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Wednesday, December 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Christianity in the Holy Land

By Floyd J. McKay
Special to The Times

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If there were a Christian pilgrimage tradition in the mode of Islam's hajj, Christians would descend in huge crowds today on Bethlehem and the birthplace of Christ.

Instead, those few who make the journey will find again a besieged city, controlled by Israeli soldiers and tanks, major buildings leveled by shelling and very few surviving Palestinian Christians.

Palestinian Christians, descendants of the Apostles and their followers, have nearly vacated the Holy Land. And few American Christians seem to care, or even know about the diaspora.

And others, sometimes described as Christian Zionists, actually contribute to the decline of Christianity in the Holy Land, through their unwavering support of hard-line Israeli policies.

In a land of incredible political and religious complexity, the decline of Christianity is one of the great tragedies.

Palestinian Christians were historically concentrated in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But the 1947 creation of Israel forced some 50,000 Christians from West Jerusalem and into exile or the West Bank, where they made up 20 percent of the Palestinian population. By 1966, that percentage was down to 13 percent, and it is now only 2.9 percent in the occupied territories. Muslims have a higher birth rate, but the major factor is emigration to America and elsewhere.

Emigration is critical, as educated Christians leave to find opportunity. The educational level of Palestinian Christians is high; Bethlehem University sociologist Bernard Sabella cites an average of 11.2 years of education per person and a rate of college degrees three times the Palestinian average.

Departing Palestinian Christians leave enormous gaps that are difficult to fill. The occupied territories desperately need the professions they represent and their educational institutions, which enroll a large segment of the Palestinian school population. And already we are seeing the tragedy of Christian holy sites and churches nearly empty of indigenous Christians, manned primarily by foreign clergy for the benefit of foreign visitors.

Although there are Christian-Muslim tensions in the occupied lands, particularly since the increase in suicide bombings and militant Islamic organizations, Palestinian Christian leaders identify the problem as the Israeli occupation, now in its 46th year. Certainly, that was the clear impression in the region when I reported from the West Bank two decades ago, and it continues to be the theme of writing from the region. Christians were actively involved in the first intifada, less so in the current conflict.

Christians who remain have done so because they identify with Palestinian nationhood, in common with their Muslim neighbors. As they freely point out, Christians and Muslims lived together in peace for centuries. Shared opposition to Israel is greater than any religious differences between Palestinians. The occupation is strangling Christianity in the Holy Land.

Israeli settlements ring Christian villages and settlement roads bisect Christian farms and towns, olive groves are bulldozed, and Israeli retaliation for Palestinian attacks have in the past two years increasingly hit Christian targets. Bethlehem was virtually locked down much of 2002.

Christians, for centuries never more than a large minority, once served as an ecumenical bridge between Jews, Muslims and the West (the Jerusalem YMCA was a legendary place for faiths to meet), but that bridge has been burned.

Some of the fault for this lies with American Christians, particularly those who see scriptural basis for the state of Israel that prevails over compassion for their fellow Christians in occupied territory. This point of view has adherents among conservative Republicans in Congress, mirroring in some ways historic liberal Democratic support for the state of Israel. As a result, Palestinian Christian leaders have all but stopped lobbying Congress, faced with a combination of religious and political obstacles.

There may be a ray of hope in the recently unveiled Geneva Accords, an ad hoc attempt by moderate Israelis and Palestinians to provide an alternative peace plan. But the Bush administration has its ego tied up in the so-called "road map" to peace, Congress is hearing only pro-Israel voices, and the American religious community is ignorant at best, hostile at worst, to the plight of brothers and sisters behind the Israeli wall.

Some efforts are being made by mainline churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, which sponsors several educational institutions within the occupied territories. The concern is summarized by Sister Elaine Kelly of the Portland Archdiocese, who has lived in Bethlehem: "The concern of the church is that the Holy Land will become a Christian museum rather than a place for a worshipping Christian community and a continuing Christian community since the time of Christ."

Food for thought on Christmas Eve.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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