian Christians. Recently brought to the forefront of media attention through various events such as the Christ at the Checkpoint conferences in Bethlehem, the recent call from the Orthodox community to ‘shred them[IDF volunteer enlistment forms]’ in response to the Israeli Defense Force’s efforts at recruiting Palestinian Christians in Israel, Christy Anastas’ video supporting the Zionist cause, the destruction of the Nassar family’s farm The Tent of Nations, and Pope Francis’s imminent visit to the Holy Land, the depiction of Palestinian Christians is mixed and can seem contradictory at times.
In recent years, the message of Palestinian Christians has been growing. Producing the Kairos Palestine document (which encouraged subsequent editions from various churches around the world) and documentaries such as The Stones Cry Out, the global audience is slowly hearing of the realities that face Palestinian Christians and their unique position and perspective. However, this is combatted by the increasing call from Israel for its allies to protect it and its ‘vulnerable’ population – completely and ironically disregarding their own stance as one of the world’s strongest militaries.
When examining the current situation within Israel and Palestine, it is easy to see that a large part of Israel’s media campaign, hasbara, is geared toward an audience other than those inside Israel itself. Rather, these initiatives come across as channeled towards a Western, Judeo-Christian audience. Images and words in these campaigns are postured to evoke a sense of religious allegiance to Israel, painting the country as a bastion of God’s promise of land to the Israelites made thousands of years ago. Commonplace in evangelical churches throughout the West are stacks of literature concerning the legitimacy of Israel and how it fulfills Old Testament prophecy, and how Zionism is a force for good in a ravaged Islamic region. Indeed, by reading such texts, one is reminded of classic stories of polarized characters that are wholly good defeating entirely wicked antagonists.
But if one begins to cut through the fog of media, clearer explanations begin to emerge. Palestinian Christians, in fact, do not fit the overarching narrative of an enraged Middle East that is so popularly promoted by Zionist and Western media. The realities facing Christianity in Israel and Palestine present a unique challenge to the Western conceptualization of the on-going occupation. Islam can be more easily demonized due to its foreign nature in both North America and Europe, but to look at this particular group is to see a more familiar face on the other side of the camera. But these Arab Christians and custodians of the faith in the Holy Land do not fit the Christian Zionist narrative. Indeed, they are its victims. Like postulations presented by Edward Said in his book Covering Islam, challenges to the hegemonic view of a violent, Islamic society break the media storm that tries to suffocate the testaments of those who would shake the characteristics so unscrupulously applied to all Palestinians.
Although historically a much larger number, today, Palestinian Christians represent about 2.1% of the collective Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, and 80% of Israeli Christians are Palestinian. They are found throughout the ranks of Palestinian society, and are stewards to the legacy of Palestinian history alongside their brethren of different faiths. Although they tend to be in higher economic brackets due to their engagement with commerce and historical ties with the West, they are also active members of their communities and are often indistinguishable from their Muslim compatriots. With a community that has existed since the time of Christ, they are known as ‘the living stones’ of Christianity in the Holy Land. Following the onset of the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) in 1948 that saw the beginning of Israel’s campaign of ethnic cleansing that has lasted close to 70 years, many Palestinian Christians fled the persecution they faced under Israel’s occupation. This exodus, though, has been depicted by Israeli hasbara as a response to victimization under Islamic extremism; thus producing a scapegoat that appeals to the West’s current pet bogey-man. A brilliant distraction from their own culpability.
While there has been much discussion surrounding oppression of the indigenous Christian church by adherents of Islam, a closer look at their situation shows a different picture. While it is true that tensions exist between the communities, these strains are mostly the inventions of Zionist forces, who wish to create divisions in the Palestinian community where they did not previously exist. Indeed, Palestinian Christians in the early 20th century were promoters of a secular Palestinian identity, and thus nationalism, which would transcend religious boundaries.
One such Israeli effort to divide is the new Israeli law granting Christians in Israel of Arab descent preferential treatment in the eyes of the law, placing them as a minority favored over Arab Muslims. Courting the Arab Christian community in Israel with the supposed promise of improved lives without the intense segregation experienced since the founding of the country itself in 1948, it is easy to see the gap potentially widen between Christians and Muslims. With the benefits of school loans, special medical programs, and access to a large array of social services, joining the IDF is difficult to refuse; especially when one seeks to escape a life of persecution and second-class treatment (if that). Bearing this in mind, at least 80% of Christian Arabs in Israel have openly refused to partake in the military, a costly act of open solidarity with their compatriots of all faiths in the West Bank and Gaza.
Furthermore, in looking at the dynamic nature of Palestinian Christians and their part in the non-violent resistance movement, we need to acknowledge their position as equally engaged in the realities of the conflict. They suffer and are exploited just as their Muslim counterparts. Not just a religious minority, they too are fully Palestinian. They, too, share in the future of their land. It is time we, as the international community, recognized their existence and end this willful blindness of who they are and their legitimacy as partners in peace. If we, the West, truly desired to wage peace in this occupation, we would acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinians, Christians and otherwise. We would provide outlets for their views to contradict ours, as democracy demands. We would place the agenda of peace above the game of regional hegemony.
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