Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

On Washington Tour, Palestinian Cites Both Sides for Christian Plight

October 31, 2006
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Bernard Sabella’s message as a Palestinian Christian is this: His people are leaving the Holy Land. But so are Muslims and Jews, and it’s all part of the same problem. Sabella, a Christian in the Palestinian Authority Parliament and a sociologist who specializes in his community at Bethlehem University, toured Washington last week in an effort to tamp down the aftereffects of an especially nasty Washington fracas this summer over who was making Holy Land Christians suffer more — Jews or Muslims?

The problem is the question, Sabella said last week in an interview.

“Reducing everything to a religious dimension confuses the issue,” he said.

The problem is a failure of political will by both Palestinians and Israelis to come to an accommodation, he said.

“It is leading Palestinian Christians and Muslims, and young Jewish Israelis who are promising professionals, to leave the country,” said Sabella, whose visit was sponsored by Churches for Middle East Peace, a dovish coalition of mainstream churches.

Sabella met officials in the State Department and senior congressional staff who deal with international relations issues. He also made public appearances.

Questions about why Christians in the Holy Land have dwindled in a century from about 10 percent of the population to barely 2 percent have dogged the ancient community. There are about 120,000 Christians in Israel and another 50,000 in the Palestinian areas. Their fate captures the imagination of Christians worldwide.

Columnist Robert Novak, a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism who is a persistent critic of Israel, launched the latest broadside in May when he revealed that U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the powerful chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee, had written a letter to President Bush outlining the plight of Christians. Hyde wanted Bush to take up the issue with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The report has not been made available to other reporters, and it’s not clear if Novak distorted its intent by focusing exclusively on Israel rather than the Palestinian Authority. He quoted Hyde as saying Israel’s policies, particularly the West Bank security barrier and settlement expansion, “are irreversibly damaging the dwindling Christian community.”

A month later, Hyde delivered a more nuanced statement to his committee’s human rights subcommittee, saying, “Palestinian Christians are increasingly finding themselves caught in the middle of a bipolar situation between Islamic and Jewish extremism.”

But by then the battle already had been joined by two of Israel’s staunchest supporters in Congress, Reps. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas). In mid-June, the lawmakers asked colleagues to sign a resolution blaming “the systematic destruction of the oldest Christian community in the world” on the Palestinian Authority.

McCaul and Crowley said P.A. policies had led to “to mass migration of Palestinian Christians out of territories under Palestinian Authority control” and that “Christian holy sites and cemeteries have suffered repeated desecration with little response from the police.”

That drew multiple critiques from Holy Land Christians who said they did not recognize the dire circumstances described by Crowley and McCaul and were not consulted by Justus Weiner, a scholar in residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs who wrote the study that formed the basis for the resolution.

The response had an effect: By the end of summer, Crowley and McCaul quietly withdrew the resolution.

Still, a visit by Sabella — whose research on dwindling numbers is cited in the Weiner report — was seen as necessary to clear up the debris.

Congressional staffers who met with Sabella were impressed with his restraint and eloquence; one said his input might have salvaged the Crowley-McCaul resolution. Sabella conveyed the impression that “without a large change in the larger political context, circumstances of Palestinian Christians will remain dire,” one staffer said.

A Roman Catholic who lives in Beit Hanina, a village within the Jerusalem municipal border, Sabella said the dramatic attacks and counterattacks of the political debate concealed the crisis’ impact on working people.

“If you have a job, if you have security, you won’t leave the country,” he said.

He notes that Palestinian Christian diaspora communities are better established, making departure more tempting for them than for Muslims. Christians are better educated, likelier to get work abroad and less likely to have large families,

He said that instability in the region derives from Israel’s presence in the West Bank and noted the disruption occasioned by the security barrier, which he says is frustrating commerce and travel between the Bethlehem area, a Christian center, and the rest of the West Bank.

Israel says the barrier has proven its worth, with a drastic drop in suicide attacks since it was built. The Israeli army says it hews to High Court mandates that the barrier interfere as little as possible with Palestinian civilian life.

Sabella does not blame Israel alone for the crisis. Speaking to the Foundation for Middle East Peace, he said he resents political pressure to do so.

“I’m told, as a Palestinian Legislative Council member, ‘you have to stress all the time that it is Israeli policies.’ “

Instead he blames both sides for not getting their political houses in order and negotiating a two-state solution to the crisis.

Sabella is wary of the Hamas government’s Islamization of what he believes should be a secular Palestinian society, and he acknowledges “sensitivities” between Muslims and Christians, without enumerating them.

Among these are the aftereffects of the recent intifada, when Muslim fighters holed up in and defaced Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, one of Christendom’s most sacred shrines, and Muslims berated Christians for not volunteering their lives for the conflict.

“We tend to be not frank in our relationship,” he said of Christian-Muslim relations. “We tend to go around the important issues.”

Most recently, after Pope Benedict XVI quoted a medieval theologian who implied that Islam was an inherently violent belief system, attackers torched Palestinian churches.

Sabella insists such attacks are not systematic — polls show that the attacks on churches were unpopular among Muslims — and he begs for his community not to be ripped away from the broader Palestinian polity.

“We are part and parcel of our Palestinian society,” he said.

It’s clear, however, that Sabella also feels a particular responsibility to Christians; he confesses to checking daily on the status of 2,500 Christians in the Gaza Strip as that region descends into chaos.

Right now the situation of the Gazan Christians is stable, he said, but added: “If it becomes worse, my expectation is that people will leave.”

Recommended from JTA