What Christians remain in Bethlehem are
Christians around the world worship Jesus Christ as divine Saviour and Son of God, yet at Christmas time we remember when He came into this world as a tiny child, born to Mary, in a stable in Bethlehem in Judaea. Two millennia ago, the Gospels tell of how Joseph and Mary were ordered to return to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem for a Roman census conducted throughout the land. Judaeans inhabited Bethlehem then, and Jews have maintained a presence in their historic heartlands of Judaea and Samaria since.
Bethlehem has been a predominantly Christian city for many centuries. When Israel handed control of Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority in 1995, the Christian population of Bethlehem and Beit Jala stood at 60%. However, this all changed when the Palestinian Authority took control of the city. Christians were repeatedly intimidated and harassed by Islamists.
Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority redrew the municipal boundaries of the city to include large Muslim-majority refugee camps. Suddenly, Christians made up a far smaller percentage of the overall population. As a result, Christians became weaker politically as they were demographically disempowered, in a deliberate policy by Arafat to dilute the Christian vote and make it irrelevant. And so, Christians have fallen to just 20% of the population of Bethlehem, owing chiefly to Palestinian policy towards Christians, rather than any Israeli policy towards Palestinians.
The climate in Bethlehem is not favourable to Christians—the PA this past week has arrested 16 Salafi activists who were planning terror attacks against Christian tourists in Bethlehem, whilst the car taken by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem was stoned by Palestinian Muslim rioters.
Yet whilst the PA leadership arrests some radicals who favour terrorism, they glorify others. On a social media page of Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, we see Archbishop Atallah Hanna of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem together with the Mufti of Bethlehem, ‘Abd Al-Majid ‘Amarna, in front of a Christmas tree adorned with pictures of Palestinian “martyrs”. Such “martyrs” include Abu Ali Mustafa, General Secretary of the PFLP terror group. Mustafa was responsible in his leadership role for overseeing several PFLP car bomb terror attacks in 2001.
Attitudes amongst Christian leaders in Bethlehem are also cause for concern. Over at the local theology school, Bethlehem Bible College, their teacher Sami Awad proudly commemorated Mustafa in a ceremony, whilst another teacher at the school Salim Munayer boasts of his family ties to the PFLP’s founder George Habash. Munayer also argues that Hamas’ terror tunnels are actually used for “food and drink”.
Ordinarily, George Habash would be an unlikely icon for Christians. Brought up in a Greek Orthodox environment, Habash left his hometown of Jaffa in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence. Habash was a committed ideologue, and a disciple of Gamal Nasser’s pan-Arabism. Habash would form the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group which has carried out hijackings, suicide bombings, and targeted murders. Little wonder, that Habash was labelled “Terrorism’s Christian Godfather” by Time Magazine. Habash died in 2008, yet his image and influence are still palpable in Bethlehem, where PFLP slogans, posters and graffiti are daubed on walls and lampposts.
The PFLP hit the headlines last year internationally for its massacre of a Druze Arab policeman and four Israeli rabbis in a synagogue in Har Nof, yet this has not led Bethlehem Bible College teachers to reconsider their public stance towards these terrorists. Indeed, the Bethlehem of today’s Palestinian Authority has a certain Christian character, but it is a Christianity firmly within the mould of Habash’s PFLP.
As we enter into 2016, we must note that the college plans to host a conference in March called “Christ at the Checkpoint”, which attempts to provide a theological connection between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Palestinian nationalist cause—complete with its accompanying terror attacks. Speakers at the conference have previously called for a Christian jihad and endorsed Hamas’ right to attack the West.
To put it simply, Christians are responding to Islamist anti-Christian prejudice in Bethlehem with their own Christian anti-Israel prejudice. This is a dishonest way to reply to persecution, and we must point Bethlehem’s Christian leaders towards the political and spiritual truths they are reluctant to see.
Father Gabriel Naddaf
Spiritual leader of the Aramean Christians in Israel
Chairman of the Christian Empowerment Council – The Israeli Christian Recruitment Forum