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The invisible Palestinians

By Hugh Mccullum

By the time the helicopter carrying Yasser Arafat's body wheeled low over Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority's battered Muqata compound was jammed with tens of thousands of chanting, pointing, flag-waving mourners. The pilots by some miracle managed to land amid fusillade after fusillade of skyward gunfire.

A deep marble tomb had been quickly built for the dead president. Security was needed to keep over-zealous mourners from jumping into the tomb with the small box that bore Arafat's remains.

The burial ceremony, with earth brought from the al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City, was long and sweltering. Palestinians believe the tomb is temporary and will sooner rather than later be moved so Arafat can be buried with the martyrs at al Aqsa.

As he performed the last rites at the garland-strewn grave, Yaqib Kiraish, an imam with close ties to Arafat's family, spoke in sombre and uncompromising words: "We vow to respect your will and to place the Palestinian flag on every house in Jerusalem, on its churches and on its mosques. We will continue the march. We will make our blood like water for Jerusalem."

* * *

For more than 4,000 years, Jerusalem has been "the chosen city of God" (Psalm 48:2), a centre of conflict and a centre of the sacred geography for all three Abrahamic faiths. King David made Jerusalem his capital more than a thousand years before Christ. Since then it has been consecutively "pagan," Jewish, Roman, Christian, Muslim, again Christian, again Muslim and again Jewish.

In 1948, Israel proclaimed Jerusalem "the restored and eternal capital" of the newly created Jewish state. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the last of their three holiest cities, after Mecca and Medina. They believe that on the mount where Abraham had offered to sacrifice his beloved son Ishmael and where the former Jewish temple had stood, Muhammad ascended a ladder to the throne of Allah. Arabs prefer to call the city al-Quds (The Holy) and to claim East Jerusalem as the capital of the new Palestine.

Medieval Christian maps placed Jerusalem at the centre of the Earth, indeed of the universe. The city witnessed the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Messiah and Son of the Triune God. Jerusalem also birthed "the mother church." Fast forward to the Holy Land today and you see a church that truly lives in the past. The number of Christians is declining to a point where they might well cease to exist as an indigenous community.

Bernard Sabella, a Christian Palestinian and a sociologist at Bethlehem University, says that worldwide there are about 400,000 Palestinian Christians (about 6.5 percent of all Palestinians). At present, fewer than 50,000 live in the Israeli Occupied Territories of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Another 125,000 Christians are Arab citizens of Israel.

Sabella explains the loss started in 1948, when 726,000 Palestinians fled the war that established the Israeli state on Palestinian lands. Until then, Christians had played a major role in Palestinian life despite their minority. Sabella is deeply concerned that places such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem will simply become museums for pilgrims claiming custodial rights to them. Today, three "major" and four "minor" denominations bicker endlessly over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christianity's holiest site in Jerusalem.

What Palestinian Christians lack in number, they make up for in denominations. They belong to 15 different churches, the largest of which is the foreign-led Greek Orthodox Patriarchate which has Arab clergy but Greek leadership. The Latin Patriarchate follows and there is also an Armenian Orthodox Patriarch. Tensions between denominations are often high as they jostle over custodianship of the holy sites which attract millions of pilgrims every year.

Sabella, a gregarious academic who also runs the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees (DSPR) of the Middle East Council of Churches, is not impressed. For decades, fist-fights, police action and endless legal disputes have marred any unified action by the churches that would improve the human rights situation of the Palestinians.

From time to time, though, the warring churches do come together. Three of them now have Palestinian leaders -- the Anglican, Roman Catholic (Latin Patriarchate) and Lutheran -- and 13 of them assemble officially as The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem on occasion to make common, if somewhat innocuous, statements to their peoples and the global church. When Yasser Arafat was dying in Paris, they met for three hours to debate whether to "pray" for the dying Muslim leader or to extend best wishes.

The stone walls of the Old City are thick and ancient, picturesque and exotic but they also symbolize the paralyzing internal divisions maintained by ancient rites and custodial agreements.

Sabella is pessimistic about the ability of the Christian church to change, to provide a visible social justice presence in Israel and Palestine and bring Christian values into the development of the new Palestine. He acknowledges that historically the churches have made their presence felt mainly through a variety of educational, medical, social institutions.

* * *

Bethlehem, where Christ was born, is a West Bank city near Jerusalem. Barely 50 years ago, before Israel claimed Palestine as the Jewish homeland, Bethlehem, along with its sister communities of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, could count a clear majority of Christians. Today, they number about 20,000 and feel under siege, forgotten and forsaken by the rest of the Christian world. It's too easy, says Sabella, to lay blame on Christian-Muslim tensions, as right-wing American Christians often do.

"You must remember that we are Palestinians first and throughout our history there have been excellent relations of mutual respect in the dialogue of life between Christians and Muslims," he says. "Whatever the differences between Christians and Muslims, the common cause of realizing our national aspirations as a Palestinian state are paramount."

After 1948 many of Bethlehem's Christians fled. Those who remained were overwhlemed by refugees, almost all of them Muslim, fleeing the might of the Israeli security machine. Five years later Christians were a minority. Two wars and two intifadas later, most Christians have moved away, to places like Toronto and Latin America. Literally every Christian left in Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour has relatives in Santiago, Chile, where the Palestinian population is more than 150,000.

"Unlike most Muslims," says Sabella, "Christian Palestinians are well-educated and could afford to leave this wretched situation of almost continuous violence, humiliation and fear to search for a tolerable life. And they did."

Christians are often accused of being reluctant to be involved in the militant ranks of the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation despite the vocal witness of Christians like the late firebrand intellectual Edward Said, Hanna Ashrawi, the media- savvy spokeswomen for the Palestinian Authority, Georges Habash of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Sabella himself.

* * *

Another problem for Palestinian Christians is fanaticism and extremism among all three of the region's main faiths. Muslim extremists, with their suicide bombers seeking martyrdom while expressing their desperation over occupation, poverty and humiliation, accuse Christians of turning the other cheek all too often. "I was taught to do that just, to love my enemy," says Jamal Saba, 32, a journalist who has spent the last four years unemployed, under the eye of Israel's military and in the shadow of its controversial "security wall" in his hometown of Beit Jala. Saba and his family feel a chill from extremist Muslims who deride their lack of patriotism because so few Christians will fight.

But the greatest worry among remaining Christians in the three towns around Bethlehem is not the Muslims who surround them or the few followers of Osama bin Laden but fellow Christians. One of the few embassies in Jerusalem is the Christian Embassy, lavishly supported by American messianic Jews and Christian Zionists, extremists of the End Times movement who stand unquestioningly with Israel, believing that biblical prophecies are coming to completion as Judaism reclaims the Holy Land.

"I have been told by Christian Zionists that I do not exist as a Christian," says Sabella. "I laugh but it hurts and I say, `Well we have been here in the biblical Holy Land for more than 2,000 years and you cannot believe us away.' It is a sad fact that we are small and getting smaller every day.

"Yes, we do have problems, a complexity of problems. But the Arab-Israeli conflict is not about religions except for a few mad fanatics. If it continues to be defined by fundamentalists on a religious basis it will do far greater damage than has already been done by secularists.

"When you reduce everything to religion, watch out, because one day it will boomerang. Not just on Palestinians, not just on Christians and Muslims but on Israelis and Jews as well."

* * *

The 2001 UN anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, gave aggressive expression to an "emerging apartheid" in Israel aimed at its occupation by force of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, as well as the more than one million Israeli citizens who refer to themselves as "Palestinian citizens of Israel."

Since then, with ongoing house demolitions, the construction of the humiliating security wall, the blockading of Palestinian roads and Israeli security operations such as Operation Days of Penance, launched late last year in northern Gaza after a rocket attack that killed two Israeli children, use of the "apartheid" label is spreading. So are calls for boycotts of Israeli products and disinvestment from Israeli businesses.

Both sides are brutalized and corrupted, says Benjamin Pogrund, a former deputy editor of Johannesburg's anti-apartheid Rand Daily Mail and now director of the Centre for Social Concern in Jerusalem. He urges Israelis and Palestinians to learn from the apartheid experience in South Africa.

He says Israel must learn that armed might and oppression cannot crush a peoples' spirit, so evident at Arafat's funeral. Palestinians could learn from the African National Congress's decision not to kill civilians when it switched to armed struggle in 1961. The decision, he says, proved crucial in persuading whites that they had nothing to fear. "And the most basic lesson of all is contact across the lines of division: to create trust so that an agreed-upon future can be urged on Israelis and Palestinians."

Despite their diminishing numbers, Palestinian Christians can help bring about that trust, says Rev. Naim Ateek, an Anglican theologian and Palestinian. Palestinian Christians must always condemn suicide bombings equally with Israel's killing of Palestinians because both are crimes against God. "We also condemn suicide bombings because they are trapped with the same violent logic exercised and perpetrated by the Israeli government. It is based in the law of revenge, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

Suicide bombings are collective punishment against civilians, Ateek says, "the very same thing we condemn the Israeli government for. One of the most hated and resented acts of the Israeli army is its exercise of collective punishment against us. When the Israelis incarcerate a whole town for long periods or destroy the homes of a wide swath of refugees or a suicide bomb blows up in a market place -- each is a collective punishment aimed at innocent people."


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