Where Is It Really Better to Be a Christian - Israel or Palestine?

In the run-up to the Pope's visit, Israel lobbyists glorify how Israel treats its Christian minority versus Palestinians 'persecution' of theirs – but where are Christians truly safe and part of public life?

Nicolas Pelham
Nicolas Pelham
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Pope Francis speaks at the Vatican.
Pope Francis speaks at the Vatican.Credit: AFP
Nicolas Pelham
Nicolas Pelham

Rarely has my email inbox come under great attack than in the run-up to Pope Francis’ visit. Israel’s multiple lobbyists have donned the mantle of Christian saviors. They highlight the safe haven Israel offers the Middle East’s – rather than “Arab”– Christians in contrast to their Muslim tormentors. Fleeing “persecution,” as one email put it, Palestine’s Christian population, they say, has fallen from 10 percent to 2 percent. Palestine’s Muslim masters pursue a program of Sharia-ization in the West Bank as well as Gaza, and the little Christian town of Bethlehem is now a Muslim morass.

What they do not say is that Israel’s population of native Christians has fallen by roughly the same amount. From 8% in 1947 in all of mandatory Palestine, it numbered 4% in 1948, and is now less than two percent today. The reasons for the decline are largely the same. Jewish, as Muslim, birth-rates are much higher. More importantly, while many Palestinians long to escape the yoke of occupation, Christian-led administrations from Beirut to Bueno Aires, prioritize Christian applicants over Muslim ones.

“Very few Christians are appointed to senior positions by the PA”, says one briefing, “in what is perceived as routine discrimination.” In fact, the PA’s record is far better than Israel’s. The president's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, is a Christian. So are two cabinet members, for Finance and Tourism, and two members of the PLO's executive committee. The deputy speaker of the Palestinian National Council, Qonstantin Qurmush, is a priest. Christians abound on boards of banks and chambers of commerce, and head its largest company, CCC. Despite their falling numbers, nine municipalities, including Ramallah and Bethlehem, stipulate their council should have a Christian majority and a Christian mayor. Christmas and Easter are official Palestinian holidays. President Abbas attends three Christmases (the Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian) in Bethlehem and would celebrate Easter in Jerusalem, if Israel let him in. On St. George’s Day, Muslims join Christians to commemorate his martyrdom at his shrine in al-Khadr, near Bethlehem.

By contrast, in its 66 years, Israel has had no Christian presidential spokesman, government minister, or bank chairman. Where Palestine has eight Christians in its parliament, Israel has two. Where Palestine has at least five ambassadors, including to London and Berlin, Israel has none (although its deputy ambassador to Norway is Christian). The Knesset bans Christmas trees which sprout all over Palestine from public display on its premises. Israel’s prime minister does not go to Church for Christmas, and in his first term in the late 1990s aroused Christian ire by backing construction of a mosque next to Nazareth’s Basilica of Annunciation, while his Palestinian counterpart, Yasser Arafat opposed it.

For sure, some Palestinian movements claiming to represent the downtrodden deride the outsized role that Christians and Western powers wield over their economy and politics. In the early days of Hamas rule in Gaza, some militants firebombed a church and attacked its worshipers uncannily close to a police station. But the Islamists have since clamped down on their own; their prime minister, Ismail Haniya, pointedly attended church to honor a local Christian politician.

Israel does give its Christians native citizenship, but when its leaders endlessly trumpet their status as a Jewish state, many feel they have second class status. They are not spared strip-searches at Israel’s airports. Exacerbating Christian anxieties,hate-graffiti – such as "Mary is a prostitute" - is daubed on church doors, and increasingly rife. Priests in Jerusalem say spitting on their habits has become well - a habit. The country’s most prominent Christian politician, Azmi Bishara, was hounded out of Israel amid cries oftreachery after he dared to suggest that Israel should be a state for all its citizens. Ameer Makhul, founder of the Haifa-based umbrella group of NGOs, Ittijah, is in jail for spying for Lebanon’s Shia group, Hezbollah. Nervously, Christians in Israel as elsewhere in a region sunk in rampant religious nationalism look for surer climes.

As they finalize plans for Pope Francis’ visit, there’s something slightly comical about both sides claiming Jesus as their own. Israel hails him as a Jew, the PLO proclaims him Palestinian. Neither yet dare to muse that he might have been both. Palestine is preparing to greet the Pope with hordes of well-wishers, Muslims and Christian alike, while Israel - less sure that Jews might not price-tag his convoy - is preparing to close the streets.

So before those Israel lobbies send me another email celebrating Israel’s integration of Christians and Palestinian persecution of them, perhaps they might take a leaf out of the Gospel. “First cast the log out of your own eye, that you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s.” Or for those who find it hard to take non-Jewish scriptures seriously, try Proverbs – “Deceive not with thy lips.”

Nicolas Pelham is a correspondent for The Economist based in Jerusalem. He has been based in Cairo, Rabat and Baghdad and is the author of A New Muslim Order (2008) and co-author of A History of the Middle East (2010).


This article was amended on May 12.

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