If you ask anyone in the Middle East the meaning of the saying, " First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people," he will answer with a smile: "First, we will get rid of those who pray on Saturday, and then we will get rid of those who pray on Sunday."
A recent survey conducted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs shows that the Christian Population of Bethlehem dropped from 90% in the 19th century down to 60% in the 1990s. Today Christians make up less than 10%. What happened?
Of course, many Christians fled in the 1940s and 1960s, out of fear of the war, or as a result of intensive anti-Jewish propaganda. At that time, Christians already suffered discrimination from Muslims, and many also opposed the rebirth of the Jewish nation. Their views, apart from their faith, were more influence by the local, Arab culture, than by the European Enlightenment.
The real drop in Christian population, however, took place as a side-effect of the Oslo process. As soon as Yasser Arafat and the PLO had established the Palestinian Authority [PA] in the West Bank and Gaza, Christians began to be persecuted. Despite the official stance of public figures, such as the mayor of Bethlehem, for instance, Christian residents of the PA (among them, Hanan Ashrawi, the first elected woman in the PA), live in these Muslim-controlled areas as dhimmis: according to Muslim laws, second rate citizens, protected by Muslim authorities, as long as they accept certain rules. One of these rules forbids a Christian to sell his property, whether a shop or a house, to another Christian if he decides to move abroad. Only to Muslims. But that is just the beginning.
Another practice used by PA, especially during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, was to enter the houses of Christians and fire across the valley at houses of Jews. What the Israeli soldiers see is just a muzzle-flash coming from a window, so they return fire and shoot back it. They do not know if it is coming from a "Muslim" window or a "Christian" window. The Christians, tired of having their apartments and houses shot into, moved out -- and their neighbors moved in.
During the siege of the Church of the Nativity in 2002, terrorists used the same strategy, firing at Israeli troops from within the holiest Christian shrine in Bethlehem, meanwhile desecrating the inside of the Church. Nuns and priests called for help, but nobody heard their voices. Apparently the story is only appealing when Israel can be blamed.
Two years earlier, Pope John Paul II, while visiting Bethlehem, had, in silence, to face the insult of being interrupted during his speech by the Mufti's call for prayers... even though it was not the time for prayers. The scene, filmed by Italy's Rai2, was later on erased from its archives, at the request of the Vatican.
The same type of proceedings occurred during the recent visit of Pope Francis, who was led to stop and pray in front of the security barrier, which had been first freshly covered with inflammatory graffiti, even though this stop was not included in the protocol, nor, probably, would it have been had his delegation received the courtesy of a request.
In any event, in 2006, Hassan El Masalmeh, a Hamas member of the Bethlehem City Council, publicly announced his intention to implement a discriminatory tax on non-Muslim residents. This tax, called jizya, has existed since the birth of Islam as part of dhimmi laws in many Middle East countries.
In the meantime, many Christian families complained that their daughters were being threatened with forced conversions, and, as they did not dress with sufficient Islamic modesty, were often faced with rape.
Official complaints, understandably, are rare. After years of persecution, dhimmis, are afraid of retaliation and often, if they want to keep on living in their neighborhoods in what they hope will be peace, take the side of their persecutors.
In 2012, for example, the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, known for its basic anti-Semitic views, fully backed the application for "Palestine's" membership to the United Nation by publishing a letter condemning Israel in harsh terms:
We, Palestinian Christians are the descendants of the first Christians. We are also an organic and integral component of the Palestinian people. And just like our Palestinian Muslim brothers and sisters, we have been denied our national and human rights for almost a century…We have persevered through 64 years of exile and 45 years of occupation, holding on to His message of peace. We, Palestinian Christians say enough! Our message is simple: to achieve peace, the world must also say enough to occupation and the degradation of human dignity.
Other Christian officials, such as the then Archibishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, do not even hide their basic anti-Semitism when they blame Jews (and even Christians) for the suffering of their flocks under Muslim rule. What the letter does not express, is the reality of daily life in most of the Palestinian Authority.
"All this talk about Israel being behind the pain of Christians in the Palestinian Territories is nonsense," said a Christian official, who asked to remain anonymous for reasons of security. "Muslims intimidate us. They burn our stores, steal our real estate. They build mosques beside our churches, and make sure that the calls for pray disrupt our services. They attack our daughters and insult them. There are many cases of rape that have never been reported. Families hide it out of shame, they move away. They flee."
In 2013, a few families of Bethlehem and Ramallah finally wrote a letter to the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. More than 150 attacks on Christian properties had been documented and reported, including land theft, forces conversions, death threats, and physical violence.
Because, under dhimmi laws, non-Muslims under Muslim rule may not testify against Muslims, it is virtually impossible for Christians whose lands have been stolen, or lives have been threatened, to appeal to the local legal system. Many who have dared to file complaints are still waiting to receive an answer to them.
In the meantime, Christian population inside Israel didn't stop increasing, and has now reached approximately 140,000.
Clergy from various churches at a Christmas reception in Jerusalem. (Image source: Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)
It has been reported than an orthodox Priest, Father Gabriel Nada, recently created an organization promoting the enrollment of Christians in the IDF. The numbers have not been published by the Israel Defense Forces, but the hundreds of Christians who enrolled chose combat units.
Recently, and Israeli Arab film maker, Suha Arraf, presented her latest work at the Venice film festival, and received a lot of attention for labeling it "Palestinian" after receiving close to $400,000 from the Israeli Film Fund.
The film pretends to describe the life of a Christian Family in Ramallah, suffering from an identity crisis... due to the Israeli occupation.
But Suha Arraf is not a Palestinian. She is an Israeli Christian Arab.
Of course, the Israeli Ministry of Culture, feeling betrayed -- as its purpose is to participate in the production of films carrying Israeli identity -- asked for a full refund.
Interviewed on the matter by the extreme left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the film maker answered that she was Israeli, Christian and Arab but felt as "Palestinian" as most of the Arabs living in Israel.
What Suha Arraf tried to describe in a romantic way would have been far more scary if she just stuck to the facts, rather than the politically correct narrative, which is to portray all Arabs living in the Territories as "suffering from the occupation."
There might be a connection between the way Christians are treated inside Israel, despite Muslim and anti-Semitic propaganda, and this increasing determination to be able freely to live in the religion of their choice: as Christian-Israelis. Certainly not as Palestinians.
Sorry, you who think that all Arabs living in the PA are "suffering from the occupation." You got it all wrong.
Pierre Rehov is a reporter and a documentary filmmaker. He made two films on the situation of Christians in the Middle East: "Holyland: Christians in Peril" and "First Comes Saturday, then Comes Sunday".