Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2017 PCBS census, there are around 47.000 Christians in Palestine, with the vast majority – close to 98 per cent – situated in the West Bank. Gaza’s dwindling Christian population amounts to just over 2 per cent of the entire Palestinian Christian community. They are concentrated in the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem, as well as Jerusalem. Christians tend to be among the more highly educated members of the Palestinian population. Among them are members of every Eastern Christian denomination and most Western ones.
Palestine is the cradle of Christianity, and the West Bank and Jerusalem form much of the heart of the Christian Holy Land. This legacy attracted Crusaders from Europe during the Middle Ages, as they attempted to ‘free’ the area from Muslim rule. In modern times, however, Christian-Muslim tension has been overshadowed by Israeli-Palestinian tension.
The founding of Israel in 1948 displaced Palestinian Christians as well as Muslims, and to the extent that Israel has engaged in collective punishment of Palestinians in succeeding years, Christians have suffered alongside Muslims. Yet Christians have emigrated in higher numbers than their Muslim neighbours, and have had lower birth rates, leading to a drop in the Christian share of Palestine’s population over the decades – from an estimated 10 per cent in 1948 to around 1 per cent today.
Christians have been represented in Palestinian Authority governments, Christian children have separate religious classes in school, and family law for Christians is left to Christian ecclesiastical courts. However, since the launch of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, Christians have also faced some increase in religious discrimination, especially since the onset of the second intifada in 2000. Some Christians, especially land-owners in Bethlehem, reported that officials of the Palestinian Authority singled them out for extortion, or at least failed to act against criminal gangs engaged in extortion.
In addition to these problems, Christians also faced problems from Israeli authorities. According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Israeli security wall begun in 2002 ‘made it particularly difficult for Bethlehem-area Christians to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and it made visits to Christian sites in Bethany and in Bethlehem difficult for Christians who live on the other side of the barrier, further fragmenting and dividing this small minority community.’
Palestinian Christians face similar challenges to Palestinian Muslims, including restricted movement, lack of access to opportunities and the insecurity of living under occupation. These difficulties have reportedly encouraged some to emigrate in recent years. Their demographic decline is evident in Gaza, for example, where the population has more than halved from around 2,300 in 1967 to less than 1,200 today.
Demolition of Christian areas in the West Bank remains a serious issue. In 2016, construction began of a new section of the separation barrier near the Palestinian Christian town of Beit Jala which appears destined to cut Palestinians off from their olive groves – a vital source of livelihoods and cultural symbolism – and ease the expansion of the nearby Israeli settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo. In January 2018, demolitions in a neighbourhood of Beit Jala were reported, prompting concerns among activists that Israeli authorities plan to annex the area.
Updated September 2018