SIR – The correlation between the shrinking Christian population in Palestine and the Israeli occupation and apartheid should be unmistakable, as it is obvious to Palestine’s Christian and Muslim population alike.
A study conducted by Dar al-Kalima University in the West Bank town of Beit Jala and published in December 2017, interviewed nearly 1,000 Palestinians, half of them Christian and the other half Muslim.
One of the main goals of the research was to understand the reason behind the depleting Christian population in Palestine.
The study concluded that ‘the pressure of Israeli occupation, ongoing constraints, discriminatory policies, arbitrary arrests, confiscation of lands added to the general sense of hopelessness among Palestinian Christians,’ who are finding themselves in ‘a despairing situation where they can no longer perceive a future for their offspring or for themselves.’
Gaza is another case in point. Only 2 percent of Palestine’s Christians live in the impoverished and besieged Gaza Strip. When Israel occupied Gaza along with the rest of historic Palestine in 1967, an estimated 2,300 Christians lived in the Strip.
However, merely 1,100 Christians still livein Gaza today. Years of occupation, horrific wars and an unforgiving siege can do that to a community, whose historic roots date back to two millennia.
Like Gaza’s Muslims, these Christians are cut off from the rest of the world, including the holy sites in the West Bank. Every year, Gaza’s Christians apply for permits from the Israeli military to join Easter services in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Last April, only 200 Christians were granted permits, but on the condition that they must be 55 years of age or older and that they are not allowed to visit Jerusalem.
The Israeli rights group, Gisha, described the Israeli army decision as ‘a further violation of Palestinians’ fundamental rights to freedom of movement, religious freedom and family life,’ and, rightly, accused Israel of attempting to ‘deepen the separation’ between Gaza and the West Bank.
In fact, Israel aims at doing more than that. Separating Palestinian Christians from one another, and from their holy sites (as is the case for Muslims, as well), the Israeli government hopes to weaken the socio-cultural and spiritual connections that give Palestinians their collective identity.
Israel’s strategy is predicated on the idea that a combination of factors – immense economic hardships, permanent siege and apartheid, the severing of communal and spiritual bonds – will eventually drive all Christians out of their Palestinian homeland.
Israel is keen to present the ‘conflict’ in Palestine as a religious one so that it could, in turn, brand itself as a beleaguered Jewish state in the midst of a massive Muslim population in the Middle East. The continued existence of Palestinian Christians does not factor nicely into this Israeli agenda.
Sadly, however, Israel has succeeded in misrepresenting the struggle in Palestine – from that of political and human rights struggle against settler colonialism into a religious one. Equally disturbing, Israel’s most ardent supporters in the United States and elsewhere are religious Christians.
It must be understood that Palestinian Christians are neither aliens nor bystanders in Palestine. They have been victimised equally as their Muslim brethren, and have also played a major role in defining the modern Palestinian identity, through their resistance, spirituality, deep connection to the land, artistic contributions and burgeoning scholarship.
Israel must not be allowed to ostracise the world’s most ancient Christian community from their ancestral land so that it may score a few points in its deeply disturbing drive for racial supremacy.