Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
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Palestinian Christians after Nazareth

By Graham Usher

Last week, as Israel's Islamist movement was transforming the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the Mosque of Shihab Al-Din in Nazareth into a virtual victory parade, one image lingered in the minds of Palestinian Christians, whether in Israel or the Occupied Territories. This was the sight of a solitary nun standing on the parapets of Nazareth's Basilica of the Annunciation while, beneath her, thousands of Palestinian Muslims chanted slogans of "fire and blood" and pitched green-canister flares into the night. It was an icon of absolute vulnerability.

"The Christian population here [in the holy-land] feels it is being abandoned," admitted the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, one day after the Nazareth ceremony. On 22 November, Sabbah -- himself a Palestinian from Nazareth -- had given his blessing to a two-day closure of the main Christian Churches in Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas in protest at the construction of the mosque in Nazareth. He also charged the Israeli government with "neglecting Christian interests" and of "capitulating" in the face of "pressure" from Israel's Islamist movement.

It is a sentiment shared by many Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Gaza, even if some viewed the church closure as unwise. Bernard Sabella is a professor in Sociology at Bethlehem University and a member of the Middle East Council of Churches. At the most basic level, he says, Palestinian Christians feel "hurt" by the events in Nazareth. "They have seen that certain elements of the Islamic Movement in Israel are prepared to trade centuries of tolerance in return for local displays of political power."

They also feel increasingly small. According to Sabella, Palestinian Christians now comprise 120,000 (around 12 per cent) of the overall Palestinian population in Israel and 45,000 or two per cent "at the most generous estimate" of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza. In other words, "we are a quite insignificant minority," says Sabella. "And this is obviously threatening, because the smaller you are the more afraid you will disappear. In sociological terms -- if in no other -- the writing is on the wall for Palestinian Christians," he says.

The question is what is going to be their future with their Muslim compatriots, beyond another round of church closures and warnings over the pope's millennium visit, threats that in Sabella's opinion are less a solution than "part of the problem."

Arabs celebrate Israeli Arabs celebrate after unveiling a cornerstone for the controversial mosque in Nazareth last week
(photo:AP)

Sabella is clear about the options Palestinian Christians do not have. One is to mount a Christian confessional response to the agenda of political Islam posed by the Islamists. Aside from the smallness of their numbers, a purely religious agenda "does not appeal to Palestinian Christians, whether it is Islamic or Christian," he says. "Our primary identification has always been and must remain that we are Palestinians and an integral part of Palestinian society in Israel and the Occupied Territories."

But Sabella is under no illusion that movements of pan-Arabism or communism that once provided a natural habitat for Arab Christians in Palestine and beyond can be a domicile for the future. "The old nationalist consensus no longer exists", he says. It is "politicised religious movements" that are on the ascendant now and Palestinian Christians "must be prepared to address them."

The surest way to do so, he says, is for Christians to embrace an inclusive agenda based less on ideology than on citizenship and universal rights that are "applicable to all." He is hopeful that this can happen because Palestine -- by virtue of "where it is geographically and what it means religiously" -- can never be a "closed" society. He also believes that the "positive" intervention made by the PA in the Nazareth dispute reflected this vision of Muslim-Christian unity rather than sectarian difference.

It is a vision held also by Issam Nasser, a professor in History at Al-Quds University and associate director of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies. He agrees with Sabella that the PA has a "vested diplomatic interest in preserving the image of Palestine as a holy-land open to all religions." But, "on the ground," he is disturbed by what he sees as growing Islamisation of Palestinian national culture. He cites the Palestinian national curriculum currently being prepared for PA schools in the West Bank and Gaza.

"The textbooks basically equate the history of Palestine with the history of the Islamic conquest of Palestine," he says. "The Christian history of Palestine -- as occurred, say, during the Byzantine period -- is not celebrated in the same way. The result is that many Palestinians taking the curriculum will grow up believing that Palestine is historically Muslim with the only 'Christian' references being the Crusades and Napoleon. "I really don't see how this equips Palestinian Muslims to view their Christian compatriots as equals."

Nasser argues rather for a national culture that acknowledges and "celebrates" that it is predominantly Muslim but insists on a content that is secular.

Sabella too has anxieties about the legislative bases of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. "I don't have a problem that Islam will be the religion of the state," he says. "When 98 per cent of Palestinians are Muslim, how could it be otherwise? But I do have a problem with a religiously-based state."

He has an even greater problem with the revival in certain Islamist discourses that Christians should have the status of Ahl Ad-Dhimma ("the People of Responsibility"), the notion that Christians (and Jews) are special religious minorities whose "protection" is ensured by a Muslim majority. "Forget that," says Sabella. He is eloquent with his reasons.

"A majority-minority relationship means either you don't have equal rights before the law or that you are dependent on the good will of the majority for these rights. At the dawn of the 21st century, this idea is simply no longer acceptable to Palestinian Christians. I exist in Palestine not because Muslims or the PA or Israel 'protects' me. I exist here by virtue of my birth, my ancestors and, above all, because I am a Palestinian. I don't owe this existence to anybody. The age of Ahl Ad-Dhimma is over."

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