Israel often presents itself as a cosmopolitan land for all faiths, and Western Christians support that image. In reality, the state of Israel and Israeli settlers increasingly have made life and religious freedom worse for Christian Palestinians under occupation.
The Israel and Palestine conflict has often been misrepresented as one between Jews and Muslims; sometimes more crudely propagated as a fight between “progressive, liberal, democratic Israel” and “Muslim fundamentalist terrorists.” Yet often forgotten or even unknown to many in the West are the Christian Palestinians, who have also been marginalized by the decades-long Israeli occupation.
Even for those visiting the Holy Land, Israeli tour companies operating in Bethlehem do not give a full guided tour of the city and its Christian sites. This is to avoid showing the settlement wall built in the Second Intifada of 2003 to allegedly contain “terrorists” – a containment, which continues to expand and infringe upon Palestinians’ movement, dignity, and quality of life.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Jan. 6, 2020. (AP Photo Majdi Mohammed)
Atallah Hanna, the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, embodies the struggles that Christian Palestinians have faced against Israel’s occupation.
Hanna was recently hospitalized after an Israeli army gas canister attack on his Jerusalem church in December. In his hospital bed in Jordan, he stated that he believed Israel had attempted to assassinate him, or at least poison him enough to weaken him and limit his daily activities.
Hanna is an outspoken opponent of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and its persecution of Christians as well as Muslims in the occupied territories. Often delivering impassioned talks within Palestine and abroad, he promotes Palestinian unity and the reality that Christians in the occupied territories are oppressed just as harshly as Muslim Palestinians.
A couple of weeks prior to his hospitalization, he spoke at a conference in Istanbul dedicated to raising awareness about the Palestinian issue.
“There is no disunity between Muslims and Christians in Palestine.. We are all one family. Muslims here are our closest friends. The only danger and persecution we face is from the occupation.”
“There is no disunity between Muslims and Christians in Palestine,” said Hanna in his speech. “We are all one family. Muslims here are our closest friends. The only danger and persecution we face is from the occupation… Many Christians in the West support Israel. Yet Israel’s actions go against all moral and religious values.”
Given Hanna’s highly vocal criticism of the occupation, Israel’s blatant attack on his church shows how keen it is to repress open dissent.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967 under the claim that the Jewish people have a God-given right to control the land. Israeli settlers have continuously built homes and communities there, which are segregated from the native Palestinian population. Such a system has been likened to apartheid by Amnesty International, the UN, U.S. government officials like former Vice President John Kerry, and various international and Israeli analysts. It has made movements difficult for all within the occupied territories.
“I can’t visit the [Christian] holy sites…under the current [Israeli] separatist regime in Palestine with its checkpoints and separation wall,” said Fadi Qattan, a Palestinian citizen of Bethlehem.
Jews, Muslims, and Christians had once lived in harmony across historic Palestine, with religious freedom for all. Yet Israel’s founding in 1948 forced a mass exodus of the Palestinians living there, and the Christian population has since dwindled. There are approximately 400,000 Christian Palestinians who live in the diaspora worldwide. Then there are 120,000 who live in Israel, and 50,000 in the occupied territories. Many have also emigrated due to the difficulties of living under occupation.
These divisions, enforced for the sake of a Jewish majority state, are pronounced and getting worse.
These divisions, enforced for the sake of a Jewish majority state, are pronounced and getting worse. This Christmas, Israel had initially blocked Christian Palestinians residents of Gaza, who sought to visit Bethlehem for the holiday season. Eventually it allowed a small number of Christians to leave, to avoid reputational blowback. But only a minority were given permits to leave, meaning that the majority were still barred from temporarily visiting Bethlehem.
Similarly, in April last year, Israel imposed harsher restriction on Gazan Christians hoping to visit Bethlehem for the Easter pilgrimage. Israel set up an arbitrary limit of two hundred Christians over the age of 55, in effect making it accessible to only 120 Gazans. In fact, many permits to temporarily leave Gaza have not been accepted. These cases clearly illustrate how the occupation prevents Palestinians from moving freely within their own land even for religious festivities.
Those outside of Gaza living in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank face difficulties amid an increasing ‘Judaization’ of these areas – an unrelenting ongoing project for decades. The Ateret Cohanim company, which seeks to support settler purchasing of properties within Jerusalem is a case in point.
There has been a significant court dispute between the Ateret Cohanim company, in support of settlers taking Greek Orthodox church property — such as two hostels and residences in the Christian quarter — triggering fear and protests among the church community
Christian leaders had protested the decision, calling those responsible “extremist groups trying to weaken the unity and identity of the Christian neighborhood.”
While a legal battle is still underway, the Israeli government has taken little steps to ensure the sanctity of the Christian community in Jerusalem.
Several Israeli settlers’ attacks on churches have occurred in the last decade. One settler, along with a younger accomplice, torched a church in Tabgha near the Sea of Galilee. However, initial charges against him were withdrawn, leading to criticism of the Israeli court’s decision.
“The settlers are persistent in their attempts to erode the presence of the Christian community in Jerusalem.”
“Today the church faces a most severe threat at the hands of certain settler groups,” said Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Christian leader in the Holy Land. “The settlers are persistent in their attempts to erode the presence of the Christian community in Jerusalem.”
“These radical settler groups are highly-organised. Over the last years we have witnessed the desecration and vandalism of an unprecedented number of churches and holy sites and received growing numbers of reports from priests and local worshippers who have been assaulted and attacked.”
Church leaders claim that Christian Palestinians are facing attacks on multiple fronts: physical violence from hard-line settlers, soaring tax burdens from Jerusalem’s city council, and a proposal to allow the expropriation of church land sold to private developers. Pilgrimage rights being taken away has also become an intensifying reality for Palestinian Christians in the last year.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has taken a further shift towards right-wing nationalists, particularly after passing the controversial Jewish Nation State law last year, which discriminates against Palestinians and their Arabic heritage.
Trump’s U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem, which emboldens the settler movement and strengthen occupation will likely lead to greater impunity towards settlers’ land grab while further restricting Palestinian rights in Israel.
In the U.S., Evangelical Christian groups have played an important role in encouraging Western and American support for Israel, which ironically endangers the religious freedom of Christian Palestinians and allows Israeli repression to continue.
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