From ONE Magazine

Defining ‘Christian’ in Palestine

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.

Church leaders estimate that about 45 Christian families emigrated from the area of Bethlehem in the past year, leading to a further erosion of Christianity in what is literally its birthplace. It is difficult to obtain a precise figure, as many of these families do not officially announce that they are emigrating; many just go, leaving behind their empty houses. From the 1950’s to the present, Bethlehem’s Christian population has fallen from more than 80 percent to around 12 percent of the population.

Christian sites in Bethlehem have also suffered. Consider the Cremisan Valley, for example, which is home to the largest winery in Palestine and two monasteries, with some of the region’s oldest and most cherished terraced landscapes. It has been carved through by an Israeli separation barrier, leading to the destruction of the landscapes that have survived for centuries and effectively erasing an important agricultural area to Christian families. Once the wall is completed, the town of Beit Jala, which falls under the Bethlehem district, will lose access to about two-thirds of its land.

Palestinians have also lost access to Rachel’s Tomb, located at the northern entrance of Bethlehem, a site holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. These changes are leading many Palestinian Christians to feel detached from the place, since they can no longer access sites closely connected to their identity.

“This town is not mine,” says Ramez Haimur, who used to be a scout. He now works two jobs a day to make ends meet. “I don’t feel at home here anymore. I don’t even recognize this place. I have no future here. It’s not like it used to be.”

As with many other young Christians, he offers a surprising answer if you ask him what it means to live the message of Jesus: silence. A number of Palestinian Christian youth have no answer when asked what it means to be a Christian or what it means to describe his or her Christian identity.

“It depends on whom I’m talking to, but I identify as Arab first, Palestinian second and then Christian,” says Rena Boulos, who works for a local nongovernmental agency.

Ms. Boulos says Christianity is part of her cultural and historical heritage, but she struggles with matters of faith.

“I believe Christianity is a form of identity just like we identify as Arabs or Palestinians. But I’m proud of being a Palestinian Christian! We were here since the beginning — well, since as far as can be traced back.”

Dr. Yousef Musallam, the leader of the Terra Santa Scouts in Bethlehem, expresses concern over a crisis of Christian identity among Palestinian youth, and says the scouts’ mission is to raise awareness among its members.

“As Christian scouts, we do our best to plant the seeds of faith amongst our members,” he says, adding, “[we] make sure they love their country and become good human beings and citizens.

“The bigger task, however, falls on other institutions such as the church, the municipality and the government. There’s only so much we [scouts] can do.”

The scouts help provide a sense of order and build character but, according to the Rev. Bashar Fawadleh, a spiritual leader for Palestinian youth, the group currently puts more emphasis on exteriority — modes of expression such as as music, art and performance — instead of investing in spirituality and religion. He stresses a desperate need for an “inner growth,” adding that “a scout should belong to his country, the church and himself.”

As he explains it, these three pillars are crucial for forming identity. “My identity starts from within me,” he says. “If I know myself, then I can advance. If I don’t know myself or who I am as a human being, then I am unable to proceed with my life in any shape or form.”

Complicating matters is a broader sense of disengagement from the institutions that have traditionally played so central a role in identity formation: church and home.

“The role of the home is very important,” Father Fawadleh says. He adds that Palestinian Christians are starting to lose their sense of family — an issue he calls “the main problem” facing young people.

“As long as there is a home,” he says, “then there’s an umbrella which can contain the individual within a group. But when the home is broken, we lose our identity.” He pauses then shrugs his shoulders. “By then it’s too late. It can take a really long time to rebuild this.”

CNEWA’s regional director in Jerusalem, Joseph Hazboun, says the scouts are one way to help rebuild the Christian identity among Palestinian youth — but just the beginning.

He explains that CNEWA is working with the local churches to develop formation initiatives, such as the local Christian Youth Ministry that, in his words, “helps raise awareness about the land of the Bible and of the early church, instills an appreciation of the land of their ancestors, and, hopefully, reconnects the younger generations to the land of their birth.

“This should help strengthen their spiritual ties, their faith, to the land we call holy.”

The ultimate goal, he emphasizes, is not only spiritual, but practical: to encourage the young to remain in their homeland.

“It is very important when we come to think about the challenge of emigration,” he explains. “In the past, Christian leaders thought that what would keep the younger people from leaving would be to give them good job opportunities and housing.

“But we have learned that housing and employment opportunities are not enough. Our youth lack something that is fundamental, and it explains the disconnect between Palestinian Christian youth and their homeland, and that is an incomplete understanding of what it means to be a Christian living in the land of Jesus.”

And he sees a deeper significance, as well.

“We are trying to foster a new generation who will understand their history and their faith and will be able to explain it — announce it! — when asked or questioned. We want them to recognize the unique role of being Christians in the Holy Land, in the land of Jesus, where the Gospel first took root.

“We want them to see it as a mission, as a vocation.”

But Mr. Hazboun says effecting real change in the next generation will not happen overnight. This endeavor has only been underway for a short time.

“We have to be patient,” he says. “Investing in people takes time. But I am very optimistic about this. We have neglected this aspect for so long and leaders see we need to invest in it. Our youth are seeking a deeper meaning for their life. This will really provide the meaningful answer.”

For now, the scouts continue to gather on weekend evenings just steps from the birthplace of Jesus, as the square fills with sacred sounds from different faiths. On these evenings, for a short time, they come together in a common space, bringing varied histories and hopes.

They are learning who they are and where they come from, though they have yet to discover who they will become.

“The future of Palestinian youth is unknown for Christians and Muslims,” says Dr. Musallam. “The political situation can explode at any moment. And there is nothing anyone can promise them.”

But grounded in faith, Father Fawadleh and Joseph Hazboun believe, will inspire new ideas and new hopes.

Born in Jerusalem, Samar Hazboun is a photojournalist who has served as a photo editor for Agence France Presse. Her work has appeared in El Pais Spanish, The Intercept, Al Jazeera and other publications.