Christian Arab presence in Bethlehem in Crisis
By Ray Hanania
The issue of Christians in the Holy Land continues to be a topic that is twisted and distorted for political purposes with Muslims and Jews both arguing they do more for the increasingly deteriorating presence in traditionally Christian areas like Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour in the Israeli occupied West Bank.
Today, according to Christian activists who are struggling to survive in Bethlehem, the Christian population there has been eclisped by a growth of both Muslim refugees who are relocating to avoid the persecution by Israel in Hebron and by the increasing number of Israeli Jews who are taking Christian lands to build exclusively jewish-only settlements.
Many of the settlements encircling East Jerusalem are built on lands previously owned by Christians and confiscated by Israel’s rightwing government led by extremist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet ironically, Israel’s government has continued to issue propaganda claiming that Israel is a “safe haven” for Christians and asserting that the real threat is from the larger Muslim community.
It is true that Muslims constitute more than 1.6 billion in the world, and that the Jewish World population is about 13.4 million, or under 1 percent in comparison to the Muslim population. But, the Christian population of the world is the largest at 6.9 billion people, yet Christians outside of the Holy Land have turned a deaf ear to the challenges being faced by Christians.
Additionally, Muslim Arabs are hostile to Christian Arabs who try to give the Christian Arabs a louder and more active voice arguing that “Christians and Muslims are one and the same and we should not try to be different.”
Yet these same Muslim activists have no problem launching Muslim activist organizations such as CAIR, ISNA and others that champion the rights and causes of the Muslim community.
“Why can’t and shouldn’t Christians also speak up and speak out loudly about their situation? Why are we being discriminated against by all sides? By Muslims? By Jews? And even by non-Arab Christians in the West?” one Christian activist recently wrote in an email to The Arab Daily News. “It’s a problem and no one wants to address it.”
As both Israeli and Muslim activist groups grow, the Christian voice has remained stagnant and almost insignificant. Christian speakers are invited to speak at Muslim and Jewish organization events more as a political statement. Jews invite Christians to their conferences in order to use the Christians as a criticism against Islam while Muslims also invite Christians to their conferences in order to use the Christians as a criticism against Israel and Zionism.
Both Muslims and Jewish activists, however, prevent the speakers from speaking out against the overall discrimination that is taking place. Jewish and Israeli groups try to mute criticism by Christians of Israel while Muslim groups try to mute the voices of Christian Arabs who seek to question the rise of extremist Muslims like al-Qaeda and ISIS/ISIL that have targeted Christians for persecution.
“The irony is we are being used by everyone,” another Christian activist, who asked not to be identified fearing a backlash from Muslims, said. “The Israelis expect Christian Arabs to be critical of Israeli policy but they are addressing our community. In contrast, the Muslim community gets angry when we raise issues and initiate hostile campaigns targeting well-known Christians who openly speak out about the increasingly hostile challenges Christian Arabs face in the Arab and Muslim Worlds. They are legitimate issues but no one wants to talk about them.”
Increasingly, Christians in the Holy Land have begun an outreach campaign to promote their presence and to generate financial and political support for their efforts. Israeli and pro-Israel news sites and organizations have launched a formal campaign to challenge criticism of Israel and reports that Israel is discriminating against Christians. But the campaign is no different than the everyday denials and attacks from extremist Muslim groups and activists who target any Christian who dares to raise issues of the abuse of Christian Arabs by Muslims. Both sides are focused on their selfish interests and none care about Christians is a message that is finally becoming clear to Christian Arabs in the Middle East and Holy Land.
George Sleibi, a Christian from Bethlehem, has launched a campaign to encourage support for the Christian community in the Holy Land “in the Holy Land in response to the growing regional Israeli-Palestinian conflict and decline of the Christian minority.”
Sleibi wrote recently, “The Christian presence in the Holy Land is declining daily. Currently, the Holy Land’s Christians comprise only two percent of the population. The continued emigration of Christians as a result of ongoing instability is having a negative impact on their presence in the land where Jesus was born, crucified and resurrected. Should this trend continue, an important spiritual destination, shared by billions throughout the world, will become nothing more than a museum, as the indigenous Christian community who represent the Christian presence in the Holy Land cease to exist.”
Christians in the Holy Land, Sleibi said, are increasingly falling victim to the occupation because they lack support.
“The conflict and occupation have seriously impacted the lives of the native Christians, making it very difficult for them to sustain a living there. Many are separated from their olive trees, jobs, schools and places of worship by the road blocks and security barrier,” Sleibi said.
“Water is rationed and often not available when needed. Permits to enter Jerusalem are very difficult to secure. For these reasons it is very challenging for Christians in the West Bank and Gaza, and many must leave the land they have owned for generations in order to maintain a livelihood to support their families. The Christian population has declined from 30% to less than 2% in less than fifty years. If the place of Jesus birth was an essentially Christian city since 1948, beginning from today Bethlehem is undergoing a significant change because of the immigration of many Muslims from the city of Hebron towards Bethlehem. Today only 12,000 Christians live in Bethlehem compared to the 35,000 Muslims.”
Many Christians have turned to producing and selling religious artifacts made of Olive Trees in the hopes of generating funds to strengthen the Christian Arab community which has no financial benefactors in the world.
“Olive trees in Bethlehem are believed to be holy, sometimes referred to as the “Tree of Life”. It’s from the pruning of these trees that the hand-crafted items are made by local artisans,” Sleibi said.
“In the past, tourism in Bethlehem had been a large part of the economy. Because of Bethlehem’s recent political and religious turmoil, it has significantly declined. With tourism being such an integral part of the local economy, many are now finding it hard to provide for themselves and their families.”
Sleibi said, “Purchasing Holy Land goods will support Christian artisans and their families, enabling them to remain in their homeland and make a living. Most products are made in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala — the largest Christian communities in Holy Land.”
Sleibi said that his group is pushing for a public campaign this Winter around the traditional Christian holidays of Christmas to raise awareness and speak to Christian church groups to educate Christian communities about the real plight of Christians outside of the context of regional Middle East politics.
Sleibi is affiliated with the website OBethlehem.com which offers information about the challenges facing Christians in the Holy Land. You can visit the website at www.OBethlehem.com.
You can also reach out to George Sleibi directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.