Christians Fleeing Palestinian Controlled Areas
By Daphne Tsimhoni
The small Christian Arab community in the areas under Palestinian Authority (PA) control has been a major victim of the current Palestinian violence, resulting in accelerated Christian emigration from the territories since September 2000.
The Christian population in the PA-controlled territories has declined since 1997
Population estimates, made by Ibrahim Kandelaft, PA Chairman Yasir Arafats adviser on Christians and church affairs, and seen in the graph below, show a considerable decline in the number of Christians in the West Bank from 35,000 in 1997 to 25,000 in 2002, a drop of 29 percent. In the Gaza Strip, the number diminished from 2,500 to 2,000, or 20 percent, during the same period.
Dr. Bernard Sabella of Bethlehem University estimates that approximately 600 Christians per year have left since the beginning of the current violence versus 300-400 per year in earlier periods. The Israeli civil administration in the territories estimates the number of Christians who have left since September 2000 at approximately 10,000.
The once-prosperous Christian community is more urbanized and better educated, and has a higher rate of white-collar professionals, smaller households and lower birthrates than does its Muslim counterparts. The Christians in the West Bank are concentrated in two enclaves near Jerusalem: the Ramallah district with approximately 16,000 Christians and the Bethlehem district, including the small towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahur, with about 9,000 Christians. In both areas, the Christians lost their majorities as early as the 1950s and 1960s when the West Bank was under Jordanian rule, mainly due to the settlement of mostly Muslim refugees as well as continuous Christians emigration and the Christians birthrate than the Muslims.
Since September 2000, economic stagnation, high unemployment, lack of internal security and Israeli closures of West Bank towns due to constant Palestinian violence have affected all Palestinians. The Christians in the Bethlehem area have been hit particularly hard. Unlike the Christians of Ramallah, they have preserved their traditional, church-affiliated lifestyle. They maintain strong affiliations to their church headquarters, hospitals and educational institutions in Jerusalem.
Christians have become increasingly concerned about the Islamization of life in their key cities
Bethlehem Christians cater to Christian pilgrims and other tourists by running hotels, restaurants and souvenir stores and industries. Their relations with their Muslim neighbors have been marked by friction and violence. Bethlehem Christians have complained of raids by a neighboring Muslim Bedouin tribe and the purchase of lands in their neighborhoods by Muslim Hebronites that is liable to further marginalize them in their own enclave. They are particularly troubled by the Islamization of public life in the Bethlehem area and by the imposition of Muslim codes of conduct, especially regarding women.
The expansion of PA control to Bethlehem in 1995 separated it from Jerusalem and hampered its Christian inhabitants contacts with their Jerusalem church headquarters; the current Palestinian violence almost extinguished these contacts altogether.
The Christians of Bethlehem saw the destruction of the mainstay of their livelihood Christian pilgrimage and other tourism. Furthermore, much of the violence has been perpetrated by the radical Muslim organizations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Imposing Muslim codes in the Bethlehem area and violence against its Christian residents have considerably expanded, including occasional attacks on women.
Although Palestinian Christians have rarely engaged in violence against Jews, some Christians have been killed in the fighting. The most disastrous effects of the violence have occurred in the quiet, largely Christian town of Beit Jala. Armed Palestinian elements chose Beit Jala as their base for sniping at the nearby Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Their goal was self-evidentdirecting international attention to any retaliatory fire on this Christian town by the Israelis. The Israeli reaction did come, and it forced numerous Christians to evacuate. Many headed abroad, especially to the United States and Canada.
In the Gaza Strip as well, the violence has harmed the tiny Christian community. In addition to the economic decline, there were several cases of physical attacks on Christians in Gaza, influenced by Islamist incitement against Israel and the Christian West.
The continuation of present trends is liable to increase Christian emigration even further and cause a drastic decline in the already dwindling Christian population. The Christians urgently need an end to the violence and a resumption of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Dr. Tsimhoni, research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of Christian Communities in Jerusalem and the West Bank Since 1948 (Praeger, 1993).
Source: Near East Report, (January 28, 2002)