The clock is ticking on the future of Christians in the West Bank, Gaza
Ahead of Christmas preparations, the smaller town outside Bethlehem welcomes the holiday season – but what can staunch the exodus of Christian Palestinians?
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by Nicole Jansezian | December 12, 2022
Samir Qumsiyeh at Al-Mahed Nativity TV (Photo: All Arab News)
BEIT SAHOUR—The future of Palestinian Christians is “gloomy” and “uncertain.”
That was the assessment of Samir Qumsiyeh, a researcher of the Christian presence in the Holy Land and director of Al-Mahed Nativity TV. Qumsiyeh, 74, has been tracking the diminishing Christian population among Palestinians over the last several decades.
“Time is running against us,” he said. “I am afraid that one day the Holy Sepulchre and the Nativity Church where Jesus was born will be closed, empty museums.”
Plagued by a steady emigration and low birth rate compared to Muslim families, the Christian community now comprises just 1% of all Palestinians in the West Bank (3 million) and even less in Gaza where about 700 are Christian in the coastal enclave of nearly 2 million.
Nevertheless, thousands of residents – Christian and Muslim alike – crammed into the main square of Beit Sahour last week for the annual Christmas tree lighting, a festive event that is marked with speeches, songs, traditional dance and fireworks.
“We are all one here,” one Christian teenager told ALL ARAB NEWS. “Christmas is the best season. I’ve been coming to this event for 15 years, it’s our annual tradition for all the town.”
Indeed, the square was bustling with smiling children and adults, candied apple vendors and several Santa Clauses milling through the crowd. Three groups of scouts from three different churches marched through the square playing Christmas carols on percussion, wind and brass instruments.
While Bethlehem is larger and overshadows its two West Bank neighbors as the birthplace of Jesus, Beit Sahour clings to its own fame: The field where the angels announced the Savior’s birth to the shepherds is believed to be in Beit Sahour.
“Beit Sahour is the ‘media’ of Jesus,” said Mayor Hani Al-Hayek in an interview with reporters organized by MediaCentral. “It is the place where the angels announced to all the world that Jesus was born.”
But Al-Hayek said that spirit of Christmas is dampened by the “Israeli occupation” which both Christian and Muslim Palestinians face together. He also referenced the “three martyrs” who were killed in Jenin that very morning in a fight with Israeli soldiers during an IDF operation in the West Bank city.
“We want our freedom and independence,” he said. “We want to expand our land. There’s no land for us. We can’t achieve our dreams as a Palestinian state.”
Palestinians say that restriction of movement – including the ability to travel around Israel – and scant job opportunities in a struggling economy are some of the hardships that prompt many residents to leave.
A few Palestinian cities or towns are still predominantly Christian such as Beit Sahour and Taybeh further north. But even Bethlehem – once 80% Christian, 20% Muslim – has now turned into a Muslim-majority city with only a 12% of Christian population despite its historic connection to the birth of Jesus and Christianity.
Here are the numbers of Christians in the three traditional Christian cities surrounding the story of Jesus’ birth, according to Qumsiyeh:
In Beit Sahour: 12,000 to 13,000
In Bethlehem: 10,000
In Beit Jala: 11,000
That’s about 33,000 Christians in a population of 216,000.
Many Palestinians leave the territories if they have an opportunity to study abroad, usually then finding jobs or spouses that also keep them there – a fact which has a bigger drain on the smaller Christian population than on the Muslims.
Qumsiyeh’s own family is an example of the exodus. He is a descendant of one of the biggest Christian families in the Holy Land. But now, out of six brothers, only two still live in the territories. Of his own children, two here and two abroad.
Another person trying to maintain the traditions of Christians here is Yasar Barham, owner of the Barham Factory for Oriental Souvenirs.
“This is our heritage,” he said. “The olive wood is a hand worked craft for generations.”
But the intricate and tedious work may not be enough to keep the next generation from looking elsewhere for their future. Qumsiyeh said that turning the situation around will require dramatic action and responsibility.
He fears a Holy Land without Christians.
“A catastrophe,” he said.
Jamil Jarayseh, a patriarch in the community who runs an organization that provides free medical care to children in need, welcomed reporters to his home where a Christmas tree towers toward the ceiling and a sprawling nativity scene encompasses the living room.
“We are the sons of the land. We are the keepers of the Arabic language and the Holy Land,” he said of Palestinian Christians.
His family has faced opposition from both the Jewish state – he was jailed for one year in Israel – and the Muslim majority in the Palestinian towns. But Jarayseh said that as a family, they maintain their faith despite their minority status by encouraging their children and teaching them how to pray and follow other Christian traditions.
Despite the odds, Qumsiyeh said the church needs to step up and defend the Christian identity in the Palestinian Authority – and Jerusalem.
“The Jews say, or the Israelis say, it is a Jewish city.And the Muslims say it is an Islamic city,” he said.
“I cannot accept it and I say loud and clear, Jerusalem is a Christian city before anything. It is a Christian city because the whole Christian heritage is there. The mother of churches – the Holy Sepulchre – is there. Jesus was crucified there. He was resurrected from there. Why ignore it?”
Al-Hayek said Christians must do their part and “insist to stay.” Celebrating Christmas is one of the ways to achieve that.
“We give them more opportunities to symbolize their lives, especially during this season,” he said.
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