Howard Stern reports on a visit to Bethlehem this December
IT IS MY BELIEF THAT WITHIN FIVE YEARS we will see the West Bank Christians in a similar condition to the Copts in Egypt, Gaza’s Christian remnant and those in Syria and Iraq, if Europe does not act decisively.
Palestinian society as a whole seems to be deteriorating with increasing levels of debt, violence and discrimination. An overwhelming sense of fear pervades the Christian community. They are now a minority representing just 4.8% of a population of 95.2% Muslims, with a fragile constitution built on Sharia law
It is unsafe for Christian women to walk in parts of some cities; a recent kidnap attempt of two young female Christian teachers has increased concern. Christian schoolchildren will not travel in taxis unless the driver is a Christian and known to the family.
I observed anger among Christians, discriminated against by the Islamic constitution, predominantly targeted at the failure of their own leadership and the relentless Islamisation of Bethlehem. They are also angry at western NGOs and the Orthodox Churches for failing to help them and, especially, at their churches for selling church land to Muslims.
One church leader I spoke to said 65% of his congregation were unemployed. The Muslim majority looks after its own so when jobs come on the market, they usually go to a Muslim, even if the Christian is better qualified for the jo.
There are 52,000 West Bank Palestinians with Israeli work permits, plus an estimated 33,000 who work illegally whilst a further 25,000 work for Israeli firms in the West Bank. These 110,000+ workers earn the minimum Israeli wage or more, and are protected by Israeli employment law which affords them far greater rights. With the large families they traditionally have, it can easily be said that around 800,000 Palestinians or more, are supported by Israel’s economy. The current population of Palestinians in the West Bank is 2.3 million; thus these figures demonstrate that 35% may exist on Israeli salaries.
Fighting in the Nativity Church
The division between the orthodox denominations is well highlighted by the physical fighting between priests in the Nativity Church and Holy Sepulcre every year which can be viewed on Youtube! The evangelical movement in particular is regarded with suspicion and contempt.
This situation exists in part because the leaders of the main orthodox churches who control Christianity collaborate with the Islamic authorities as a matter of expedience. One evangelical pastor told us he had never received one dollar of aid from the authorities in 40 years of leading his church. Yet the evangelical Church attracts many people because of the help it provides.
“Israel’s occupation is our only protection”
33-year-old Beit Sahour resident
Christians have been complaining they did not get their permits to visit Israel at Christmas, even though Israel had issued them. It is said that the Palestinian authorities wanted to prevent them spending their money in Israeli shops prior to Christmas, thereby inflating Israel’s economy.
“None of our birth, death or marriage certificates are recognised – we have been delegitimised and all our legal documents taken”
In all Islamic states where Sharia is law, non-Muslims live as second-class citizens (dhimmis) in subservience to Islam. While the West continues funding the Palestinian Authority and its Sharia-based constitution, without consideration for the Christian minority groups, we actually encourage these discriminatory laws and principles. This act of financing is somewhat hypocritical in that we would never accept such discrimination and violations of the ECHRA in our own home states.
“If one senior western political or religious leader would write to our authorities (the Bethlehem municipality) I think our problems would change overnight.”
Naim Khoury – Baptist minister
When comparing my observations in December 2013 with multiple previous visits in 2011 and 2012, I can say without reservation that the overall situation has deteriorated. Unless Europe institutes extremely robust processes and deploys independent observers to monitor how funding is used, ensuring the standards of governance we would expect of our own member states are replicated, then we remain culpable of funding human rights violations and discrimination.
European donors and those who deal with the Palestinian Authorities must learn to understand the cultural complexities and nature of an Islamic culture so very different to our own. Europe expects high standards of governance by its own member states, and to retain its moral integrity, must demand these high standards be reflected in the terms and conditions laid down in justifying continued funding to the Palestinian Authority.
Howard Stern is an internationally accredited negotiator and mediator in conflict resolution who also convenes the Emmaus Group which seeks to build bridges between the different parties in the Middle East.