“Why did you convert to Christianity?”I am often asked this question during my frequent trips to the United States and Europe, and it always amuses me.
Although my Arabic name could pass for Muslim—or, indeed, for Jewish—I am and have been a Christian all my life. In fact, I belong to one of the thirteen oldest Christian families in Jerusalem.
Hundreds of years ago, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem commemorated our centuries of continuous presence in the Old City. He placed thirteen banners—each bearing the name of one family—in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which houses the sites where Jesus died and rose from the dead. Once a year on Holy Saturday, a representative from each family carries its banner in a procession for the Holy Fire celebration. I have had this honor for some forty years now.
In the crowded, darkened church, we process three times around the chamber that marks Christ’s burial place. The patriarch then enters the tomb and prays alone until the Holy Fire is ignited within—miraculously, as we Orthodox believe. The flame is passed out to the waiting throng, candles are lit, and within seconds the whole church is bright with the light of the resurrection. At that moment, I feel renewed and prepared to face the many challenges that Arab Christians in the Holy Land confront every day.
A Complex History. Jerusalem has changed hands many times, but deep-rooted Palestinian Christian families have continued to make the city their home. In my own family, you can see the tenacity in our birth certificates. My grandfather’s is Turkish: he was born in 1890, when Jerusalem was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. My father’s reads “Government of Palestine—British Mandate”: he was born in 1921, when Palestine was administered by the British. Mine was issued by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the ruling authority in 1960. My four children have birth certificates from the State of Israel. And yet we were all born in the same neighborhood in Jerusalem’s Old City!
Sadly, however, this Christian presence has been eroding—very quickly in recent years. At the beginning of the State of Israel in 1948, when my father was a young man, Christians accounted for 8 percent of the population of Palestine. In that same area today, we are just under 1.7 percent. About 48,000 Christians live on the West Bank, 2,000 in the Gaza Strip, and 158,000 in Israel. That’s 200,000 Christians in a population of some 12 million. If we had maintained our 8 percent share of the population, there would be close to a million Christians in Israel and Palestine today.
But the sad fact is that the endless cycle of wars, intifadas, violence, and counterviolence since the 1940s has led many Christians to emigrate. For those who remain, life is very difficult, with different challenges based on where they live.
A Spectrum of Challenges. In both Gaza and the West Bank, virtually all the Christians are Arabs, living as a minority within a Muslim society. This poses special difficulties for the tiny church in Gaza, where the Islamist political party Hamas is in control. One example of their challenge has to do with the young Christians who are studying at universities in Gaza. Because there is no religious tolerance, these students are often required to memorize verses from the Koran, study Sharia law, and take final exams on Christmas Day. Female students who do not conform to conservative Muslim standards—wearing the head scarf, for example—are expelled from class.
These students do not have the means to study abroad. Nor can they pursue their education on the West Bank or in Israel. An embargo imposed by the State of Israel in 2007 prohibits Gaza residents between the ages of sixteen and thirty-five from entering these regions: they are viewed as potential terrorists—a security threat. Even though Gaza has been described as an open-air prison, these brave young Christians continue to hope for a better life and an end to injustice.
On the West Bank, the situation is a bit more positive. Through a quota system, the ruling Palestinian Authority allows for Christian representation at all levels of government. For example, in towns like Bethlehem, where the Christian presence was once strong, the office of mayor is reserved to Christians, as is a majority of town council seats. Also, every Palestinian Authority government has included one or two Christian cabinet members. At the moment, the powerful Minister of Finance and the Minister of Tourism and Culture are Christians.
West Bank officials and political leaders often express appreciation for our Christian presence and our contribution to building society. Still, political Islam is on the rise within Palestinian society, and this has led to tensions in various towns and neighborhoods.
As for the economic situation, it is grim. According to a recent report by the World Bank, Israel’s control of a huge swath of the West Bank is costing the Palestinian economy $3.4 billion a year—35 percent of its GDP (gross domestic product). Israeli restrictions on travel also depress business activity, and unemployment is high. Under these conditions, a sustainable and economically viable state is virtually impossible. Everyone on the West Bank, Christian and Muslim, experiences these difficulties and suffers the consequences.
In Israel proper, there are some Christian immigrants from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, along with a small number of Hebrew Christians. However, the majority of Christians in Israel are Arabs. Thus, here too Palestinian Christians are a minority within Israel’s largely Muslim Arab population. And since Israel considers itself a Jewish state, its Palestinian Christians are a minority within a minority.
Like all Arabs in the State of Israel, they are in a position of second-class citizenship. Arabs have limited access to government jobs, higher education, and financial resources. Arab towns and villages in Israel receive fewer services than Jewish communities. Structural discrimination is part of the fabric of society here.
We Have a Mission. Every year as Easter approaches, Jerusalem’s old Arab Christian families begin discussing who will represent them at the Holy Saturday celebration. Because so many have left the Holy Land in recent years, I must sadly admit that selecting representatives for this cherished honor has become less of a problem: the number of adults who can carry the heavy banner has dwindled to a handful.
Yet despite the hardships, we who remain rejoice in the privilege of living where Jesus walked and taught; where he suffered, died, and rose from the dead. We take pride in being able to build our societies and spread Christian values through the quality services offered by our institutions. There are 261 of them in Palestine alone: schools, colleges, vocational training centers, and a university; hospitals and clinics; orphanages and homes for senior citizens; and centers focused on youth services, environmental issues, sports, and cultural activities.
All of the services of these institutions are available to everyone, regardless of religion or nationality. What better foundation for mutual respect and dialogue than to have Muslim, Jewish, and Christian children growing and learning together in the same classroom? What better way to break down barriers than to serve people of different faiths in hospitals, activity centers, and other places where they have the chance to meet each other and share about their lives? This is the beauty of our presence in the Holy Land—to be peacemakers as we address basic human needs and help build our societies.
We value the support of all our Christian brothers and sisters around the world—not only the financial contributions, which have been very generous, but also the prayers, visits, and moral support. If you have not been to the Holy Land yet, come visit! Walk in the footsteps of our Master. Pray at the holy ancient sites. And be sure to talk to us, the “living stones,” as well. Experience Christianity where it all started, and share our pride.
Sami El-Yousef lives in Jerusalem and is a regional director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a papal agency offering humanitarian and pastoral support to the churches and peoples of the Middle East, northeast Africa, India, and Eastern Europe (www.cnewa.org).