Christian - Muslim relations in Palestine
Palestine-Israel, Religion, 12/26/1997
Nothing could have refuted Israeli allegations of severe friction between Moslem and Christian Palestinians like this year's Christmas Mass service at St. Catherine Church in Bethlehem. Not only Palestinian President Yasser Arafat attended the midnight service but also top spiritual Muslim leaders joined him, including Sheikh Hassan Tahboub, minister of Islamic Waqf and Religious Affairs, and many other officials.
Over the past few weeks, the Israeli media has been occupied with many reports alleging that relations have been deteriorating between Moslems and Christians, particularly in Bethlehem and in the Palestinian territories in general. A few days before Christmas, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's public relations advisor, David Bar Ilan, distributed reports to Israeli and foreign media that conditions of Christians are deteriorating in Palestine. Moslem and Christian religious leaders responded with a joint press conference in Bethlehem in which they categorically denied the Israeli report, which they branded as a "big lie."
Speakers stressed the importance of national unity among the Palestinian people in the face of Israeli occupation and measures taken by the Israeli government. They praised the friendly relations between the two sectors of the Palestinian people and called on all masses in the street to follow suit. And as if statements were not enough, Moslem and Christian notables gathered at the Orient House, PLO headquarters in East Jerusalem, to light the huge Christmas tree. Anglican Church Archbishop Samir Kafity, who attended the celebration at the Orient House told reporters he was there along with dozens of Christians "to celebrate with our brother Faisal Husseini and with our Moslem brethren and to refute the ugly charges of the Israeli authorities. "
"I still remember when I was a kid how my family used to decorate the Christmas tree and I never understood why we, the Moslems, were doing so. But today I understand that national unity among our people goes beyond religious barriers," said Mahmoud who was among the thousands who came to Bethlehem to attend the midnight Christmas sermon.
Throughout three decades of military occupation, the Israeli media has been trying to portray Christian Palestinians as an oppressed minority, members of which keep on emigrating out of Palestine. A few months ago, Israeli press reports claimed that heads of the Christian churches in Bethlehem complained at the fact that their church was being used by President Arafat every time he visits their town. But the reports were later found baseless as Arafat was warmly welcomed into the church and various church leaders spoke openly against the Israeli campaign.
In his midnight Christmas speech, Patriarch Sabbah voiced implicit criticism of Israeli government policies and stressed that peace must be based on mutual respect and dignity, granting equal rights to people living in the region. Sabbah, whose procession into Bethlehem some ten hours earlier was delayed by Israeli soldiers for about an hour due to an alleged suspicious object that blocked the main road, warned that a new wave of violence might break out if sufferings in the Palestinian areas and particularly in Bethlehem increase and the general situation continues to deteriorate due to the deadlock in the peace process.
President Yasser Arafat's wife, Suha Arafat, condemned the Israeli measures and said the prevention by Israel of tourists from participating in receiving the patriarch's procession in Bethlehem "is an uncivilized act, which caused sadness among Christians celebrating this occasion." She said that among those who were prevented from entering Bethlehem was the wife of the Italian Consul General in Jerusalem.
"It is just like having a Christmas tree fully decorated but you cannot see the beauty in it because there is no electricity and you cannot light it," said Yousef Freij, a Palestinian employee at one of the souvenir shops in Bethlehem as he watched some tourists walking around in the shop. "They have come in some 30 minutes ago and they have not bought anything. It seems like window shopping for them," he said and added that this year's Christmas pilgrims' numbers are much lower than expected. He blamed the present conditions in the region and the lack of real progress in the peace process. Besides, he added, Palestinians from other parts of the West Bank had been denied entry into the town of Bethlehem due to the closure clamped on the area by the Israeli soldiers.
Yousef admitted that thousands of his town's citizens have left, mainly to Latin America where a huge community of Palestinians from the area live. He said the migration was prompted by the continued military occupation of Israel and has nothing to do with inter-relations between Moslems and Christians. He noted that before the 1967 war when the West Bank was under Jordanian rule, the migration rate was low and comprised only of people who "merely wanted to try their luck abroad." At that time, he said, life was normal and Christians never faced crucial problems. But after the area came under military occupation, he added, Palestinians in general fled their country seeking better living conditions, whether in the Arab world or in Latin America as in the case of thousands who left Bethlehem and its twin towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala.
Bethlehem was a town of Christian majority until the start of the 1980s when a demographic equality was already reached between Moslems and Christians. The main reason was the flux of Christians who had by then left the town to join their relatives abroad. According to latest estimates, by mid-1995, there were only 18,000 Christians left in Bethlehem - 25 percent fewer than in 1967. But Mayor Hanna Nasser, who took office a few months ago from former mayor Elias Freij, said that the decreasing number of Christians in the town neither bothers him nor causes any problem to Christian rights in the town. He noted that President Arafat had ordered lately that mayors of eight Christian towns and villages in the West Bank should always be Christian regardless of the demographic map in them. Bethlehem of course is one of them, in addition to Beit Sahour, Beit Jala, Ramallah, and its neighboring villages of Jifna, Taibeh and Ein Arik as well as Zababdeh near Jenin.
Father Peter Madrus, one of the Christian community leaders in Bethlehem, said that fanatics are everywhere. "We respect all faiths," he declared, "but unfortunately, we don't always win the respect of others. With that, the bad relationship towards us does not come from the PNA. On the contrary, the PNA's interest is to designate good relations with the Christians and to prevent internal rifts." He said that it happens that a policeman might have a hostile attitude towards Christians or vise versa "but these people and their actions do not represent the PNA. On the contrary, President Arafat appreciates the Christians, and you can find Christians in his close circle."
Father Madrus confirms that Christians do not migrate out of Bethlehem because of persecution, as Israel claims, but "because of the terrible financial situation and because there is no state in the world that has helped them. The Muslims have many states who assist them, including Iran and Libya. We have none." He did not elaborate but many Christian Palestinians feel they have been abandoned by their churches.
Leading Christian religious leaders were involved in illegal land transactions in which vast areas of territories were sold to Israelis, or alternatively leased for 99 years. Some even believe the feeling of hostility that some may bear against Christians had been caused by this sort of activity. Only a few months ago, a big house on top of the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem was sold to Jewish settlers supported by American Jewish financier Irving Moskowitz. The owner, former Armenian Archbishop Shahe Ajamian reportedly left the country after he finalized the deal for US $10 million.
Sfeir conveys a message of peace to the Lebanese
Israeli anti-Christmas measures in Bethlehem
Ali is dead, yet he brings the magic of life to three others
Please add a link on your webiste pointing to ArabicNews.com and bookmark ArabicNews.com & subscribe to our daily email news bulletin.
| Advertise on ArabicNews.com. MyFlowers.com sold more than $2700 of flowers in one month advertising on ArabicNews.com! Make your company, and products a success. Special rate for new and small business. Inquire!Advertising Info