by Manuel Hassassian
The issue of the Christian communities’ plight in the Middle East became a highly significant issue in recent years, with the unfolding of the Arab Spring and with the ethnic cleansing process launched by ISIS. It became a focal point in the West, and attempts to raise awareness about this issue were overwhelming on social media. The conflict was portrayed as Muslim versus Christian, and, of course, this kind of stereotyping should utterly be rejected, because Christians in the Middle East have lived for centuries as part of the indigenous population with Muslims, thriving and developing together.
Coexistence and cohabitation emanated from the principles of national identity, the sharing of history and geography and, notwithstanding the ancient language of Aramaic, which distinctively was the Christian language since the birth of Jesus Christ, the Arabic language unified all ethnic and national minorities in the Middle East.
I believe that the Christians’ raison d’ętre today is attracting a lot of attention and many militant groups are flagrantly distorting the facts on the ground by accusing Arab Christians as agents of the West, thus overlooking the fact that Christian Arab intellectuals in the Levant were the pioneers of the Arab Nationalism that fought the Ottoman Empire and later resisted European colonialism. Christians and Muslims alike encountered the same challenges for liberation and freedom, and religious coexistence was never an issue of contention. As a matter of fact, concerted efforts were made by both religions to transcend theological interpretations and scriptures, and they directed their efforts toward a unified stand in fighting for freedom and independence against the vestiges of European colonialism and subjugation.
Radical Islam Is Distorting the Image of the Religion
Radical Islam, with its myopic ideology, played a pivotal role in distorting Islam as a religion and mustering support to stereotype non- Muslims as Kafers infidels for their own political and ulterior motives. The portrayal of such an image totally smeared the religion of Islam as a religion of violence and terrorism. This is not true, for during the reign of the Islamic Empire, Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted and thrived together under the tolerant religion of Islam.
The question today lies in the fact that the conflict is recycling tropes and themes from the times of the Crusades, which mask the truth; it is a conflict of self-interests where ideology reigns supreme.
In this brief essay, I will try to describe the state of being of the Christian population in Palestine, and the similar challenges that they face under Israeli occupation. It is also my intention to portray Christian emigration as not due to Muslim harassment and discrimination, but a result of the systematic policies of the Israeli occupation regime.
Furthermore, it is my intention to refute the claims that the Muslims in Palestine are ethnically cleansing the Christian communities and forcefully taking over their lands. These fallacies are coming to be used by the Israelis to cover up the true picture of their brutal occupation and the building of settlements by confiscating Palestinian private land. Christians and Muslims in Palestine have always faced the challenges of occupation together and have been alert to Israeli intentions of creating a wedge between them. However, Zionist propaganda, espoused through the Christian Zionists, i.e., the Evangelicals, have used the media and their aggressive campaigns to distort the image of Palestinian Muslims as terrorists and bigots, and in the meantime, exonerate Israel of all its policies which dehumanize the Palestinian people.
The Indigenous Population of Palestine Are Both Muslim and Christian
In all my public lectures, whether at home or abroad, and in particular in the United Kingdom, where I have served since November 2005 as Palestinian ambassador, I have introduced myself as an ambassador who is Armenian by ethnic origin, Christian by religion, Catholic by denomination, Palestinian by birth and citizenship, Arab by nationality and Muslim by culture. Of course, this introduction is received with admiration by the public at large because it resonates with the ideals of pluralism and truly reflective of our Palestinian society. There is no doubt that the indigenous population in Palestine are both Arab Muslims and Christians who have existed since time immemorial tied together by kinship, identity, history and geography, and organically intertwined in their struggle and quest for freedom and independence.
National identity and bonding cements the fabric of society, so religion is not a primary factor in defining one’s identity, regardless of absolute tolerance of religious freedom in Palestine.
Throughout history our struggle against all invaders and marauders was identified along the concepts of nationalism, patriotism and independence. There was no difference between the Muslim and Christian Palestinian faithful in their aspirations, in fighting against occupation and in realizing their objective of the independence of Palestine. The only difference is in rituals and conventions.
56,000 Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem
It goes without saying that Palestinian Christians have deep roots in the Holy Land. At present, the 56,000 Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip make up around 2.0% of the total population, estimated at 4.9 million in total.
Palestinian Christians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip belong to 15 different denominations, the largest of which are the Greek Orthodox (51%) and the Roman Catholics (32%). Some smaller denominations, such as the Copts who are originally from Egypt, do not number more than a score of families.
It is evident that the historical European educational institutions in Palestine, by exposing Palestinian Christians to foreign cultures and languages, acted as a catalyst in their relative deprivation and accelerated the process of emigration from the Ottoman Empire to North and South America. By and large, the 1948 War in Palestine had a cataclysmic effect on Christian emigration from Palestine, with many refugees opting to leave for North and Central America, not to mention Jordan and Gulf destinations.
However, the 1967 War had an even greater impact on Christians, with many emigrating to the Gulf countries and to America. Later, with the constant escalation of tensions with the Israeli occupiers and the settlers making their life so difficult for them, more would leave the land of their ancestors.
Christians Were Leaders in the First Intifada
It is worth mentioning that those who stayed espoused the concept of political accommodation that would end the occupation and secure their basic rights, in particular, their national rights. This attitude was evident during the first intifada, which began in December 1987. Christians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem actively participated; some became martyrs, others were imprisoned and some were deported. Palestinian Christians played a pivotal role in shaping the political dynamic and in clandestinely leading the intifada.
One cannot overlook the repercussions of such cohabitation between Palestinian Christians and Muslims, due to the evolution through centuries of coexistence and conviviality in the major cities of Palestine where they interacted in pursuit of their preoccupations and concerns of la vie quotidienne.
It is safe to say that there were many reasons that provided the foundation for these ties of good relations:
1) The shared history of the loss of Palestine and resistance to end occupation;
2) Christians’ contribution through their institutions in the areas of health, education and culture to Palestinian civil society;
3) The presence and respect of the mutual holy places in Palestine;
4) The intercommunal housing and neighborhoods played a vital role in cementing the bonding and in sharing their interests and culture; and
5) Christians take a great pride in their identity, culture and heritage in Palestine.
Education, Emigration and Christian-Muslim Cooperation
Of course, the Christians have always emphasized education as being a ticket out of the ghetto. This is why they are considered to be in the highest income bracket. In general, they are categorized as a well-educated community engaged in white collar professional employment, who own their own properties and have above-average incomes. The absolute majority of the Christian population live in the major six cities in the West Bank including Jerusalem. However, it is important to note that there are genuine reasons behind Christian emigration.
1) The socio-economic profile of the Christians as urban and middle class;
2) The long tradition of Christian emigration as a natural result of their vision of lack of a prosperous life, with no hope for socioeconomic development, in culmination with the process of being subdued by the Israeli occupation.
The West, of course, through its social media portrays the Christians of the Middle East as victims of their Muslim countrymen, who through discrimination and bullying are pushing the Christians to leave Palestine and the Arab World. The problem is not Islam but radical Islam.
The Western propaganda machine is still instrumental in portraying Islam as a violent religion, thus flagrantly distorting it and turning the international community against it. The Palestinians and their leadership are totally aware of this Western attitude and, consequently, have contrived to show through deeds the full cooperation of Christians and Muslims in sharing their lives and addressing the formidable challenges they face in resisting Israeli occupation.
The Role of the Christian Community in Jerusalem
The Christian community in Jerusalem comprises an integral part of the Palestinian demographic structure tied to the religious holy places and to the Palestinian social fabric. Many organizations led by Christians are pivotal in the functions of our civil society.
The leading Palestinian private schools are missionary institutions which give quality primary and secondary education such as La Salle College and Rosary Sisters, along with Schmidt’s Girls College and Saint Joseph’s School, the Mennonite School, Terra Sancta and the Armenian School. In addition, many social service centers are run by the Christian community, as are health services provided for the Jerusalemites. By and large, many churches — there are thirteen denominations in all — promote cultural activities and render material help in the context of housing and medical aid. There are also charity organizations that tend to the needs of the poor and needy.
Israel’s position toward the socioeconomic structure of the Christian community has always been a targeted one in terms of security and for taxation purposes. However, the properties in Jerusalem and its environs are owned by the major churches, be it Greek Orthodox or the Latin Patriarchate and the Custodian, in addition to the Armenian Church.
Many properties and religious Waqf lands have been sold by the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Patriarchates to Israeli organizations, which has caused anger and dismay among the Christian communities to the point of their ousting the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem.
The Christians in Jerusalem encounter the same difficulties of daily occupation by Israel. Hence, regardless of their steadfastness against the atrocious policies of occupation, emigration is thus inevitable. The dwindling number of the Christians in Jerusalem is becoming a major concern for the Western churches as well as for the Palestinian leadership, which considers the Christians an integral part of the Palestinian social fabric and a key element of the greater national resistance against occupation.
The Importance of the Armenian Quarter
One particular Christian community, the Armenians, play a significant role in the structure of Palestinian pluralistic society. Their presence dates back to the reign of King Tigranes II (95-55 BCE), who conquered Jerusalem.
Occupying the southwest part of the Old City, the Armenian quarter is made up of two distinct sections: the Monastery of St. James, which covers roughly two-thirds of the quarter, and the residential quarters of the Armenian inhabitants. The Armenians are known for their craftsmanship such as painting. The first printing press in Jerusalem was opened by Armenians in 1833 and published more than 1,300 titles. Moreover, they were known in the artistic disciplines of photography, ceramics, jewelry and shoe design. There were many distinguished Armenians who were pharmacists, painters, musicians, scholars, medical doctors and watchmakers, to name but a few professions.
During the intifada and up to the present time, the Armenian Patriarchate has taken a firm position on human rights and issues of justice affecting the Palestinian people. It is worth mentioning that the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem, encompasses one-sixth of the Old City and it is unique in that the Armenians are the only people to have a quarter in the Old City. However, it is so unfortunate that during the British Mandate period more than 10,000 Armenians lived in Greater Jerusalem and today that number is under 1,000.
The Armenian quarter today is considered an integral part of the Old City and its significance lies in the fact that it geographically connects the Christian Quarter and the Muslim Quarter and, of course, it is adjacent to the al-Haram al-Sharif. During the Camp David negotiations, I was in charge of the Jerusalem file at the Negotiations Support Unit (NSU), where I, along with the late Faisal Husseini, who was the Member of the Executive Committee of the PLO in charge of the Jerusalem Portfolio, met His Beatitude the Late Patriarch Torkom Manoukian to obtain his consent as Firman that the Armenian Quarter belongs to East Jerusalem and is occupied by Israel.
That position was highly regarded by the Palestinian leadership and, in particular, the late President Yasser Arafat, who was proud to call himself Arafatian.
By emphasizing the Armenian Quarter as a strategic geographic location to the negotiations, my intention was not to undermine the significance of the other three quarters, the Christian, the Muslim and the Jewish, but suffice to say that I take pride in my Armenian ethnic and cultural heritage, and this does not detract in any way from my Palestinian patriotism.