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Friday, April 28, 2017

The Future of Christians in Palestine: Presence rather than Existence

By Rifat Kassis 

The title of this article may provoke some readers since it suggests, unintentionally, that Christians are a sector of society on the verge of extinction due to a variety of pressures and oppression. It reminds me of a statement by His Beatitude Patriarch Michel Sabbah during one of his many lectures. He said: “We as Christians do not face a special kind of threat; we face a threat and danger that covers everyone in our society. This threat is instability, and the absence of peace and justice.”

It is no secret that I fully espouse this interpretation because the basic threat to our existence is the same danger that faces all Palestinians: the Israeli occupation of our land and oppressive Israeli policies. Despite the occupation and its pressures, and despite the increasing number of Christians who emigrate, the existence of Christians is strong and emphatic if we make a distinction between existence and presence. Existence relates to numbers and figures, while presence focuses on the role and activities of Christians in serving their Palestinian community. Presence also relates to Christian integration within their society and with their fellow man facing the same destiny.

Illustrations of this strong presence are many and we can cite the following:

  • The existence of Christians has expanded and continued since the birth of Christianity two thousand years ago. It has not diminished in any way and has remained steadfast, powerful and influential.
  • This existence is original and was founded locally among Arabs. It was not a sudden event and did not originate from the West, as some people like to believe or as is cited erroneously in some Palestinian textbooks. Christianity was born in Palestine with the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, and then moved to the West and other parts of the world.
  • This is an institutional presence: it is organized, systematic and solid. Churches, ecclesiastical and community institutions, and other structures have existed for a long time and continue to exist. Christian institutions are major employers and employ more than 20,000 people, two-thirds of whom are Muslim Palestinians, in their projects and organizations.     
  • This presence is political, economic and community-oriented. It is a participatory presence rather than passive, although the extent of participation may vary according to the conditions.
  • This presence is broad and community-based. It is open to everyone without discrimination on the basis of sect or gender.
  • Finally, this broken and wounded church, like other Palestinian institutions, is still capable of inspiring hope in people’s hearts and offers much more than it is capable of. This vibrant, unique and unbreakable presence will never cease to exist.   

Despite these points, I cannot ignore or feign ignorance of the fact that this presence is today more troubled than at any time in the past. Some of this concern is justified, but much of it is not. Today, we as Christians have become the captives of different intellectual schools. Some believe that we must focus on Christians as a minority in society, and that the most that this minority can aspire to is respect for its religion alongside freedom to observe its rituals and to preserve and maintain churches and holy sites. Another school believes that Christians are a religious minority that has the right to political representation accordingly. This is what we have seen in the existing system of political quotas in Palestine, especially in the Legislative Council and municipal elections. A third school considers itself an indispensible part of society and calls for full citizenship on the basis that we are not an island or a minority even if we are small in number.

I think that the source of this justified concern or worry is the events occurring in many Arab countries and the rise of political movements that claim to be Islamic, and which attack and oppress religious minorities in the region. In addition, there are the racist policies of Israel, its systematic expropriation of land, and the absence of any political horizon for a just peace that can bring political and economic stability to our region. The feeling of alienation felt by Christians is basically because Christian Palestinians lack self-confidence and have not studied the Christian presence and its power in Palestine in depth. These people are pessimistic and are ready to step to one side, and even to emigrate. We have to realize that our future is in our own hands; we possess enough potential to flourish in this country. To prove this, I shall give some findings:

  • Churches and Christian institutions run many schools which employ more than 2,500 employees and teach more than 25,000 students, in addition to several universities, colleges, and community colleges.
  • There are several vocational training centers and vocational institutions operating in different profit-making fields.
  • There are several hospitals, health clinics, rehabilitation centers for the handicapped, and homes for senior citizens
  • There are several women’s and youth organizations run mainly on a voluntary basis, along with several scout groups and charitable organizations that are also run on a voluntary basis.
  • There are ministers and members of the Palestinian National Council and Palestinian Legislative Council, and several ambassadors and heads of municipal and village councils.      

More than 60% of Christians are under 40 years of age and have a lot to offer. More than 50% of them hold a university degree. More than 50% either own or work in economic institutions or occupy senior posts in community and non-profit organizations. Around 30% of them work in Christian institutions. Around 30% of Christians are classed as well-paid employees.

This is in addition to the significant potential of churches and Christian institutions whose global connections enable them to publicize Israeli policies against our people, and to explain the Palestinian struggle and the justness of the Palestinian cause. Churches have also engaged in advocacy, influenced public opinion, and mobilized support for the Palestinian cause. The Kairos Palestine Document, “A Moment of Truth”, issued by the Palestinian National Initiative, was possibly the most powerful expression of this potential because it created a huge impact among the church and in Christian circles globally. It was seen everywhere in the world and prompted support from international influential figures, institutions, and effective solidarity groups.

This historical document is the testimony of Christian Palestinians to the world about oppression and injustice against the Palestinian people. In this document, Christian Palestinians present the international community with a moment of truth about the oppression, dispersal, suffering, and racial discrimination of the past six decades. The Palestinian Kairos document, which took almost two years to prepare, can be compared with the famous South African Kairos document announced in 1985 and seen then as a key turning point in the struggle against apartheid, leading to its downfall some years later. Although the Palestinian document is purely a local Christian document, it addresses not only Christian believers but also secular people and all international and regional solidarity movements that work with the Palestinian people. This is what gave the document its power and the opportunities to create alliances to work with these movements towards ending the occupation and building a just peace in our region.

All observers agree that the Kairos Document, “A Moment of Truth”, was the most courageous Palestinian document in presenting theological and political issues. It was almost the first document to discuss theological issues that are close to taboo, such as the promise in the Holy Bible and the misuse of the Holy Bible for political or other purposes. Thus, the document views the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land as a sin against God and people. Politically, the document was courageous in its criticism of Israel, holding it responsible for oppression, killing and destruction, and its criticism of the U.S. for its blind support for Israel. The document affirmed the right of return for refugees and the unconditional release of all Palestinian detainees. The document criticized the Palestinian internal split, but blamed it on the international community for boycotting Palestinian democracy. The document did not hesitate to engage in self-criticism and in criticism of the people who created this situation. The peak of its boldness was its request to the churches of the world to boycott Israel and force it to comply with international law.

These examples are clear proof that the Christian presence is strong and effective and must be seen as Palestinian existence. All the facts cited above offer powerful motivation for greater involvement in  public causes and in effective participation to serve the interests of our Palestinian people and their resilience.

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