Thursday, July 27

MCC Palestine Update #125

MCC Palestine Update #125

27 July 2006

Christianity in Palestine: Misrepresentation and Dispossession

An important focus of Mennonite Central Committee’s work across the Middle East is to support the local church. This is very much the case here in Palestine where MCC partners with local organizations such as the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center (, specifically in their work supporting local clergy.

MCC also supports the Bethlehem Bible College ( in their “Shepherd’s Society” program, which seeks to aid families by working to fulfill immediate needs, such as food and medical care, as well as working toward longer-term development assistance, such as revolving loans and marketing products and crafts produced locally. “The name ‘Shepherd Society’ is a reference to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who told his disciple Peter to care for his sheep (John 21:16). This imagery was later used by the apostle Peter to instruct church leaders in caring for the needy when he said, ‘Shepherd the flock of God which is among you’ (1 Peter 5:2-4). Here on the hillsides of Bethlehem, we still see shepherds caring for their flocks, reminding us to continue Peter's mission.”

Another example of MCC’s work with the local church is through MCC’s support of the Latin Patriarchate (Roman Catholic) School in the northern West Bank village of Zebabdeh through MCC’s Global Family program. MCC has also placed two volunteers, Mark and Andrea Stoner-Leaman, in Zebabdeh, serving as English teachers at this school. To learn more about how you can support the Latin Patriarchate School or other Global Family projects, please visit

Christianity in the Arab world has had a long and lively history, including in Palestine, where one still finds today communities of faith that stretch back thousands of years to the very beginnings of the church, where Arabic is spoken in liturgies and sermons, and where the church has played an integral role in the development of society, whether in terms of providing leadership in very difficult times or in pioneering valuable social services like education. Today of the roughly 3.9 million Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, less than two percent are Christians. Of the 1.4 million Palestinians living inside Israel, meanwhile, roughly eight percent belong to Christian communities. Though small, these communities bear witness to two millennia of continuous Christian presence in the land called “holy” by much of the rest of the world.

Palestinian Christians belong to several traditional communities of faith, communities that can be grouped into four broad categories. The first are the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox churches. These would include the Greek Orthodox communities, claiming a continuous presence in the Holy Land since the times of the apostles. The second group is made of up what is sometimes referred to as the “Oriental” Orthodox churches, such as the Syrian, Coptic, and Armenian Orthodox communities. A third category consists of those churches belonging to the Catholic family of churches. In addition to Roman Catholic communities, referred to in the Middle East as the “Latin” church, one finds “Eastern Catholic” or “Eastern Rite Catholic” churches. These churches, though in communion with Rome and recognizing the authority of the pope, have maintained their own distinctive liturgy and traditions. Members of such communities as Greek Catholic or Syrian Catholic outnumber the number of “Latin” Catholics in Palestine and have a long history of involvement in the Palestinian struggle for justice. Finally, there are various Protestant communities, including not only Anglican and Lutheran churches, present since the nineteenth century, but also independent evangelical churches, including Baptist, Pentecostal, and more.

Today in Palestine, Christianity is experiencing what many would consider a crisis. This is not due to the growth of so-called Islamic fundamentalism or the persecution of “believers” by their Muslim neighbors, misrepresentations that are unfortunately used to distract from the realities of occupation. Instead, the plight of the Palestinian Christian is very much connected to that of the Palestinian Muslim in that both, whether in the Occupied Territories or inside Israeli itself, are experiencing daily injustices at the hands of oppressive and discriminatory policies imposed on them by the Israeli government.

Palestinian Christians, like their Muslim brothers and sisters, have experienced a long history of dispossession and have not been immune to Israeli policies of occupation and discrimination. If anything, they have felt more strongly the feelings of forsakenness, knowing full well that many Christians in North America and Europe support without question the state of Israel in its oppression of their people.

Daily experiences of humiliation at checkpoints, of land confiscation to make way for the separation barrier, the illegal occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory, lack of mobility and access to basic services, unemployment, poverty, and no sense of hope for a better future for their children have all contributed to this growing emigration of Palestinian Christians from the historical land of Palestine. As Christians, a basic freedom of religion is denied that prohibits Christians from traveling very short distances to worship in one of the most holy sites in Christianity—the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem, where it is believed Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose from the grave.

For the Palestinian Christians of Bethlehem, for example, traveling the six-mile (ten-kilometer) distance to Jerusalem’s Old City is impossible without special permission. Roughly half of Bethlehem’s residents are Christian. Church leaders estimate that over 2,000 Christians have emigrated from the Bethlehem area since September 2000, representing a decline of more than nine percent of Bethlehem’s total Christian population. (For more on these conditions in Bethlehem, see the report from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Office of the Special Coordinator for the Peace Process in the Middle East (UNSCO), “Costs of Conflict: The Changing Face of Bethlehem” (December 2004); online at:

Rev. Alex Awad, Palestinian pastor of the East Jerusalem Baptist Church, reminds us that “Palestinian Christians have existed in the Holy Land since the day of Pentecost and have kept the torch of Christianity burning faithfully for the past two thousand years.” The erosion of Christianity in her birthplace, he poignantly observes “is a loss for the body of Christ everywhere. Can we imagine the Holy Land devoid of the Christian presence and a church which has been a faithful witness for Christ since the day the church was born?” (See Rev. Awad’s article in “Christian Zionism and Peace in the Holy Land,” MCC Peace Office Newsletter 35/3 (July-September 2005); online at:

Unfortunately, various reportings of this phenomenon has revealed stereotypes in North America and Europe that continue to see the root socio-economic problem for Palestinian Christians as their Muslim neighbors. It is disconcerting that the portrayal of the Christian absence in Palestine, for example, is often played off as the fault of Muslims and not of the illegal Israeli occupation, as if Muslims are oppressing Christians and that this is the root of the problem for Palestinians. It is the occupation that has made life so difficult that many Christians have moved from Palestine. This continues to be a serious problem, ignored especially by “Christian” tour groups who while visiting the “Holy Land” seldom bother to even come to Bethlehem to see these ancient sites, let alone see these Christian communities and recognize their existence.

These attempts to frame this conflict in such anti-Muslim ways only distracts (often intentionally) from the burden of responsibility that sits squarely on the shoulders of the state of Israel and its intentional violation of international law and the U.S. for its 100 billion dollar financing of this structure of violence and death.

An example of this is a resolution that is currently being circulated around the U.S. House of Representatives claiming to be concerned about the plight of Palestinian Christians and their diminishing presence in Palestine. Yet this resolution makes no mention of the root causes of this conflict but instead blames Palestinians themselves for their own victimhood, grossly misrepresenting this situation and the Palestinian people.

Only recently, while the world watches the unfolding assault on Lebanon and Gaza and the Israeli-caused humanitarian disaster for the millions of people living there, the Israeli military has begun uprooting ancient olive trees in Bethlehem’s Cremisan area, marking out the path of the Separation Wall to be built through one of the regions most valuable heritage sites.

The Cremisan area is of significant heritage value, home to the only winery in Palestine and two monasteries. Some of the finest examples of the regions ancient terraced landscape can be found here. The Wall will carve through these terraces destroying agricultural landscapes that have survived for centuries. When the Wall is completed, Beit Jala district of the Bethlehem area will have lost access to two-thirds of its land.

It is not the Palestinian Muslim population that is responsible for the expropriation of more land for the construction of this 430-mile / 700-kilometer separation barrier. It is not the Palestinian Muslim population that is responsible for the expansion of illegal settlements and the creation of “Greater Jerusalem” depopulated of its Palestinian citizens. It is not the Palestinian Muslim population that is responsible for the checkpoints that obstruct mobility, nor the demolition of homes and other forms of collective punishment. It is not the Palestinian Muslim population that is responsible for the “one big prison” status of Gaza. It is not the Palestinian Muslim population that is responsible for this separation barrier that will become the de facto border of a “Palestinian State” composed of several isolated islands of land on roughly 40 to 50 percent of the West Bank. It is not the Palestinian Muslim population that will be responsible for, absent a viable, contiguous Palestinians state, the “reservation” life that will parallel the Native North American experience in the United States. No, it is the ongoing Israeli structure of occupation and dispossession that continues to devastate Palestinian livelihood.

At a time when the U.S. Congress is considering the plight of Palestinian Christians, they are witnessing the destruction of their community’s land, heritage and livelihood. The people of Bethlehem have been very clear in their message to the international community, “If you want to help us, stop the construction of Israel’s Wall.”

Anyone who lives in this society long enough is aware of tensions that might exist between Christians and Muslims. Palestinians society like any other society in the world is dealing with its own problems. But to focus on this internal tension to the exclusion of other factors is missing the mark and emptying this issue of its context.

It is indeed hard to be Palestinian Christian these days. But it is also hard being a Palestinian Muslim. The fact of the matter is that it is hard simply being a Palestinian.

Attached below is an action alert sent out by MCC’s Washington Office outlining this potential U.S. legislation and providing suggestions for actions on how to respond (which can also be found online at Following this alert is also a list of links for further reading on this issue as well as a list of Church Related Organizations and their websites either working in Palestine or dealing with these issues.

In the midst of such pain and despair, we would ask that you continue to pray for all of the people of this land and that your prayers would lead you to actions of solidarity on their behalf in your home communities.


Timothy Seidel
Peace Development Worker
Mennonite Central Committee – Palestine

Attachments and Links:

· MCC Washington Office Action Alert: “Misleading Resolution about Palestinian Christians,” 26 June 2006
· Additional Background Reading
· Additional Information on Christian or Church Related Organizations working in Palestine and the Middle East


TO: MCC Middle East Advocates
FROM: J. Daryl Byler (MCC Washington Office)
Timothy Seidel (MCC Palestine)
RE: Misleading resolution about Palestinian Christians
DATE: June 26, 2006

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) have been circulating a “dear colleague” letter in the House of Representatives, seeking co-sponsors for a resolution that purports to be concerned about the plight of Palestinian Christians, but ignores the real causes of their suffering. This misleading bill has not yet been introduced in the House, but already has a number of co-sponsors.

The resolution
PA_Persecution_of_Christians_Resolution.pdf is based on research by Justus Weiner, an American/Israeli academic at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in Israel. It includes many factual inaccuracies and reflects little or no input from local indigenous Palestinian Christians, who do not support the bill.

Rather than focusing on the real reasons that Palestinian Christians (and Muslims) are emigrating -- e.g. daily hardships of living under Israeli occupation; Israel’s separation wall/barrier and expanding settlements, which make it difficult for Palestinians to reach schools, health care facilities, jobs and places of worship -- the resolution accuses the Palestinian Authority of systematically persecuting Palestinian Christians and claims that this is the main reason they are leaving the Holy Land. While the Palestinian Authority does not have an exemplary human rights record, it does not specifically persecute Christians.

The resolution appears to be an attempt to build on the current anti-Palestinian Authority fervor in the U.S. Congress, after Hamas won a majority of seats in Palestinian Legislative Council earlier this year. The House has overwhelmingly passed H.R.4681 – a bill that would avoid contact with and financial support for a Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority until Hamas meets a long list of conditions. On June 23, the Senate passed a somewhat improved version of the House bill, but MCC still does not view the Senate bill (S.2370) as balanced or helpful. For further details on H.R.4681 and S.2370 visit and type in the bill number.

Faith reflection
In her book, What is Palestine/Israel?, Sonia K. Weaver quotes Zoughbi Zoughbi, a Palestinian Christian who lives in Bethlehem. Palestinian Christians are “Christians of the cross, awaiting resurrection,” says Zoughbi. He calls for security that comes, not through vengeance, but through a future of peace and justice for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, he lamented that the people did not recognize the things that make for peace (Luke 19:42). In a similar way, bills like H.R. 4681, S.2370 and the Crawley-McCaul resolution do not address root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and therefore will not lead to a just and lasting peace. They will not breathe new life and hope into the Palestinian community, but will only add to its suffering.

Write to your Representative and Senators. Urge them not to co-sponsor the Crowley-McCaul “dear colleague” letter or any similar version that crops up in the Senate. You may wish to make the following points:

• Any bill that claims to be concerned for the well-being of Palestinian Christians should include the voices of Palestinian Christians.
• Urge members of Congress to take fact-finding trips to the Occupied Territories and meet with Palestinian Christians in their local churches. (Many Palestinian Christians are calling for such trips.)
• Remind them that bills like HR 4681 and S.2370 are likely to have a harmful impact on Palestinian Christians and Muslims.
• Urge members of Congress to call upon both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to uphold human rights and to comply with long-standing U.N. resolutions aimed at transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Visits, e-mails, phone calls, faxes and letters are all good ways to contact your legislators. E-mails, phone calls and faxes are good for time-sensitive issues. Postal mail travels slowly in the Capitol, but letters have long-term impact. Be sure to include your mailing address in all correspondence to confirm your residency in a particular district and state.

For elected officials’ contact information, including the option of sending e-mails, visit the C-SPAN Directory (

Visit for information about any legislation by number (H.R.____/S. ____) or name. Check the Washington Office Voting Record to find your legislators’ votes on key issues. Read the Washington Office Advocacy Handbook for advocacy tips.

We at the Washington Office would be grateful for copies of your correspondence and any responses you receive!

Senator _____
United States Senate Washington, DC 20510
(202) 224-3121

Representative _____
House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
(202) 224-3121

President _____
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
(202) 456-1111 (202) 456-1414 FAX


Additional Background Reading

The text of some frequently asked questions or "FAQs on the McCaul/Crowley Resolution and the Situation of Christians in the Holy Land," that clarify somewhat the problems with this resolution, can be found online at:

An update on this legislation as well as the text of a letter from the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem condemning this resolution and encouraging Congressional leaders to visit the “Holy Land” for themselves can be found online at:

The text of a letter from the Network of Christian Organizations in Bethlehem (NCOB, a coalition of 19 Christian organizations, based in Bethlehem, working in different developmental areas and service in and represents different denominations) condemning this resolution can be found online at:

The text of an alert sent out by local organization Open Bethlehem can be found online at: The text of a letter sent by Leila Sansour, director of Open Bethlehem, to Congressmen McCaul and Crowley, asking them to reconsider this resolution and inviting them to see the situation here in Bethlehem for themselves can also be found online at:

The text of a letter from Rev. Michael H. Sellors on behalf of the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem condemning this resolution can be found online at:

The text of a response by Salim Munayer (Academic Dean at Bethlehem Bible College and director of the organization Musalaha) on behalf of the "Local Council of Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land" (A grouping of various Evangelical churches including Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Church of God and others) to Justus Weiner's book Human Rights of Christians in the Palestinian Society can be found online at:

The text of an article by Robert Novak titled “Who Harms Holy Land Christians?,” (Washington Post, 3 July 2006), can be found online at:

The text of an article titled “HCEF President Sir Rateb Rabie, KCHC response to Reps. McCaul and Crowley,” (HCEF, 28 June 2006), can be found online at:

The text of an article titled “Nobody Speaks for Palestinian Christians except Palestinian Christians,” (Media Monitors Network, 28 June 2006), can be found online at:

The text of an article titled “Fight Erupts in D.C. Over Plight of Palestinian Christians,” (Forward, 23 June 2006), can be found online at:

The text of an article by James Zogby titled “Maybe Congress Should Go Home,” (Jordan Times, 20 June 2006), can be found online at:

The text of a statement by Naim Ateek, director of the Sabeel Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem titled "Palestinian Elections: A Christian Perspective" (written for the Joint Advocacy Initiative Magazine of East Jerusalem YMCA and YWCA of Palestine) can be found online at:

The text of a statement by the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem on the Palestinian Elections can be found online at:

The text of the 2006 Easter Message by the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem can be found online at:

The text of an article by Dr. Bernard Sabella titled "Palestinian Christians: Challenges and Hopes" can be found online at:

The text of an article by Raja G. Mattar titled "Arab Christians are Arabs" can be found online at:

The texts of two article by Robert Novak, the first titled "A Plea for Palestinian Christians" can be found online at:, and the second titled "Palestinian Christians Suffer Too" can be found online at:

The text of an MCC Peace Office Newsletter titled "Christian Zionism and Peace in the Holy Land," dealing with Christian theologies that, from the perspective of Palestinian Christians, are not life-giving but in fact quite the opposite as they nullify and invalidate their very existence in their homeland:


Additional Information on Christian or Church Related Organizations working in Palestine and the Middle East

Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center - "Sabeel is an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians. Inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, this liberation theology seeks to deepen the faith of Palestinian Christians, to promote unity among them toward social action. Sabeel strives to develop a spirituality based on love, justice, peace, nonviolence, liberation and reconciliation for the different national and faith communities. The word "Sabeel" is Arabic for ‘the way‘ and also a ‘channel‘ or ‘spring‘ of life-giving water."

Wi'am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center - "Wi'am as a grassroots organization, strives alongside other democratic forces present in the larger Bethlehem community to build a democratic and just society. The Center aims to improve the quality of relationships by: addressing injustices rather than avenging them; dignifying persons on both sides of the conflict; promoting human rights and advocating for peace among all people."

Bethlehem Bible College - "Bethlehem Bible College is an interdenominational Christian Bible college, located in Bethlehem, Palestine. Bethlehem Bible College seeks to train and prepare Christian servant-leaders for the churches and society within an Arab context who model Christ centeredness, Godly humility, biblical wholeness, creative mercy and justice in their jobs and ministries as life-long learners."

International Center of Bethlehem (ICB) - "The ICB is a Lutheran-based, ecumenically-oriented institution serving the whole Palestinian community. The programs of the Center serve the entire community from “the womb to the tomb”, with an emphasis on children, youth and women. Equipping the local community to assume a proactive role in shaping their future is at the heart of the ICB’s mission. Through empowering the local community, developing human resources, cultivating artistic talents, and facilitating intercultural encounters, the ICB actively promotes the building of Palestinian civil society."

Open Bethlehem - "Open Bethlehem is an international project created to save the city of Bethlehem. With headquarters inside Bethlehem University, offices in London and Washington, and working hand-in-hand with all Bethlehem civil institutions, Open Bethlehem is well-placed to keep the city at the forefront of world attention. The city came to world prominence with a message of hope and peace, and brought this message to life by opening their arms to visitors for almost two millennia. In the Twenty-first century, the people of Bethlehem will not live in the shadow of a man-made wall: they will continue to be a beacon of hope."

Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation - "Founded in 1999 by an ecumenical group of American Christians to inform American Christians of the plight of Palestinian Christians. It is an organization which 'We seek to replace despair with hope, fear with security, and humiliation with human dignity'"

Middle East Council of Churches - “The Middle East Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches relating itself to the main stream of the modern ecumenical movement, the same which gave birth to the World Council and other regional ecumenical councils throughout the world. The twelve to fourteen million souls who claim Christ’s name in the Middle East are few in number when compared to the constituents of similar ecumenical associations elsewhere. But being small means that people know each other, and there is a bond of kinship that is rather special. It is no accident, therefore, that the Council chose to organize itself as a family of families—the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, the Catholic and Protestant families. Each makes its contribution to the witness of all.”

Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) - “The EAPPI is an initiative of the World Council of Churches. Its mission is to accompany Palestinians and Israelis in their non-violent actions and concerted advocacy efforts to end the occupation. Participants of the programme are monitoring and reporting violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, supporting acts of non-violent resistance alongside local Christian and Muslim Palestinians and Israeli peace activists, offering protection through non-violent presence, engaging in public policy advocacy and, in general, standing in solidarity with the churches and all those struggling against the occupation.”

Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) - "CMEP is a coalition of 21 public policy offices of national churches and agencies -- Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. CMEP began its work in 1984 out of the conviction that the policy perspectives and long Middle East experience of our member bodies should be more widely known in the public policy arena. We therefore seek to maintain an on-going dialogue with Congress, the Administration and the diplomatic community, to advance such concerns, assessments, and advocacy positions. The work of Churches for Middle East Peace focuses on Washington in the knowledge that sound United States policy is crucial to achieving and maintaining just and stable relationships throughout the Middle East."

Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) - "Founded in 1926 by Pope Pius XI, CNEWA’s mandate is: to support the pastoral mission and institutions of the Eastern Catholic churches; to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need without regard to nationality or creed; to promote Christian unity and interreligious understanding and collaboration; to educate people in the West about the history, cultures, peoples and churches of the East." They have a great survey of Eastern Churches online at


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