Arab Christians among Middle East’s most oppressed

Published February 1, 2000


TWO THOUSAND years after Christ’s birth, Arab Christians see themselves as a beleaguered community, abandoned by the outside Christian world, facing extinction. They fear the Holy Land could become a museum for tourists bereft of Christianity as a living religion. As the Holy Land prepares to host a record number of pilgrims this millennium year, they plead that they not be ignored or bypassed.

“The most important thing for Christian visitors is to express solidarity with their Christian brothers and sisters in this land,” Very Rev. Michael Sellors, Dean of St. George’s (Anglican) Cathedral in East Jerusalem, which has a large Arab Christian congregation, told the Journal. “They need encouragement and support. It would be disastrous if people came to look merely at holy places instead of meeting and mixing with ‘living stones.'”

Those who guide pilgrims have a responsibility to ensure their charges “see a whole picture,” he added. “They are not always aware of the difficulties the Christian community experiences; what it means to live with closure, when every now and then the borders are closed and you cannot move between A and B.”

And, please, Mr. Sellors pleaded, don’t ask Arab Christians when they converted. “It means they (the pilgrims) have not read their Bible. If they did, they would see that on the first Pentecost there were Arabs in Jerusalem, and many Christians can trace their history back to the first Pentecost.”

Sharing a common culture, mother tongue, and intertwined history with their Muslim neighbours, these “living stones” have deep roots in the land where Christianity was born. Arab Christians suffered the same fate as Muslims during the Holy Land’s bloody conquest by Christian crusaders who didn’t distinguish between Arab Christian and Muslim. Today they share with fellow Palestinians bitter memories of dispossession, discrimination and injustice.

Hilary Rantisi, an Anglican Palestinian, says she can trace her Christian heritage back to the third century biblical village of Lydda.

Ms. Rantisi is special projects and international relations co-ordinator for Sabeel, a grassroots ecumenical Palestinian Liberation Theology centre. Her father, a pastor, was evicted from his home in Lydda by Israeli troops in 1948. He became a refugee joining thousands of Palestinians forced from their homes and land.

“It’s important to tell our story and narrative,” Ms Rantisi said. “That we have our Via Dolorosa, our daily sufferings, the check points, the demolition of homes. Many people only know the Israeli side.”

Founded by Naim Ateek, former canon and pastor to St. George’s Arabic-speaking congregation, Sabeel works to promote a “more accurate international awareness regarding the identity, presence and witness of Palestinian Christians as well as their contemporary concerns.”

In his book, Caught in Between (SPCK, London), Bishop Riah Hanna Abu el-Assel of Jerusalem, warns if a solution to the Christian exodus is not quickly found, “the land where our faith was born and survived for 2,000 years will soon be empty of indigenous Christians. The living faith will be represented only by dead stones and their imported custodians.”

Addressing 1988’s Lambeth Conference, the bishop, who describes himself as a Palestinian, Israeli, Arab, Christian Anglican, told the worldwide gathering of Anglican bishops that a jumbo-jet full of Palestinian Christians returning home to live would be far more welcome than the millions of temporary visitors.

There is disagreement over how many Christians remain in Jerusalem, with estimates ranging from 8,000 to 17,000. The Washington-based, the Holy Land Foundation, says that because the freedom of Palestinians has been so severely compromised, Christian Palestinians are departing from the Holy Land at such an alarming rate it is possible they could disappear in the very land where Christ founded his church.


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