Defining ‘Christian’ in Palestine

Connecting young people of the Holy Land to their roots

by Samar Hazboun

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As the sun over Bethlehem begins to set, people gather in the square between the Church of the Nativity and the Mosque of Omar. Seated on stairs, benches and the pavement, people young and old congregate as the sky darkens and the shadows lengthen. Amid conversation, the air reverberates with church bells pealing and the call to prayer from the minarets.

A visitor may have difficulty discerning which locals belong to which faith community. However, one nearby contingent stands out: young people wearing the distinct shirts and scarves of a scouting troop.

Roni Fakhouri, a 22-year-old Palestinian Christian, leads the Terra Sancta Scouts troop.

This evening’s gathering was partly his idea. The young man has taken it upon himself to organize youth gatherings every Sunday after morning prayer outside the church. He encourages the group of young Christians to meet here every weekend, close to the place where tradition holds that Jesus was born.

It is a fitting place for young people to gather — connecting the youth of today with the place where the Christian story began.

“We are here,” he says. “We need to make ourselves present and visible so the character of the place does not change.”

This is only one of the activities initiated by Bethlehem’s Terra Sancta Scout group in an effort to build community. “During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, our scouts, both girls and boys, were handing water bottles and dates to Palestinian Muslims as they were breaking their fast,” says Suzanne Musallam, another scout leader.

Mr. Fakhouri adds that they went to the mosque the other day and cleaned all the rugs ahead of prayer.

That spirit of friendship and cooperation not only builds bridges, but it also gives these young people a sense of identity and purpose. At a time when young Palestinian Christians are facing many challenges on a variety of fronts — from political strife to geographical struggles and social difficulties — this scout troop is discovering what it means to be both Palestinian and Christian.

Palestine has always been multireligious, yet in recent times the number of Christians has been rapidly dwindling. It is estimated that Palestinian Christians now make up less than 2 percent of the population — a decline that has tremendously affected the town of Bethlehem, where Christians were once in the majority.

When asked if they would prefer to live here or emigrate, most youth chose the latter. Life has become more difficult; for the Christians of Bethlehem, traveling the short distance of about six miles to Jerusalem is not possible without an Israeli permit and crossing the Bethlehem checkpoint, also known as checkpoint 300. Traveling around the occupied West Bank is not easy either — indeed, the difficulties have led to the creation of isolated communities that no longer interact with one another.

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