Christian families have long been complaining of intimidation and land theft by Muslims, especially those working for the Palestinian Authority.

Many Christians in Bethlehem and the nearby [Christian] towns of Bet Sahour and Bet Jalla have repeatedly complained that Muslims have been seizing their lands either by force or through forged documents.

In recent years, not only has the number of Christians continued to dwindle, but Bethlehem and its surroundings also became hotbeds for Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters and members.

Moreover, several Christian women living in these areas have complained about verbal and sexual assaults by Muslim men.

Over the past few years, a number of Christian businessmen told me that they were forced to shut down their businesses because they could no longer afford to pay "protection" money to local Muslim gangs.

While it is true that the Palestinian Authority does not have an official policy of persecution against Christians, it is also true that this authority has not done enough to provide the Christian population with a sense of security and stability.

In addition, Christians continue to complain about discrimination when it comes to employment in the public sector. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority 15 years ago, for example, not a single Christian was ever appointed to a senior security post. Although Bethlehem has a Christian mayor, the governor, who is more senior than him, remains a Muslim.

As a Muslim journalist, I am always disgusted and ashamed when I hear from Christians living in the West Bank and Jerusalem about the challenges, threats and assaults that many of them have long been facing.

The reason why I feel like this is because those behind the assaults and threats are almost always Muslims.

For decades, the delicate and complicated issue of relations between Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land was treated by Palestinians as a taboo. Most Palestinians chose to live in denial, ignoring the fact that relations between the Muslim majority and the tiny Christian minority [about 10%] have been witnessing a setback, particularly over the past 15 years.

On the eve of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Holy Land, a Christian merchant told me jokingly: "The next time a pope comes to visit the Holy Land, he will have to bring his own priest with him pray in a church because most Christians would have left by then."

Indeed, the number of Christians leaving Bethlehem and other towns and cities appears to be on the rise, according to representatives of the Christian community in Jerusalem.

Today, Christians in Bethlehem constitute less than 15% of the population. Five or six decades ago, the Christians living in the birthplace of Jesus made up more than 70% of the population.

True, Israel's security measures in the West Bank have made living conditions more difficult for all Palestinians, Christians and Muslims alike. But to say that these measures are the main and sole reason for the Christian exodus from the Holy Land is misleading.

If the security fence and the occupation were the main reason, the Palestinian territories should by have been empty of both Muslims and Christians. These measures, after all, do not distinguish between Christians and Muslims.

On the other hand, it is also incorrect to assume that the Christians are leaving only because they are afraid of their Muslim neighbors. Christians are leaving because of the poor economy, and because they no longer feel secure in their homes. But they are also leaving because most of them, if not all, find it easier to merge into Christian-dominated societies in the US, Canada, EU and Latin America, where many of them already have relatives and friends.

In fact, Christians began leaving the Holy Land long before Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. But the number of those moving to the US and Canada has sharply increased ever since the Palestinian Authority took control over Bethlehem and other Palestinian villages and cities. When the second intifada erupted in September 2000, Christian leaders said they were "terrified" by the large number of Christians who were leaving the country.

Ironically, leaders of the Palestinian Christians are also to blame for the ongoing plight of their people because they refuse to see the reality as it is. And the reality is that many Christians feel insecure and intimidated because of what we Muslims are doing to them and not only because of the bad economy.

When they go on the record, these leaders always insist that Israel and the occupation are the only reason behind the plight of their constituents. They stubbornly refuse to admit that many Christians are being targeted by Muslims. By not talking openly about the problem, the Christian leaders are encouraging the perpetrators to continue their harassment and assaults against Christian families.

And then the day will really come when the pope, on his next visit to the Holy Land, will not find any Christian to welcome him.‭‮

Related Topics:  Khaled Abu Toameh receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free gatestone institute mailing list

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