This is the thrid and final part of our story on the modern day exodus of Christians from Palestinian-controlled territories. If you have not done so already, we suggest first reading Part I and Part II
In an attempt to protect their fragile community, Christians have decided to maintain a low profile, which may explain why so many of them have adopted a code of silence that precludes saying or doing anything that might critique or challenge the prevailing system or Islam more generally. Unable -- or unwilling -- to name the real culprits, Palestinian Christians often redirect their anger at Muslims by blaming the Jews.
In a 2006 poll of Christians in Bethlehem, conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Research and Cultural Dialogue, 73.3 percent agreed that the Palestinian Authority treated the city’s Christian heritage with respect, whereas 78% attributed the ongoing exodus of Christians from Bethlehem to the Israeli ‘occupation’ and its repercussions.
These attitudes clearly ignore the flight of Christians before 1967, when the 'occupation' began. According to a 1937 British report submitted to the League of Nations, the number of Christians under the British Mandate comprised somewhere between 9.5% (1922) to 7.9% (1946) of the total population. The significant decrease took place during the 19 years of the Jordanian occupation of east Jerusalem when the area lost some 18,000 Christian residents (from 29,000 in 1948 to 11,000 in 1967).
By comparison, the total number of Christians living in both Israel and the West Bank has gone up from 34,000 in 1949 to more than 150,000 today, and this figure continues to grow at an annual average growth rate of 1.9 percent per year. Even though the percentage of Christians in the State of Israel has slightly declined, Christians still fare extremely well.
And yet, despite the relatively free and prosperous life offered to Christians by the state of Israel, it’s impossible to rule out the negative impact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has had on Christians opting to flee the West Bank and Gaza.
“People want to lead a decent and dignified life -- especially the younger generation,” said Hanan, a Christian Palestinian residing in the West Bank who also requested that her real name not be used.
“It’s very difficult to live without a job, without having any opportunities to succeed or without the ability to move freely,” she continued referring to the numerous checkpoints and the wall built by Israel in 2003 to protect its citizens from the terrorist attacks that frequently targeted Israeli citizens during the Second Intifida.
While Israel’s defensive measures virtually eliminated the theat of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks from the West Bank, Peter agreed about the adverse effects of the conflict on Palestinian Christians: “People don’t want their kids to grow up in such an unhealthy environment, where the conflict is brewing and where unemployed families cannot provide food for their children.”
It is hard to determine exactly who is responsible for the departure of Christians from Palestine -- whether the raging conflict or the looming Islamist threat -- but the truth may lie somewhere in the middle. The US State Department's 2006 report on religious freedom criticized both Israel, for its restrictions on travel to Christian holy sites, and the Palestinian Authority, for its failure to stamp out anti-Christian crime. It also reported that the former gives preferential treatment in basic civic services to Jews and the latter does so to Muslims.
“It’s not only one factor that influences the flight of Christians. Families want to have a good life and a stable future for their children,” said Hanan. “The persecution when -- and if -- it does take place is based primarily on personal disputes. Yet, police and special forces have become more organized and they are efficient in solving these issues,” she concluded.
While the complete story behind the departure of Christians from their ancestral land may not be easy to determine, one thing became abundantly clear from researching this article: as vulnerable, second-class citizens, Christians have learned the hard way to be extremely careful.