The lives of Palestinian Christians only 76 kilometres from Gaza

Al Majalla in a journey to Christianity's holiest places to figure out what holds Palestinian Christians together today

Eduardo Ramon/Majalla

The lives of Palestinian Christians only 76 kilometres from Gaza

Jerusalem - At the church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born, Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem have gathered for a Bible study group.

Though some of them have been raised by religious Catholic parents, others have not experimented with Christianity as they grew up in liberal and secular families. It was their first encounter with the faith. “I felt depressed because of the daily atrocities in Gaza. I feel good here, and faith helps me,” says Jasmine, who is 23 years old.

Like nearly everyone I spoke to from the Christian community in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Jasmine feels sick of the degree of death and destruction in Gaza, 76km from Jerusalem, and the growing incidents of racism, verbal abuse, and bodily harm by Jewish extremist settlers against priests and nuns in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in recent weeks.

“We have many Jewish friends who have voiced their solidarity with us. These repugnant acts, including spitting on anyone with religious attire and breaking crosses in our graveyards, are carried out by a bunch of settlers who espouse religious Zionism,” says Fadi Suidan, the CEO of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Jerusalem.

Taking me on a tour of the iconic building of the association in occupied East Jerusalem, Suidan has joined fellow Christians in Bethlehem in calling off the traditional Christmas and New Year celebrations in protest at the mounting civilian casualties and the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

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One unique thing the landmark building offers when you enter it is quiet and peace. A mosaic sign at the main entrance reads: “Here’s a place whose atmosphere is peace where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten.”

More than a hundred years ago, this city was known for being one of the bright spots of the Middle East, a city proud of religious diversity and tolerance between Jews, Christians and Muslims. But what I saw during a recent visit was a city enveloped in melancholy, deepening paranoia, and sepulchral silence in different parts of the East and the West.

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Fadi Suidan at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Jerusalem

Israeli police personnel and soldiers are everywhere. They walk and patrol the streets cautiously, looking for potential security threats. On more than one occasion, I saw Israeli residents and fathers with their families carrying US-made M16 automatic assault rifles in shopping areas, like the splendid neighbourhood of Mamilla.

In the aftermath of the 7 October attacks by Hamas in Israel, the Israeli government has made it easier for Israeli citizens with the necessary training or security background to own guns by speeding up the process of obtaining permits for their own safety. Palestinian citizens of Israel don’t qualify because they are exempt from obligatory military service.

Under the cover of the Gaza war, the drive to arm Israeli civilians, led by National Security Minister and far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir, has triggered concerns that some of these weapons will eventually fall into the hands of Jewish extremist settlers in the West Bank.

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The entrance of the shopping mall in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Mamilla

Palestinian Christians believe that the settlers have stepped up their efforts to irreversibly change the demographics of East Jerusalem and other Palestinian towns after the Hamas attacks and the ensuing war in Gaza

"They particularly have a malicious scheme against the Christian quarters,” Archbishop Atallah Hanna told me in an interview in the Old City. He has served as the Head of the Sebastia Diocese of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem since 2005.

“I do not believe that there is a bad Israeli government and a less or more bad Israeli government. All successive governments have been racist. But in certain eras, there is sometimes diplomatic discourse about the two-state solution, but we are slowly discovering that this is a big lie because Israel, as a state, wants to liquidate the Palestinian cause.”

Demographic shift

In my chats and interviews with Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the sense of fear is palpable. They worry they will be forced directly or indirectly to immigrate like tens of thousands of their community members over the past decades.

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The occupied Palestinian territories have been experiencing consecutive waves of immigration from the Christian community — a trend that has profound implications for the future of the generations to come, who will find themselves torn between their roots and their new homes abroad, mainly in Western countries.

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Archbishop Atallah Hanna has served as the Head of the Sebastia Diocese of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem since 2005

Christians make up the majority of Palestinian immigration, resulting in a rapid demographic shift, according to the latest statistics by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS). The reasons vary from socio-economic factors, restrictions of movement under the Israeli occupation, fear of being expelled from their land and settler attacks.

The bureau estimates the annual average of immigration during the past ten years at more than 10,000.

Today, the percentage of Christians in the Palestinian territories annexed and occupied by Israel after the 1967 war does not exceed 1% (a total of 46,000 people), compared to about 11.2% before the founding of Israel in 1948, which is called by the Palestinians the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe).

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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

The bureau’s findings also show that the majority of Christians do not trust the Palestinian Authority and see its leaders as corrupt.

“This demographic shift will certainly test the very idea of cultural diversity of Jerusalem, that this city, which’s often called the centre of the universe, can be a melting pot for Christians, Muslims and Jews,” says Suidan.

Built in 1878, the YMCA board of directors is a marvellous example of the three religious communities made up of Christians, Jews, and Muslims who all share Jerusalem.

Ahmed Maher/Majalla
The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Jerusalem

The CEO before Suidan was a Muslim woman; the one before was a Jewish man, and the one before him was a Muslim man. In 1982, it opened the first kindergarten for Palestinians and Jews, and after 25 years, it transformed into a school known as Yad b’Yad (Arabic for hand in hand), whose mission statement is to find a common ground for Palestinian and Jewish students.

“My daughter and other students weren’t there at that ill-fated night eight years ago, when extremist Jewish settlers tried to set it alight and scrawled across its walls racist phrases like ‘death to the Arabs’ and ‘Arabs are like cancer’,” recalls Sudian.

Mount Zion

One of the powerful voices of Palestinian Christians today is in the Armenian quarter. The Armenians place more emphasis on their ethnic identity and cultural roots.

They were among the first communities in history to embrace Christianity. I visited their ancient sanctuary at the biblical City of David, also known as Mount Zion, at a hill just outside Jerusalem’s wall. They believe that James the Great, who was one of the 12 Apostles according to Christian scriptures, was killed here in 44 AD, and his head is buried under the altar.

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Some of them are wealthy individuals known for investing in real estate and buying homes in Jerusalem over the centuries. Their property empire spreads across the eastern and western parts of the city. They generally don’t live in the properties they are buying and have donated them to the church.

“We are renting them out to sustain our community. Our properties in the West are welcoming everyone, but the East is a different story,” says Setrak Balian, co-founder of the Save the Arq movement for the defence and preservation of the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem.

Ahmed Maher/Majalla
Setrak Balian, co-founder of the Save the Arq movement for the defence and preservation of the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem

I met Balian at the conference hall attached to the church, where he joined fellow Armenians in forming vigilantes in the wake of recent attacks by extremist Jewish settlers over a disputed piece of land at the heart of the Armenian quarter.

I saw first-hand the partial destruction of a wall in an empty historical piece of land known as the the Cows’ Garden, as it used to be frequented in ancient times by Christian pilgrims and farmers with their sheep.

I listened to Armenian pastors and activists telling the story of this land, which made the headlines in recent months: The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem signed a 10-year lease agreement in March 2020 with the Israeli-run Jerusalem municipality. The land had been designated as a parking lot, and the municipality stipulated that 90 slots would be given to Jews out of about 230.

This is the importance of the place because of the dearth of parking in the Old City. However, a controversial clause stated that the agreement would be null and void if a hotel were to be built for public benefit.

In July 2021, another deal was concluded between the church and investor Danny Rothman (also known as Danny Rubinstein), an Israeli businessman of Australian origin, for a period of 49 years and would be automatically renewed just once if the investor did not object to it, in exchange for $300,000 a year, $2 million as a lump sum and 5% of the annual profit.

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The partial destruction of a wall in an empty historical piece of land known as ‘the the Cows’ Garden in the Armenian quarter

“Apart from our rejection of this illegal agreement with the Australian investor, can you imagine they wanted to get the right to rent this piece of land for this meagre sum of money? It’s even more expensive than the whole of Oxford Street in London,” said Setrak with a laugh.

“It’s illegal because it was signed by the now-defrocked real-estate director Priest Baret Yeretzian, as he hadn’t obtained the approval of the Holy Synod and the General Assembly, which’s made up of 30 priests, as the lease is more than 25 years. We only knew of the deal thanks to a whistle-blower who leaked a copy of the transaction in April this year."

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The Israeli company, executing the controversial deal on behalf of the Australian investor, has refused to backtrack and tried to start construction works on 5 November in the face of fierce resistance from the Armenian activists and priests.

“Then armed Jewish settlers tried to intimidate us with their weapons and guard dogs on November 5 to no avail. The police say this’s a legal dispute that should be settled in courts, but the other party hasn’t taken legal action so far, even though we offered them to return the money transferred behind our backs in the suspicious deal,” says Setrak.

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The entrance of a market in the Christian quarter in Jerusalem

Just at the time of writing this article on December 28, over 30 armed thugs in ski-masks with lethal and less-than-lethal weaponry including powerful nerve agents broke into the grounds of the Cows’ Gardens. The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem said in a statement that several priests and activists have been seriously insured. “Armenian clerics in Jerusalem are fighting for their lives against provocateurs with impunity,” it said.

From Mount Zion, you can get a breathtaking view of the beauty of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all in one place. For Jews, the area is also sacred. The name is used to refer to the Temple Mount and the 'entire land of Israel.’

“The Armenian quarter is very important because it’s on Mount Zion. It has a very important biblical dimension. It’s the first time ever we feel a real existential threat, not just to the Armenians who have remained politically neutral, but the Christian existence in Jerusalem,” said Setrak.

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