Strangers in their own Holy Land

The embattled Christian communities in Bethlehem and Nazareth, which even those with ambivalent attitudes towards Israel are deeply concerned about

Gone from the Galilee: The Christian residents of Igrit
Inna Lazareva
On 14 July 2014 18:32

For a few days this May, the little town of Bethlehem faced a publicity onslaught. Quiet alleyways and subdued streets became a bustle of activity. Seemingly every wall in the town centre was adorned with posters, signs and giant photographs, as pilgrims and press from all over the world flocked to the West Bank city to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis on his first official visit to the Holy Land.

Itineraries were scrutinised for political bias, detailed discussions over the wearing of religious insignia were held, while religious tourists and curious onlookers cheered and posed for numerous selfies.

Yet, among the Pope's core constituency, the local Christians, there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for the visit.

"The Pope is not coming for us, a shopkeeper tells me bitterly, dozens of strings of the rosary beads he sells jangling on his wrists. "He is coming for the Muslims. He gives them legitimacy, not us, by coming here. I'm going crazy here, I don't like it. Tell me, why doesn't the Pope give legitimacy to us?" 

What possible legitimacy could be needed for the Christians who live in the town celebrated every Christmas by church congregations and choirs the world over? The reality for Christians in the West Bank today is far removed from greetings card images. For one thing, they are disappearing.

While Bethlehem remains the most populous Christian city in the West Bank, its Christian population, as in the West Bank generally, is shrinking dramatically. Only 50 years ago, Christians constituted 70 percent of Bethlehem's population. Today they make up just 15 percent. Christians number approximately 38,000 people in the West Bank, representing 2 percent of the population. 

"We used to be many. Now there are so few of us left. Everyone is trying to leave," says Samir, another salesman in a neighbouring shop selling Orthodox icons. Worrying about the consequences of complaining about the situation, Samir declined to use his real name. 

"My mother doesn't like to walk in the street at night because her hair is uncovered, and people come up behind her and make rude comments," he tells me. During Christmas celebrations last December, women in their twenties on a visit from London with their parents and siblings complained of being harassed by a gang of male youths as they stood watching a festive performance in Manger Square. The gang did not desist until some local women came to stand nearby and told the boys to stop.

Everyone agrees that economic hardship and the low birthrate of the Christian community are the primary causes for decline. Yet in recent years Christians in Bethlehem also complain of a growing climate of intimidation from Islamic extremists.

"We announce to the nation joyously that with the grace of God the ideology of global jihad has attained a foothold in the West Bank, after everyone had tried to abort every seed planted there," stated the message from the Mujahideen Shura Council, an al-Qaeda-linked group as it declared its presence in the West Bank last December. Three of its members were killed by the Israeli Shin Bet (security service) after they were suspected of planning a terror attack. 

Members of the Salafi movement — an ultra-conservative current within the Sunni branch of Islam — have been based in the Gaza Strip for the past decade or so, but in recent months their presence has spread to the West Bank. While most Salafis are non-violent, the extremist fringes have a strong jihadist element that borrows from al-Qaeda's ideology, as can be witnessed in Gaza, Syria and the Sinai, where in recent years such groups have thrived. The stated endgame of the extremists is to establish an Islamic caliphate — and Christians, Jews and others are considered infidels.

In Bethlehem, residents talk about an increasingly antagonistic climate between faiths. Just weeks prior to the Pope's visit, a proselytising group of Muslims stood near the entrance of the Church of the Nativity, handing out copies of the Koran in multiple languages, and telling people on their way to the church to pray to Allah instead. "It was insulting. I feel like I don't live in a Christian place any more," says Samir, adding that such events are happening more and more often. 

A few days after the incident outside the Church of the Nativity, he describes celebrating the feast of St George in another church a few miles outside Bethlehem when a violent brawl between Christian and Muslim worshippers broke out. Stones were thrown, and a video of the event shows people running away in fear. Samir said the event was terrifying. "They will throw us out of our own country."

About 60 miles away in northern Israel, a must-stop site for Christian pilgrims is the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the largest church in the Middle East. Surrounded by stained-glass windows and mosaics from all over the world, the airy nave of the church leads you eventually down a dimly-lit stairway to a sunken enclosure which marks the spot where Mary was famously visited by the Angel Gabriel, who told her that she was expecting "the Son of God". 

Yet to step inside the church, worshippers must pass large posters hung outside, decorated with a warning triangle and stating: "Allah is the one and only God". Rejecting Jesus, the signs go on to proclaim that "his holiness is far above having a son".

No one knows exactly who is responsible for the posters. "Some tried to take the signs down and burn them several times already," explains Leon Barra, a 30-year-old who has lived in Nazareth all his life. "But two weeks later they were back up."

"We wrote to the Pope, asking him to come here because we need his support," says one shopkeeper selling jewellery at a nearby stall. "He replied saying that he did not have enough time, but that the time to visit Nazareth will come."

Christians in Israel are a minority within a minority. Approximately 20 percent of Israel's population of 8 million are Arabs — of whom ten percent are Christians. Although the number of Christians living in Israel between 1949 and 2013 has more than quadrupled, according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, the overall Christian share of Israel's population has decreased over the years because of migration and low birthrates — from 2.5 percent in 1950 to 1.6 percent now. 

In the winding alleys of Nazareth's old city market, several Christian shopkeepers confide on condition of anonymity that criminal gangs subject some of the local businesses to intimidation and death threats if they do not pay monthly protection money. 

"They are demanding money only from the Christians. No Christian can open a shop on the main road without being required to pay," says one shopkeeper, nervously looking out of his window to check for eavesdroppers.

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