Vicar's Study Leave report
What I did and where I went
I travelled to the Holy Land with my husband Peter Oborne. We stayed in the Ecce Homo pilgrim house in the Old City of Jerusalem; the Walled Off (Banksy) hotel in Bethlehem; the Fauzi Azar hostel in Nazareth; and St George’s Pilgrim House in East Jerusalem. We also visited Hebron and spent a day in Gaza City.
We met with many different people, churches and organisations including the Bethlehem Bible College, the Holy Land Trust, the Christian Peacemakers Trust, Sabeel, the Joint Advocacy Initiative, Wi’Am, B’tselem, the Garden Tomb, St George’s Cathedral and College in Jerusalem, Baraka Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, Emmanuel Anglican Episcopal Church in Ramla and the Holy Family Church in Gaza.
I also kept a sketchbook throughout my Study Leave.
The purpose of the trip
The purpose of the trip was to meet with Palestinian Christians and to try to understand what it is like for them to live in the occupied territories.
We obtained permission to enter Gaza for one day. This enabled us to take in some video conferencing equipment for the Al Ahli hospital (which is under-resourced and not, for example, able to provide cancer treatments.) We were told the equipment was needed for telemedicine purposes and had been sitting in St George’s Cathedral for some time, until someone got permission to enter Gaza and take it in.
Statistics vary according to source. But there are approximately 50,000 Christians living in the West Bank out of a total population of about 5 million; and there are approximately 1,000 Christians living in Gaza out of a total population of 2 million. There are about 120,000 Palestinian Christians living in Israel and a further 40,000 non-Palestinian Christians who have emigrated to Israel from abroad.
The Palestinian Christians we met
Palestinian Christians living in the Holy Land face great challenges and discrimination in their everyday lives but those we met were deeply inspiring and impressive.
Many retain a strong faith and trust in God. They said, ‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed’ (2 Cor. 4:8-9). That ‘God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied’ (Matthew 5:6). And ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness (justice), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me’ (Matthew 5:10-11).
Palestinian Christians are a powerful witness to their faith, not only by what they say but the many things they are doing to bring more peace and reconciliation to their communities and to the region as a whole.
Here are just two examples of the Christians we met:
Bishara Awad is the founder of the Bethlehem Bible College and is now in his seventies. He spoke movingly of his personal experiences and those of his mother who lived through the Naqbah in 1948 (in which Bishara’s father, although a non-combatant, was killed) and how she brought up her seven children on her own.
Bishara’s mother was a woman of deep Christian faith, a faith that sustained her through many hardships in life. Bishara’s brother, Alex Awad, has written a moving book about her life, Palestinian Memories.
Bishara; his son, Sami Awad; and many others connected to the Bethlehem Bible College are at the forefront of raising awareness about life under the Occupation, providing advocacy for Palestinian voices and seeking reconciliation.
We first met Salim Munayer and his family at the East Jerusalem Lutheran Church where we worshipped on the second Sunday of our trip. His youngest son, Sam, preached on the book of Job and how this scripture speaks to the sufferings of the people of the Holy Land today. We also met his British wife, Kay, and an older son, Jack.
Salim heads up an organisation called Musalaha which works for Israeli-Arab reconciliation and we later had a meeting at his office.
The work that Salim and his team have done to understand both the theology and theory of reconciliation is impressive and it is even more impressive to see this being put to practical use in the projects and programmes that Musalaha run.
The future of Christianity in the Holy Land
There has been a big decline in the proportions of Christians in the Holy Land over the last seventy years. Pre-1948 about 20% of the population of Jerusalem was Christian; it is now about 2%. Pre-1948 about 85% of the population of Bethlehem was Christian; it is now less than 20%.
Many Christians we spoke to said they believed they will be the last generation of Christians in the land of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. Bishara Awad said, ‘I am the only one of my brothers and sisters left behind here.’ Two of his three children have emigrated to the US. He said, ‘I am afraid that this land will witness the complete disappearance of Christians. Fifty years from now we don’t know what will happen, but I think this land will be empty of Christians. Gaza used to be full of Christians, full of churches. These churches are now mosques.’
Christians are not being ‘persecuted’ in the Holy Land – ether by the Occupation or their Muslim compatriots – in the sense that they fear for their lives. But they do face discrimination.
Why are Christians leaving the Holy Land?
Palestinian Christians are emigrating for the same reasons that Palestinian Muslims are emigrating, but also for particular reasons.
The main causes of emigration include the following:
Palestinians in the West Bank live under military law. By contrast, Israeli settlers in the West Bank (even though the settlements are illegal under international law) live under civil law in Israel. Many people told us that, as a result of this, Palestinians suffer far harsher consequences for offences than Israelis who commit the same offences. Our Palestinian guide of the Old City in Jerusalem, Daoud Ghoul, said, ‘It is very telling to compare the difference in punishments facing Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank with the punishments facing settlers. Palestinians are jailed for even minor crimes such as painting graffiti, whereas settlers can operate with almost complete impunity.’
Many people said that Palestinians cannot get permission to build or buy and rent homes and are forced to demolish them, whereas Israelis can easily buy and rent houses. Ghoul said, ‘For us, the minimum time to get permissions [to build a house] is five years. The minimum cost is 50,000 shekels.’ Bishara Awad, said, ‘The Israelis are confiscating land all the time to build settlements.’ Amit Gilutz of B’tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) spoke about Wadi Yasul in East Jerusalem and the Israeli authorities’ plans to evict 500 families from their homes there – homes that are privately owned by Palestinians and where they have lived since the 1990s.
Israel controls essential West Bank resources such as water and electricity. Andraous Jahshan of Sabeel (a Christian organisation working for Arab-Israeli reconciliation and non-violent resistance to the Occupation) said that Bethlehem gets water for a short while once or twice a day. Settlements have as much water as they like. When passing villages in the West Bank, you can easily identify whether they are Palestinian or settlements. The former have water tanks on every roof (for storage and use during water supply cuts.) The latter have green gardens and swimming pools.
Revd Dr Munther Isaac, Pastor of the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and head of the biannual Christ at the Checkpoint Conference, said, ‘I have two children aged 4 and 6. How do I convince them to stay here? I honestly feel that the burden of history is that we are the last Christian generation to stay in this land. We have seen the Christians disappear from Hebron, Jenin and Tulkarm. When we say Christianity might disappear, we are talking about reality. I look at my congregation. We are 160 registered members. We have a cultural centre, school, university college. When I look at them on a Sunday morning we have 50-60 people. The majority of them are aged 50 and above. At least five families have their children outside Palestine. They emigrated because they couldn’t get a job. We went through the records of the Lutheran Church. We discovered that we have thousands of members living outside Palestine.’
Freedom of movement
Israel controls where people live and their freedom to move round. There are scores of different permits. Area A in the West Bank (under Palestinian control) is not allowed to expand; yet Israeli settlements are being allowed and resourced, including the construction of Israeli-only roads to connect them. B’tselem has produced an excellent interactive map - https://conquer-and-divide.btselem.org/ - that shows how Israeli presence in the West Bank has grown over last 50 years.
We were told repeatedly about church leaders who are cautious about voicing any criticism of the Occupation for fear of losing their permits to travel freely within the country and without. Zoughbi al Zoughbi (the founder and Director of Wi’Am - a Palestinian conflict transformation centre which is partnered with the Amos Trust) talked about the bargaining which goes on between the Israeli state and Christians. He said, ‘The Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem could be threatened by the denial of his passport. Clergy are forever needing visas and the Israeli government uses this to silence them.’
There is a narrative that Palestinian Christians are being threatened by Palestinian Muslims – but we discovered little evidence to support this. Most Palestinian Christians said they felt a solidarity with Palestinian Muslims who face the same problems as they do as a result of the Occupation. Ghoul said that there is an Israeli media campaign that aims to convince Christians in Palestine that Muslims are a danger and that Isis is coming to kill them. He believes that this is a cynical attempt to eliminate Palestinian Christians so that Palestinians can be labelled as Islamist terrorists and further dehumanised.
Bishop Riah of Nazareth said, ‘In my opinion, if all the Christians emigrate from the land of the Holy One, it would be easy for Israel to get rid of the rest of the Palestinians. They will make the struggle a religious war between Islam and Judaism. They will bring the Christian countries to their side. Without Christianity, the mosaic of the Holy Land will cease to be a mosaic. In the past we had one national cause, the cause of the Arabs. And the Christians led that national project.’
Nonetheless, in Nazareth we met Christians at the Baptist Church who said that there were growing numbers of radical Muslims who had been hostile towards them.
Treatment of foreign spouses
One particular issue we encountered on numerous occasions was the treatment of foreign spouses by the Israeli authorities. Foreigners who marry Palestinian Christians are not granted residency rights and suffer a lot of stress and expense getting in and out of the country.
US citizen Elaine Zoughbi married her Palestinian husband, Zoughbi al Zoughbi twenty eight years ago. She has never received permanent residency rights but has to keep applying for tourist visas which only last three months and do not allow her to work. Just recently, after a trip to the US, Elaine was sent back to the US on arrival at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. She said that the official reason given was that she was ‘under suspicion of illegal settlement activity in the area.’ She continued, ‘Apparently I am one of 30,000 spouses of Palestinians they are doing this to… My American friends who are married to Israelis live here. They have a right to work. They can get permanent residency or can apply for Israeli citizenship. They can drive a car. They can get a normal life. Americans married to Palestinians are treated completely differently.’
We heard a similar story from Revd Danny Awad (unrelated to Bishara Awad), Pastor of the Baraka Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, whose wife is Filipino and who, despite 19 years of marriage, has needed to leave the country every two years to renew her visa and most recently was given a visa for only one month. Kay Munayer, British wife of Salim Munayer, tells a similar story. As did an official at a Christian organisation working for Arab-Israeli reconciliation and non-violent resistance to the occupation – who married a South American woman last year but, as yet, has not yet been able to live with her in Palestine.
Elaine Zoughbi said, ‘The Israelis control the population registry and they don’t want to increase the number of Palestinians. They are making life difficult for us so that I leave. And then my husband leaves too. And that’s one less Palestinian.’ She went on, ‘This does work. Many spouses have left the country. Our Palestinian niece is also married to an American. They got married four years ago. They stopped renewing his visa to stay here. They got an Israeli lawyer and started a court case. They had to leave the country when the husband was blocked and not able to return.’
Being a tiny minority among the occupied peoples
Bishop Riah said, ‘To be a tiny minority among the occupied peoples is not easy. Especially when you have become an insignificant minority – maybe 1.5% of the population of the Holy Land. Even in places like Nazareth, the Christian population is barely 30%. In Nazareth and parts of Galilee it is easier to be Christian than in the south and in the Jewish areas. Though we are the minority - without the church and the institutions it serves, there would be very little left of Nazareth.’ He said that the church sponsors three hospitals and that it had the best kindergartens and primary school. Riah continued, ‘Very few well-to-do Christians have stayed in Nazareth.’ He said we may be seeing the last generation of Palestinian Christians.
Rev Samuel Fanous, Vicar of Emmanuel Church Ramla in Israel, said it is very hard for Palestinian Christians to be a minority within a minority in Israel – and, as Protestants, an even further minority (most Christians are Greek Orthodox and, after that, Roman Catholic.)
The Palestinian Kairos Document
Palestinian churches in the occupied territories published the Kairos Document in November 2009. This is an open letter to churches worldwide setting out the injustices experienced by Palestinians and a contextual and liberation theology that calls the Church to challenge what is being suffered.
The Kairos document is modelled on a similar ‘Kairos document’ that was produced by South African churches in 1985 to challenge the apartheid regime.
We met several Christians who had been involved in drawing up the Palestinian Kairos document and raising awareness of it. Although the letter had been endorsed by thirteen churches with presence in the Holy Land, founders are disappointed that it has not had much impact. They feel their voices have not been heard. Fr Mario, a Roman Catholic priest in Gaza City, said, ‘The work of Kairos shows how Christians should respond. What we are enduring here is a large injustice’.
The authors of the Kairos Document are hoping to produce a follow up document on the tenth anniversary of its issue – in November 2019.
Pressure on the Church in Palestine
In addition to fear of losing visas and permits, church leaders are said to be under pressure to sell property to Israelis and, in particular, to Israeli settlers. And they can also struggle to raise church funds.
Revd Danny Awad said there was a Christian hospital on the road from Jerusalem to Hebron owned by the Bible Presbyterians. It was closed and changed into a Christian Centre. But then the Bible Presbyterians sold this centre to Jewish settlers without the knowledge of the local Baraka Presbyterian Church. It was sold to a group of settlers funded by an American called Irving Moskowitz, owner of casinos and bingo halls in Las Vegas. Awad said this whole episode was well documented and took place in approximately 2004. He said, ‘We fought a battle for it. We went every week. The final time the Israelis came they threw tear gas, shot real bullets. We were marching. I was carrying the cross. The Israeli army set up a checkpoint. We started a ceremony. One young person was shot dead, after that we decided no more marching.’ He added, ‘I called the mission board of the Bible Presbyterians asking “Why are you selling the land to settlers?’ I was told, “You need to learn to carry the cross of Jesus”. I responded to him that I carry the cross of Jesus every day.’
Lack of church funds
Awad said that his congregation is getting smaller and that his funding had dried up. Referring to US funders, he said, ‘Right away they will ask you: what is your stand on Israel? Are you pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian?’ He continued, ‘We need money for daycare, nursery, maintenance for buildings. We are 45 members, we were almost 250. This has been my home since I was born. I was ordained in 2000. Families are leaving.’
He said other churches are getting funding from Christian Zionist organisations, such as the Christian Assembly and the Joshua Fund. ‘They fund churches which now have very nice facilities for members.’ But many Palestinian Christians see the Christian Zionists as supporting the Occupation and wanting Palestinians to leave. Awad said he was told in the US two years ago by a Christian Zionist that ‘the land does not belong to you.’
One way of solving Awad’s church’s financial problems would be to take money from the Joshua Fund but he refuses to do this. ‘We used to have a family camps every year,’ he said. ‘We would take families for a church retreat for three days. Because of financial problems we had to stop. For the whole church that cost $1,400. But the Joshua Foundation are paying churches $20,000 a month.’
Palestinians Church leaders often told us about the Christian Zionists in Israel and Palestine and how their theology helps to justify the discrimination they experience under the Occupation. Essentially, Christian Zionism claims that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 fulfil Bible prophecies. Some Christian Zionists believe that the gathering of Jews in Israel and the eradication of Arabs from the region are prerequisites for the Second Coming of Jesus.
Many Palestinian Christians told us that there are Christian Zionists from the US in Israel and the West Bank who do not believe that Palestinians, either Muslim or Christians, should live there.
We tried to meet with the Christian Assembly, a Christian Zionist Group near Jaffa Gate in the Old City, but they refused to see us. (This may be because we did tell them that Peter is a journalist.)
We were told that the group running the Garden Tomb on the Nablus Road in East Jerusalem are Christian Zionist. We visited them and had a meeting with their Director, Stephen Bridges – who is an Evangelical Christian but very much not Christian Zionist. So there does seem to be some confusion and suspicion about the different Christian theologies and how they impact on Palestinians’ rights to live in the region.