It is sad but possibly to be expected that many Palestinian Christians – who are constantly under threat but have not been killed or expelled – identify closely with the cause of their Muslim fellows as they engage in often violent "resistance" to Israel and the limited Israeli "occupation" of the West Bank (Judaea and Samaria). Christians may have a long history in Syria and Palestine, but the earliest Christians, including Christ, were, of course, Jews. According to Christianity Today:
The Acts of the Apostles states that the first Christians in Jerusalem were Jews, and historians believe that even after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Christianity in the Holy Land kept its Jewish flavor. But the Jewish revolt of Bar-Kokhba in 135 changed all this; Rome showed no mercy to the Jews and obliterated Jerusalem, renaming the city "Aelia Capitolina" and the country of Israel "Palestine." With this blow, the Christian Jewish community effectively disappeared.
As non-Jewish Christians emerged, persecution continued throughout the Roman Empire until the emperor Constantine converted in 312 and later imposed Christianity as the sole religion.
Under the Roman and Byzantine empires, the Christians of Palestine enjoyed freedom to live and worship as they pleased. In 634, however, a mere two years after the death of the prophet Muhammad, Muslim Arab forces defeated the Byzantines and took possession of Syria, of which Palestine was the southern region. "Palestine," although an ancient name, was imposed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in an apparent attempt to sever the land even then from its Jewish roots in response to a revolt in 135 CE.
Palestine, however, was never a separate state or province, regardless of its rulers. From 1923-1948, it was the name of the area under the British mandate: during that time, everyone born there – Christian, Muslim and Jew – was officially a Palestinian, with "Palestine" stamped on all passports.
Then, in May of 1948, five Arab armies attacked Israel on the day of its birth, explicitly hoping to end the new country before it could start. The people now called Palestinians were those Arabs who fled during that war, after their leaders promised them they would be able to come back and reclaim their homes as soon as the Arab victory was complete.
That the Arabs might lose this war – which was what occurred-- was never factored into this promise. When, after the war, the Arabs who had fled wished to come back, Israel reminded them that they had not exactly been allies, and declined to admit them.
During that war of 1947-48, Jordan illegally captured and later annexed much of Jerusalem. The Jews who had lived in those areas fled. Overnight, the Christians who had stayed in Gaza and the West Bank found themselves regarded as second-class, tolerated citizens, dhimmi people with few rights, who were forced to live as outnumbered "infidels" under Muslim rule. As such, they had no legal recourse and were under continual threat for their property and lives.
Until then, for centuries, Palestinian Christians had lived under a succession of Islamic empires and had little reason to love their overlords. With the slaughter and expulsion of the Armenians and Pontic Greeks by Muslim Turks from 1915-1923, Christians in the region had been reduced from being the citizens of the once-great Byzantine Empire, to a tiny minority in the land their ancestors once ruled.
The last of these empires was the vast Turkish Ottoman Empire, which the European allies displaced allies in 1918.
What today we regard as Palestinians, as the PLO leader Zuheir Mohsen explained in an interview in the Dutch newspaper Trouw in March 1977, are simply the Arabs who lost the war:
"The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality, today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese."
Christians today represent a mere 1.3% of the Muslim Arabs (35,000 who live under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and 3,000 under Hamas in the Gaza Strip). In Israel, the numbers are, not surprisingly, higher:
Christians constitute 2.1 percent of Israel's total population. Some 83 percent of the Christians are Arab, representing a significant minority of 9.6 percent of the total Palestinian Arab minority in the state, which itself forms approximately 18 percent of the total population of Israel. The Christians in Israel thus form proportionally one of the largest Christian minorities within Arab populations in the Middle East.
The only Christian community in the Middle East to have grown since the end of the Ottoman Empire is the one inside Israel. Everywhere else, the numbers have been dropping due to emigration, a falling birth-rate, and persecution by Muslim majorities.
In Gaza and the West Bank, Christians have been routinely harassed, persecuted and even killed by their Muslim neighbors. There is no space here for a full account of the many indignities Christians have suffered under the Palestinian Authority, but David Raab has provided an overview:
The old Islamic disdain for Christians and other non-Muslims continues to infect modern Palestinian society. In a 2000 sermon from Gaza broadcast on PA television, Dr Ahmad Abu Halabiyya declared, amidst many calls for violence:
This is the truth, O Brothers in belief. From here, Allah the almighty has called upon us not to ally with the Jews or the Christians, not to like them, not to become their partners, not to support them, and not to sign agreements with them. And he who does that, is one of them, as Allah said: "O you who believe, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies, for they are allies of one another. Who from among you takes them as allies will indeed be one of them...
...The Jews are the allies of the Christians, and the Christians are the allies of the Jews, despite the enmity that exists between them. The enmity between the Jews and the Christians is deep, but all of them are in agreement against the monotheists - against those who say, "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger," that is - they are against you, O Muslims.
An Israeli government report, "Palestinian Authority's Treatment of Christians in the Autonomous Areas", from as far back as 1997, lists a number of cases of PA harassment of Christians, especially those who converted from Islam to Christianity, and are therefore regarded as apostates, meriting the death sentence. Pastors and others have been arrested, imprisoned, and threatened as possible Israeli spies. Here is just a single example:
A Palestinian convert to Christianity living in a village near Nablus was recently arrested by the Palestinian police. A Muslim preacher was brought in by the police, and he attempted to convince the convert to return to Islam. When the convert refused, he was brought before a Palestinian court and sentenced to prison for insulting the religious leader. He is currently being held in a prison cell with more than 30 people, most serving life sentences for murder.
Nor is Muslim mistreatment restricted to individuals and families. According to Raab:
The PA has shown contempt for certain Christian holy sites, and there has been significant desecration as well. For example, without prior consent of the church, Yasser Arafat decided to turn the Greek Orthodox monastery near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem into his domicile during his visits to the city. On July 5, 1997, the PLO seized Abraham's Oak Russian Holy Trinity Monastery in Hebron, violently evicting monks and nuns.
Among the most publicized incidents was the 2002 takeover of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, when dozens of Palestinian terrorists held the sacred site of the birth of Jesus for five weeks, desecrating it, stealing anything valuable, and tearing up Bibles to use as toilet paper. The whole event was staged by the Palestine Authority itself, under Yasser Arafat.
Pictured: The main access to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, known as the "Door of Humility". (Image source: Dan/Flickr)
Given that they have been, and still are, so mistreated by the Muslim authorities, why do so many Palestinian Christians express their support for a "resistance" – a euphemism for armed struggle -- to Israel by terrorist organizations, many inspired by jihadist ideals? This "resistance" takes its inspiration from the belief that any territory, once conquered for Islam (and, in this case, stolen from Christians), must remain under Islamic rule in perpetuity:
"Syrian Sheik Omar Bakri... said in an interview at the time that both Romania and Bulgaria were legitimate targets for attacks, because they are 'Islamic land' ...
"Once Islam enters a land, that land becomes Islamic and the Muslims have the duty to liberate it some day. Spain, for example, is Islamic land, and so is Eastern Europe: Romania, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia."
Surely that is very far indeed from Christian precepts?
Yet, anti-Israel activism among Palestinian Christians who contest the liberation of Jerusalem by Israel from its illegal capture and occupation by Jordan is not hard to find. Presumably there is a justifiable concern among Christians to protect their safety, and the safety of Christian properties, by allying themselves with the Muslims among whom they have to live. In June 2017, for example, a "Letter from Palestinian Christians to the World Council of Churches and the Ecumenical Movement" was signed by thirty Christian organizations, Catholic, Assyrian, Orthodox, and Protestant in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Gaza. It begins:
As we meet this month in Bethlehem in occupied Palestine, we are still suffering from 100 years of injustice and oppression that were inflicted on the Palestinian people beginning with the unjust and unlawful Balfour declaration.
It continues in the same vein. The seventh of its nine demands on the WCC and the Ecumenical Movement reads:
That you defend our right and duty to resist the occupation creatively and non-violently. We ask that you speak in support of economic measures that pressure Israel to stop the occupation and that you support athletic, cultural, and academic measures against Israel until it complies with international law and UN resolutions urging the ending of its occupation, apartheid, and discrimination, and accepts refugees to return to their homeland. This is our last peaceful resort. [italics by the ed.]... In response to Israel's war on BDS, we ask that you intensify that measure ["urging the ending of its occupation, apartheid, and discrimination, and accept[ing] refugees to return to their homeland."].
As Palestinian "resistance" has always been extremely violent (just for example, here and here), one form of it has centred around protests over the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. During a wave of these protests in July 2017, when Christians prayed with Muslims, one protester urged Christians to do more: "Bethlehem churches will close their doors tomorrow, Sunday, and urge Christians to head to the mosques... #Here_Is_Palestine."
Indeed, "On Thursday, a delegation of the World Council of Churches joined Palestinian worshippers protesting near Al-Aqsa and stood in solidarity with the Muslim community."
The anti-Israel Orthodox Archbishop of Sebastia, Theodosios (Atallah Hanna), expresses Christian solidarity with Muslims in stark terms:
I support Palestinians and share their cause and their issues....
We the Palestinian Christians suffer along with the rest of Palestinians from occupation and hardships of our economic situation. Muslims and Christians suffer equally, as there is no difference in suffering for any of us. We are all living in the same complicated circumstances, and overcoming the same difficulties.
Hanna was one of the authors of the anti-Semitic Palestinian Christian Kairos Document, about which I have written here before. Kairos Palestine was created in 2009 and signed by thirteen Christian leaders in Jerusalem, representing the Greek Orthodox, Latin, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, Maronite, Ethiopian, Greek Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Armenian Catholic churches – all of which are traditionalist denominations. One of its first paragraphs reads:
In this historic document, we Palestinian Christians declare that the military occupation of our land is a sin against God and humanity, and that any theology that legitimizes the occupation is far from Christian teachings because true Christian theology is a theology of love and solidarity with the oppressed, a call to justice and equality among peoples.
This elevation of a political, legal and military concern into the realm of theology owes greatly to the style of Liberation Theology, a radical form of Christian belief and action that developed within the Catholic Church in Latin America, and based on concern for the poor and oppressed. Such concern is well within the bounds of the Christian tradition, but Kairos adopts a different form of replacement theology. It treats the Jews who have not embraced Jesus as their saviour, as no longer God's people. This allows the writers of Kairos to show concern for the Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike, yet show no such concern for Jews, faced by wars, terrorism, and international hatred -- and without whose protection by Israel's security services, as the Christians well know, they would be left to the same tender mercies of extremist Muslims as other Christians in the Middle East.
A genuinely ecumenical American center devoted to Christian-Jewish relations issued a document "Cautions to U.S. Churches Regarding the Kairos Palestine Document", in which they found serious fault with its arguments:
A group, Christians for Fair Witness, apparently felt obliged to wrote a reply: "Cautions to U.S. Churches Regarding the Kairos Palestine Document." It was endorsed by St. Paul University's Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations, and by Dialogika (as is made clear on the Christians for Fair Witness website). While treating the Kairos document with respect, the cautions expressed were far-ranging and crucial....
That Jewish natural right was not once raised.... Only Palestinian rights and demands were considered of relevance to Christians.
The Cautions document also states: "The Kairos Palestine document professes that 'an end to Israeli occupation... will guarantee security and peace for all.'" (Sec. 7) ... But is that true? There was no security or peace prior to the occupation. This analysis continues with a list of Arab violence against Jews, the PLO's 1964 objective of liquidating Israel, and a clear statement that "There is no reason to believe that ending the occupation alone would bring security and peace to Israel and Palestine."
Kairos, not surprisingly, has inspired a vast movement of anti-Israel activism in many countries. Kairos, and literature relating to it, may be found in Western churches, such as Sweden's, during pro-Palestinian lectures and exhibitions. The Kairos document is so egregiously discriminatory that in 2010, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) declared it "supersessionist" and "anti-Semitic."
A leading figure among the authors of Kairos Palestine is Rev. Mitri Raheb, who has developed an international career as a self-proclaimed "Public Figure, Pastor and Theologian, Author and Social Entrepreneur". Mitri's CV is truly astonishing, from the awards he has received and the universities at which he has lectured to the institutions he has founded. He has had a broad media presence:
"The work of Dr. Raheb has received wide media attention from major international media outlets and networks including CNN, ABC, CBS, 60 Minutes, BBC, ARD, ZDF, DW, BR, Premiere, Raiuno, Stern, The Economist, Newsweek, Al-Jazeera, al-Mayadin, Vanity Fair, and others."
How many clergymen of any variety feature in Vanity Fair magazine, aimed at the luxury market? These are achievements of which many other theologians and church leaders might well be envious.
Born in Bethlehem in 1962, Raheb studied at two German colleges: the Hermannsburg Mission Seminary (1980-19894) and Marburg University (1984-1988), where he obtained a PhD in theology. He went back to Bethlehem in 1988.
Raheb is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, a version of Lutheranism established by German and English missionaries to Palestine in the mid-19th century. Based on a belief in the Trinity, the Evangelical Lutheran Church is fundamentalist in doctrine:
"The true way of salvation is revealed only through God's Word, and any claims for revelation of the way of salvation through other means must be rejected. The main purpose of Holy Scripture is to reveal to us that Jesus Christ is our only Savior."
It is immune to modern rationalist theology, and states, for example:
We confess that God created all things in six days by the power of His Word, exactly as is set forth in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 and elsewhere in Scripture. We therefore reject the theories of "evolution," including "theistic evolution," not only because they lack a sound basis in scientific evidence but especially because they contradict the divinely-inspired account of creation as given by Moses in the Old Testament and confirmed by Christ in the New.
The purpose here is not to condemn the church for what it believes. These beliefs, however, make it difficult to understand how the leaders of a church can advocate such intimate relations with Muslims. Many of them seem to believe that much of what Christians believe is pure blasphemy. What is even stranger, is that apparently the Christians do not even plan to convert these Muslims.
In the Qur'an, Christian belief in God as three persons is anathema, as God is only One. Similarly, Jesus is regarded, not as God or the Son of God, but as a prophet inferior to Muhammad. The Qur'an is emphatic in saying that Jesus was not crucified, but that someone else was substituted for him. Therefore, Christ did not die to save mankind; this salvation is reserved only for those who believe in the God of the prophet Muhammad.... [F]or Muslims, the Bible... was a corruption of Islam by Christian priests and monks, in a distortion known as tahrif.
Raheb and his supporters from different denominations are clearly willing to ignore this gross denial of their faith in all its aspects, a denial that renders non-existent the fundamental aspiration to life after death in heaven through the sacrifice of Jesus. It is normal for religious people to identify themselves as members of their faith above all other allegiances, to the extent that they are willing to suffer death rather than deny it. Baha'is in Iran have been offered their lives if only they converted to Islam, yet all have gone willingly to the hangman's noose by refusing to do so. Christian martyrs, ancient and modern, are widely praised as ideal exponents of their faith. Many Christians have been killed by Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere, as in the Nag Hammadi massacre of 2010.
No one is suggesting that Palestinian Christians should invite their own deaths by outrightly defying the Muslim majority. It seems inexplicable, however, why these Christians prefer to join with the Islamic "resistance" rather than to remain silent, accept their supposedly inferior status, and refrain from overt endorsements of what Muslims view as right.
Raheb takes this so far that he cannot even bear to describe Jesus as a Jew. At a Christ at the Checkpoint conference in 2010, he stated that:
I'm sure if we were to do a DNA test between David, who was a Bethlehemite, and Jesus, born in Bethlehem, and Mitri, born just across the street from where Jesus was born, I'm sure the DNA will show that there is a trace. While, if you put King David, Jesus and Netanyahu, you will get nothing, because Netanyahu comes from an East European tribe who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages.
Raheb goes even further. He does not recoil from the violence, the genocidal threats, and the Islamic radicalism of Hamas. In an interview with the popular Egyptian daily al-Masri al-Yawm (Egypt Today) in March 2016, he praised the terror group (which is mainly responsible for the suffering of its own Palestinian people:
Hamas is a Palestinian political movement that has an important role. No one can deny this. The Church is in constant communication with Hamas in the West bank via many delegations from the Church. Some people in the church believe in the armed resistance, and we do not disagree. Once you have occupation, you will have resistance.
Here is a Christian leader celebrating a notoriously evil entity and announcing that "Some people in the church believe in the armed resistance, and we do not disagree".
Moments later, Raheb tried to mitigate his support by addressing his private views: "However, on a personal level, I do not believe in the armed resistance. How would you fight an enemy with arms that were made by him and its allies? It is smarter not to invite your foe to a wrestling match if he was a wrestler, but to invite him to a chess match."
Christian author Dexter Van Zile comments, "It's bad enough that Raheb, a Christian pastor, would distance himself from Hamas' jihadist violence not because it is wrong, but because it is ineffective."
A fundamental aspect of much modern theology across the Christian churches is a belief in the central role of reconciliation and peace-making by believers, both clergy and lay. Even the World Council of Churches, to which Raheb and his followers are allied, emphasizes the role of Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation. Supporting Hamas and all the other forces within the Palestinian "Resistance" is a total contradiction of such Christian values. In few other places may one find such a level of hypocrisy and willful self-contradiction. Yet in churches almost everywhere, the literature, films, and spokespeople of that Christian deception may be found month after month and town after town.
Let me end with an item of recent news. On March 3, Britain's most senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Vincent Nichols called for closer ties with Islam on the grounds "That the two religions have more in common than people think". What on Earth does this prelate think Muslims believe? After some 1400 years of rivalry and war, some sort of naivety and fuzzy thinking is making Christians the agents of their own destruction. Sadly, the Christians of the West Bank are at the heart of this growing need to bow down to people who, for the greater part, despise and persecute them.
Dr. Denis MacEoin has lectured in Islamic Studies in a university department of Religious Studies, including Christian theology, in the UK. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.