There is a possibility that there will be no indigenous Christians left in the Holy Land – unless Israel ends its occupation of Palestine. This was the urgent message from Palestinian Christian theologians and activists speaking at the Holy Land Conference in Johannesburg last week.
Hosted by The Evangelical Alliance of South Africa (TEASA), which represents almost 4 million Christians who identify as born-again or evangelical, delegates heard first-hand accounts of how Israel’s military occupation and its restrictions on Palestinian movement prevented Christian Palestinians from worshiping at Christianity’s most sacred sites in occupied Jerusalem. Some of these sites are located less than 15km from their homes. Israel’s occupation of Palestine has also effectively deprived Palestinians of access to education, health-care and employment opportunities.
This has led to an exodus of Christian Palestinians from the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. Indigenous Christian Palestinians once constituted over 19% of Palestine’s population, and number less than 2 percent today.
According to Shireen Awwad Hilal, the coordinator of Musalaha Women’s Ministry in Bethlehem, the chief cause of the decline in the Christian population of the Holy Land is not due to the persecution of Christians by Muslims. “Many Christians feel that there is little hope for a better future for their children under Israeli occupation, and this has contributed to the growing emigration of Palestinian Christians. Christian Palestinians are under threat from the Israeli occupation – not Islam,” says Awwad Hilal.
Yousef Al-Khouri agrees. “Muslim and Christian Palestinians suffer equally under the Israeli occupation. There is no conflict between Islam and Christianity in Gaza or anywhere else in occupied Palestine. This is not a religious conflict, this is occupation,” says the Gaza-born Biblical Studies lecturer whose family goes back over 900 years in the Greek Orthodox priesthood in Palestine.
According to TEASA secretary-general, Reverend Moss Nthla, the conference and the visit by the Palestinians was a ground-breaking attempt by the evangelical movement in South Africa to introduce an alternative narrative on the Holy Land. The dominant narrative within the evangelical movement is that the creation of the state of Israel was a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. This narrative, Nthla says, “weaponizes the Bible against Palestinians and justifies the occupation of Palestine.”
“As Christians, we need to change our role as unwitting collaborators with the oppression of Palestinian people. We must inform and equip ourselves to be part of a solution that has as its aim a just peace in Palestine, rather than being part of the problem,” Nthla explained in an interview with the Afro-Palestine Newswire Service. “South African Christians must be interested in what is happening in Israel/Palestine because it is the place where Jesus Christ was born, lived and died.”
The South African Council of Churches (SACC) has condemned Israel’s occupation of Palestine, calling the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel “worse than Apartheid”.
In September, the Anglican and Methodist Churches of Southern Africa resolved to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel until that state ended its military occupation of Palestine.
– Source: Afro-Palestine Newswire Service.