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The Changing Face of the Holy Land: Eager for security and
stability, Christians move on

by Bernard Sabella, Ph.D.

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Editor’s 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 region’s 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 Israel’s 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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