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The Changing Face of the Holy Land: Eager for security and
stability, Christians move on
by Bernard Sabella, Ph.D.
Editors note: Of late, there has been a considerable amount of press in the West
about the changing face of the Middle East, in particular, the emigration of the
regions Christians and other minorities. ONE asked the noted sociologist from
Palestine, Dr. Bernard Sabella, to give us a glimpse at when this emigration began in the
Holy Land and whether or not it is indeed accelerating.
The city of David was once a Christian town. But, its churches are emptying as families
pick up and move to Chile or Honduras or Florida. Since the second Palestinian uprising
against Israeli occupation, or intifada (2000-2003), up to 4,000 Palestinian Christians,
especially from the Bethlehem area, have left their homeland.
The emigration of Christians from the Holy Land is not a recent phenomenon. During years
of relative calm, when pilgrims and tourists flock to the Holy Land, Christian emigration
tends to decline because of the positive economic impact; the livelihoods of Christians in
the Holy Land have depended on pilgrims for centuries. Nonetheless, it is estimated that
up to 200 indigenous Christians, or about 50 families, leave annually.
The violence of the intifada and Israels retaliatory actions are over. But the
stalemate between Israel and Palestine and the impact of the Israeli separation barrier
and other measures impeding the freedom of movement have crippled the Palestinian
Christian community. Pope Benedict XVI, while on his pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 2009,
reflected on this stating: A stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between
Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached — the wall. In a world where more and
more borders are being opened up — to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to
cultural exchanges — it is tragic to see walls still being erected. How we long to
see the fruits of the much more difficult task of building peace! How earnestly we pray
for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built!1
Who are Palestinian Christians?
The expression Palestinian Christian or Arab Christian often
confuses Westerners. How can one be Arab or Palestinian and Christian? Are not all Arabs
and Palestinians Muslims?
Arabs make up the Arab Nation, a term that refers to the cultural, ethnic and linguistic
identity of the Arab people. Palestinian is a national identity while religion is a
particular form of identification. Hence, one can be an Arab Palestinian Christian much
like an Irish American Catholic.
Arab Palestinian Christians are an integral part of their societies,2 and
claim that in their homeland, which we call the Holy Land, the continuing presence
of a living Christian community is inseparable from the historical sites. Through the
‘living stones the holy archaeological sites take on life.3
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