December 22, 2006

Christmas in gaza

It's a Somber Christmas for Gaza's Christians according to John Murphy of the Baltimore Sun.

During the past six years of violence in the Middle East conflict, the Christmas season has been marked by muted celebrations among the Palestinian Christians. In Bethlehem, the traditional place of Jesus' birth now penned in by Israel's separation barrier, city officials are again anticipating a poor turnout at festivities planned on Manger Square.

In Gaza, the mood is even more somber after a year that has brought Israeli military sieges, a debilitating economic boycott against the Hamas-led government and escalating violence between rival Palestinian political factions that many residents fear may devolve into all-out civil war.

What do "penned in," "military sieges" and "economic boycott" have in common? They are not attributable to the Palestinians themselves. And even the "escalating violence" doesn't suggest that the problems Christians are suffering have anything to do with Muslim antagonism.

The articles sure doesn't want us to get the wrong impression.

The Rev. Manuel Musallam, the only Catholic priest in Gaza, who ministers to a flock of about 200 people, insists that there are no divisions between Muslims and Christians in Gaza. He dismisses the tensions of the past year as the work of a few extremists.

"Christians in Palestine are not a segregated community pushed into a corner," he said during an interview at his office in the Holy Family School in Gaza City. "They are not foreigners. With Muslims, they form one body. The suffering of Muslims is the suffering of Christians, and suffering of Christians is the suffering of Muslims."


Since the Hamas-led government took office in March, it has been very sensitive to the Christian population and has been eager to offer its support whenever it can, condemning the attacks against Christian churches and donating $50,000 for Christmas decorations in Bethlehem.

And the general status of Christians in the Middle East?

The number of Christians in the Middle East has been in sharp decline over the last century because of low birth rates, emigration, and in some countries, persecution. There are believed to be about 50,000 Christians living in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, making up about 2 percent of the Palestinian population.

Apparently though the persecution does not lead to emigration and the persecution, at least from reading this article, apparently doesn't exist in the PA.

(The VOA for its part doesn't acknowledge such persecution either.

Atallah Mansour, who is an expert on Arab Christian populations throughout the Middle East, says Christians are leaving the region, mainly for economic reasons. He says some Bethlehem Christians who had returned to the city in recent years are leaving again because of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Zogby, naturally provides the polling to support this

While the Christians of Bethlehem overwhelmingly (78%) blame the exodus of Christians from the town on Israel's blockade, Americans are more likely (45.9%) to blame it on Islamic politics and are reluctant (7.4%) to blame Israel.

Of course the Christian exodus from Bethlehem preceded the construction of the security fence.)

The numbers suggest a different reading of the situation according to What Will the Wise Men Bring to Bethlehem?

Midway through this century, Christians comprised about 80 percent of the population of Bethlehem. Christians now make up less than 15 percent of the town. This is a trend that mirrors the Christian flight throughout the Palestinian Authority. However, this exodus began long before Israeli checkpoints and the security wall. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of the Christian population fled during the time when Jordan occupied the West Bank. The Christian population under the Palestinian Authority has suffered from a negative growth-rate and now number less than 50,000, or about 2.4 percent of the population.

In fact, the Christian population throughout the Middle East has been in rapid decline. In 1900, Christians comprised 20 percent of the population of the Middle East; now, they are less than 2 percent. While the Muslim population has expanded rapidly in Europe and the U.S., Christians in the Middle East have experienced a negative population-growth rate.

And if Israel's to blame for the flight of Christians from Palestinian areas, how do you explaing this?

The only country noting a positive growth rate for Christians is Israel.

In Israel proper, the Christian population in 1948 was 34,000. Christians now number 146,000, or 2.1 percent of the total population. Projections are that by 2010 the Christian population in Israel will reach 163,000, reflecting an average yearly growth-rate of 1.9 percent. Among non-Jewish students in Israel, the rate of high school graduation is highest for Christians. Employment rates for Israeli Christians remain much higher than for their fellow believers in the Palestinian territories.

And the reasons for the declining Christian population in the areas of the PA are:

Continual marginalization of Christians has increased tensions, making Christians feel even more vulnerable to their Muslim neighbors. Christians report that Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Death threats, warnings for Christian women to veil, and extortion to gain land are sadly part of the landscape for Bethlehemís Christians.
. . .
The leader of Hamas on the Bethlehem municipal council, Hassam El-Masalmeh, told Wall Street Journal reporter Karby Legget that Hamas will reinstitute the jizya tax. Traditionally, the jizya was imposed upon non-Muslim men as a compact. By paying the tax they submit to living as inferiors under Islamic rule. The tax is one of the rules applied to dhimmi peoples ó non-Muslims conquered by jihad; it creates a discriminatory system between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Hamas official added that everyone is welcome to live in Palestine as long as they agree to live under Islamic rule.

There is a wider picture than the one the Sun's Mr. Murphy is willing to show us. Christian are feeling marginalized and are leaving PA controlled areas. But it's not Israel's fault.

UPDATE: Israel Matzav has a long list of links concerning Christmas in the PA, including a link to JoshuaPundit on a related topic.

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Posted by SoccerDad at December 22, 2006 4:36 AM
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