In the voluminous commentaries on the Middle East today very little attention has been given to the sad fate of Christians in the Arab and Muslim countries. Even less attention has been paid to the contrast between the treatment of Christians in Israel and their treatment in Arab countries. In Israel Christians have religious freedom and their numbers have increased. In Arab countries the religious freedom of Christians is restricted and their number has been reduced because of harassment, fear, and persecution. It is well to remember the words of Martin Luther King: "In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends."
Christians have been a presence in the Middle East for two millennia. Hundreds of churches and monasteries were built after Constantine legalized Christianity in 313. Yet after the Islamic conquest in 638 Christians have been subjected to Arab and Muslim rule for centuries. Their status in the Ottoman Empire was that of dhimmis, non-Muslims who were protected but who were second-class citizens. In this millet system based on religious affiliation, Christians were tolerated but they were also in a state of perpetual humiliation, even of subjugation.
Population statistics today are questionable and census is difficult in the various countries of the Middle East, and demographic trends and accuracy of religious affiliation are political issues and must be treated with caution. However, it is evident that under Muslim rule Christians became a minority in the area of Palestine. In recent years the Christian population has declined not only numerically, but also as a proportion of the overall population. This decline has been due to a number of factors: Christian emigration, a higher Muslim birthrate, poor economic conditions, the rise of Islamist groups especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad, growing insecurity, the use made of Christian towns such as Beit Jala as a base by Palestinian fighters for sniping against Israeli areas in Jerusalem, and Christian concern about their fate in the political future.
Critics of Israel have argued that the departure of Christians from the area of Palestine is due to the "Israeli occupation." No doubt measures taken by Israel for security reasons have caused some economic difficulties and led to some departure. But the general accusation ignores the reality that two-thirds of Christian Arabs left the areas between 1949 and 1967, the period when Jordan occupied and annexed the West Bank, and Egypt controlled Gaza, years before Israel controlled those areas.
The discriminatory treatment of Christians by the Muslim majority and the consequences of continuing Arab hostility towards the state of Israel have led to increasing migration from the West Bank and Gaza, the areas controlled by Muslims. Christians in those two areas now account for only about 40,000, 1.5 per cent of the total. The towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem, which depended on the Christian tourist and pilgrim trade, both lost their Christian majorities. In 1995, the number of Christians in Bethlehem was two-thirds of the population; today it is now less than 20 percent. According to the1947 census held by the British there were 28,000 Christians in Jerusalem; in 1967 after 19 years of Jordanian rule there were 11,000. By contrast, the number of Christians in Israel has increased from 34,000 in 1949 and 120,000 in 1995 to over 150,000, now numbering about nine percent of the Israeli Arab population, and two percent of the total population in all of Israel.
The Christian community in the West Bank and Gaza has a median age of 32 compared to, the Muslim median age of 16. By comparison with the Muslims, its members are older when they marry, have a lower fertility rate, are better educated, are twice as likely to have a university degree, have a higher income, and are more likely to be in white collar and business professions.
Discrimination against, hostility towards and intimidation of Christians by Palestinians has taken a number of forms. From 1949 to 1967 Jordan occupied the West Bank; its laws forbade Christians from buying land and houses in the Old City of Jerusalem; all schools were closed on Muslim holidays; mosques were deliberately built near churches. The Palestinian Authority formulated a Constitution in 2003 that declared that Islam was "the official religion. " The Constitution also declares that in a Palestinian state the principles of Islamic Sharia law are to be the main source of legislation. The statement that "respect and sanctity of all other heavenly religions shall be maintained" is contradicted in practice by the attacks and condemnation of Christians in mosques, sermons, and publications of Islamic groups. Furthermore, the Palestinian legal and judicial system does not provide protection for Christian land owners, and enforces discrimination in educational, cultural, and taxation policies.
More drastically, Christians have suffered direct harassment. They have been intimidated and maltreated; money has been extorted, land and property confiscated, and Christian women have been abused, raped, abducted and been subjected to forced marriages. Attempts have been made to impose the Islamic women's dress code on them.
The Palestinian Authority has denied Christian, as well as Jewish, ties to Jerusalem. Christian holy sites have been disparaged or insulted. The Palestine Liberation Organization in July 1997 evicted monks and nuns from the Holy Trinity Monastery in Hebron. Palestinian gunmen positioned themselves in or near Christian homes, hotels, and churches during fighting against Israel. The most notorious example of Palestinian insult was the takeover on April 2, 2002 of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem by over 150 gunmen who used the Church to fire against Israeli soldiers who out of respect for the Church did not return fire. Priests, monks, and nuns were essentially hostages of the Palestinians, who apparently stole gold and other property including prayer books.
Theft of Christian land and property as well as desecration of Christian institutions and disparagement of the religion has occurred. There are allegations of Christians being forced off their land by gangs upheld by a corrupt judiciary. Businesses have had to pay protection money to maintain their existence. Individuals who have converted to Christianity have been threatened. After a Christian man dated a Muslim woman from a neighboring village in September 2005, armed Muslims crying "Allahu Akbar" attacked the Christian city of Taibe, setting fire to homes and businesses and destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary. The woman had already been poisoned by her own family in an "honor killing."
Christian graves in the Gaza Strip have been dug up. Anti-Christian graffiti has appeared, and Christian cemeteries and statues have been defaced. A Muslim mob in February 2002 attacked churches and Christian shops in Ramallah. The First Baptist Church of Bethlehem was firebombed on at least fourteen occasions, and the pastor, Naem Khoury, was shot. In Gaza in June 2007 a leader of the Baptist Church, one of the oldest in the area and which contains Gaza's only Christian library, was kidnapped and murdered. The Sagrada Familia school in Gaza was torched, and the nuns' building in the Convent of the Sisters of the Rosary in June 2007 was looted, and holy images and sacred books were burned.
In a speech in Paris, reported in L'Osservatore Romano on September 17, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI, concerned about developments in Muslim Middle East countries, suggested considering the concept of "positive laicity," a term he borrowed from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The term refers to societies in which various religions should be allowed to exist, all of them separate from the state, and all treated in a positive fashion. The Pope was conscious of the danger facing Christianity if Islamic fundamentalism is successful and theocratic Arab regimes are created. Unlike the Palestinian Muslim treatment of its Christian minority, Israeli policy is built on a separation of religion and state in a society that is pluralistic and upholds freedom of religions and human rights.
In view of the comparative records of Palestinian Muslim and Israeli actions towards their Christian minorities, Israel comes closer to the positive laicity suggested by the Pope and President Sarkozy than Muslim Palestinians.
Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, and author of the forthcoming book, Should Israel Exist? A sovereign nation under assault by the international community.