Bob Jones is a correspondent for World magazine, often working overseas assignments.
One war may be over, but 600 miles from Baghdad, accords end in discord, roadmaps to peace lead nowhere fast, and Israel perches as ever atop 12,000 square miles of fully fused powderkeg. The latest peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians seemingly came apart last week when Palestinian terrorists set off five suicide attacks in less than 48 hours. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was only hours away from departing for the United States to launch plans for a Bush administration roadmap to peace when the first bomb went off in Hebron. As President Bush tries to navigate a course between Israeli security and Palestinian freedom, and contemplates his first presidential trip to the region this month, both sides continue to ignore a key constituency—Palestinian Christians.
Give an Israeli cab driver the address of a Baptist church in East Jerusalem, and he'll likely make an excuse why he can't take you there: He doesn't know the Arab part of the city; he's never heard of the place; there are no Christians there.
But in fact there are Christians in Muslim-dominated East Jerusalem, as there are throughout all of what once was referred to as Palestine. They've been here for millennia, playing a crucial role in the history of the region and the spread of the Christian faith. "We belong to this land," says Gabriel Abdalla, a prominent Palestinian businessman. "We're not converts. Our ancestors were present, not very far from here, when the Holy Spirit fell on the church."
If Israeli taxi drivers have forgotten about the Palestinian Christians, they're hardly the only ones. American evangelicals, mostly oblivious to the existence of the Palestinian church, have often pushed for U.S. pro-Israel policies without considering their effect on a people who have also endured great hardship. As the Bush administration backs a controversial roadmap to peace that would create an independent Palestinian state by 2005, and the terrorist group Hamas claims responsibility for five back-to-back bombings last week, Palestinian Christians from a variety of positions are eager to make their voices heard (see sidebar).
The roadmap to peace keeps adding detours—with suicide bombing attacks followed by Israeli military responses—but Palestinian Christians know that whichever side wins out, they will be a tiny minority, subject to another, dominant religion. In a land where ethnicity and religion are all but inseparable, Palestinian Christians are torn between conflicting identities and conflicting visions of the future.
They suffer discrimination and second-class citizenship at the hands of Israeli officials but also recognize that living in a Muslim-dominated Palestinian state would bring a whole new set of dangers. They have watched the oppression of Christians in places like Egypt and Sudan, and they fear for the future should strict Islamist groups like Hamas gain power in any future Palestinian parliament.
For many—even most—Palestinian Christians, any sort of future looks better than the present, which is grim by any standard. In response to the intifada uprising, Israel has imposed a near-total travel ban throughout the West Bank, turning once-thriving cities into virtual prisons. Israelis are desperately trying to prevent the institutionalization of what President Bush has warned against—"a terror state that is like a fist stuck in Israel's stomach."
Bethlehem, for instance, would be unrecognizable to any American who's ever been to see the Shepherds' Field or the Church of the Nativity. A 20-minute drive from the Israeli Knesset building in downtown Jerusalem, Bethlehem has been sealed off to the thousands of tourists who once flocked here. On the northern edge of town, Israeli soldiers stop vehicles one at a time between massive concrete barriers painted red and orange. After a barrage of questions and minute inspections, some are waved through but others are forced to make a U-turn and head back to Jerusalem. The endless lines that used to clog the checkpoints are disappearing. For most people, it's just not worth the wait, only to be told to turn around and go home.
The Israeli position is easy enough to understand: The Bethlehem crossing has been used in the past to smuggle arms and explosives between the West Bank and Israel proper. Palestinian snipers have used Christian sites as a staging ground for attacks on Jewish settlements nearby.
Nevertheless, the effect on average Bethlehemites—as on all the residents of the West Bank—has been devastating. The tour buses that once delivered tourists the way blood delivers oxygen stopped coming three years ago, and Bethlehem promptly went into cardiac arrest. The freewheeling souvenir stands, where travelers used to pick up olivewood mementos and shopkeepers good-naturedly offered 20 camels for pretty American brides, are now shuttered. Their facades are pockmarked with bullet holes, their windows smashed by rocks. On a sunny Monday morning, in five blocks of once-prime retail space, not a single human soul was visible.
Farther into town, life goes on for the locals—but just barely. They can't leave Bethlehem for high-paying jobs in Jerusalem, and the trickle-down effects of the tourism debacle have left everyone scraping by, at best. On a typical shopping street lined with banks and hardware stores, only about every third shopkeeper bothered on that Monday morning to open the green metal doors that protect display windows from both protesters and thieves. The rest stayed shut, preserving the legibility of the red-painted Arabic graffiti vowing revenge on Israel. In a crippled economy, closed shops make the most affordable billboards.
Paul Wright, director of Jerusalem University College, sits at the intersection of Palestinian-Israeli passions, with a campus just outside the gates of Jerusalem's Old City and a faculty made up of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The bigger issue behind following any roadmap, he told WORLD, is "to what extent do the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority (or the governments of other Muslim countries, for that matter) allow, protect, and guarantee the religious rights of persons of different faiths?"
That question is more emotional and complex than outside mediators would wish. "Each side is very quick to point out the faults of the other and look at their own with blinders." Yet Israel, he points out, has laws on the books protecting the rights of minorities—including religious minorities—and has tested those laws through the court system.
The specter of an anti-Western Islamic state on the banks of the Jordan River has long obsessed the Israelis who would be living next door. But it's equally frightening to Palestinian Christians, who fear they might continue to be treated as second-class citizens or forced to live under the strictures of Shariah law.
Whichever side of the border they eventually end up on, every Palestinian Christian interviewed by WORLD longs to see successful implementation of the roadmap. Many resent what they see as Israel's attempts to mobilize American Christians against the peace process, and they wish their fellow believers would listen to what they have to say. "It's time for a solution," says Mr. Abdalla, the Jerusalem businessman.
Mr. Abdalla fears that younger Palestinian Christians, discouraged, are going abroad for their education and never returning home. Such an exodus, he says, threatens the future of Christianity in the region and further polarizes the Jewish-Muslim divide: "If we don't protect these 'living stones,' there will be a time when people come here and all they see are the dead stones of the biblical ruins. We need American support to keep believers here.... We want to have a part in making the news, not just watching it from far away."
Copyright ©2003, World. Used by permission.