n 2012, then-Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren penned an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in which he claimed that “Christians in [Gaza and the West Bank] suffer the same plight as their co-religionists throughout the region.”
While the diplomat was looking to capitalise on more recent developments in the Middle East – like Netanyahu did at the UN, with his “Hamas is ISIS” mantra – Oren’s claim that Christian Palestinians are being driven out by Muslims is a familiar one.
Israel and its supporters have tried to use Christian Palestinians for propaganda point-scoring for some time. For example, back in 1997, and during Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister, Israeli media cited government sources for reports about the alleged “brutal and relentless persecution” facing Christians in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas.
Assessing the coverage in an article for Arab Studies Quarterly the following year, Donald Wagner claimed that Christian Zionists were cooperating with the prime minister’s spokesperson “to exaggerate and politicize accounts of Christians being persecuted and circulated it to the international press.”
Almost two decades on, and similar efforts continue. This despite a number of surveys in recent years that indicate the reasons for the shrinking Christian population are rooted in the political and economic conditions of Israeli occupation and apartheid regime.
In 1993, 88% of Christian Palestinians asked about emigration specified the economic situation. Fast forward to 2006, and three quarters of Christian Palestinians surveyed cited political conditions and employment as the reason for emigration. In a separate poll of Bethlehem residents conducted the same year, 78% of Christian respondents said “Israeli aggression and occupation” was “the main cause of emigration”.
Meanwhile, in a 2008 survey on reasons for emigration, 1 in 3 cited “lack of freedom and security”, 1 in 4 said “deterioration of economy”, and only 0.8% chose “fleeing religious extremism.”
But Christian Palestinians are not just affected by Israeli apartheid, they are also resisting it – and in so doing, give the lie to Zionist divide and rule strategies. Here are three examples.
Firstly, they are returning to, and trying to defend, their lands – in the Galilee and in the West Bank. In 1948, Iqrit – close to the Lebanese border – was ethnically cleansed by Israeli forces, its residents promised that they would be able to return. This promise was never kept, and their homes were demolished.
Since the 1970s, the displaced villagers “have resumed religious ceremonies in their churches whilst still living in enforced exile” – and in 2012, “a group of youth from Iqrit took matters into their own hands by starting an ongoing action to live inside the village church.”
It’s not just the youth of Iqrit – in April, a Palestinian Christian family tried to hold a baptism in a church at al-Bassa, “now the industrial zone of the northern Jewish town of Shlomi”, and were attacked by Jewish residents. Shlomi’s mayor, Gabi Naaman, described efforts to renovate or use the church as “trespassing”.
Meanwhile, in Beit Jala, part of the greater Bethlehem urban area, local Christian Palestinians have been at the forefront of efforts to protest Israeli land confiscation policies, including through the holding of a weekly mass at the threatened site.
Just a few days ago, PM Netanyahu visited Upper Nazareth (a majority Jewish town created on the expropriated lands of Nazareth) to attend an Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum event, a group headed by Father Gabriel Nadaf.
Earlier this year, representatives of Orthodox national institutions denounced efforts to recruit Christian Palestinians for the Israeli army, and stressed that “those who call for recruitment and encourage Christian youth to join the occupation army do not represent the church and do not represent Christians of whom the majority reject the army recruitment in its entirety.”
Palestinian youth in general have been involved in resisting conscription and national service, activism that has prompted repressive measures by the state – including house arrest for social media posts.
Thirdly, Christian Palestinians have also been involved in developing theological responses to Israeli occupation, both for their own communities, and also as a way of communicating with Christians in the West.
One prominent example is the Kairos Palestine document, the work of local leaders, clergy and theologians, which addressed fellow Palestinians, Israelis, and “Christian brothers and sisters in the Churches around the world”, in an appeal for solidarity.
Kairos Palestine recently marked the fifth anniversary of its launch with a conference in Bethlehem, whose themes included theology, advocacy, youth work, popular resistance, tourism/pilgrimage, and solidarity.
Then there is also the long-standing work of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, and the more recent, Western evangelical church-targeting Christ at the Checkpoint. The former was established around the work of Palestinian theologian Naim Ateek, while the latter is directed and shaped by young Christian Palestinian scholar Munther Isaac.
Whether it is looking to return to or keep their land in the face of Zionist colonisation, resisting efforts at divide and conquer, or grounding their communal resistance in a contextualised theology, Christian Palestinians are responding to the “crisis” of Israeli Apartheid in a myriad of ways. They thus highlight both the dishonesty of the Israel lobby’s propaganda, and the true nature of Israeli policies that view both Muslim and Christian Palestinians as part of the same colonised population to be controlled, corralled, or expelled.