Recent outrages against the Palestinians by the Sharon government, coinciding with the celebration of the millennium and continuing to the present, have focused international attention on the plight of the dwindling numbers of the indigenous Christian population, which has lived in Palestine since Pentecost. Two recent books have dealt with these ancient communities and their current problems in considerable detail, following in the wake of Willam Dalrymple’s enthusiastically received and widely read From the Holy Mountain (Cassell, 1997). Dalrymple first focused attention on the surviving remnants of Christianity in the Holy Land, who face concerted efforts by both Muslim fundamentalists and the State of Israel to weaken their presence.
For Islamists, the large numbers of Arabic-speaking Christians in Egypt, Israel and the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are an embarrassment, testifying to a failure to convert them to Islam over the past fourteen centuries. They are often also mistrusted for their perceived pro-Western attitudes. For the Israelis they blur the message Zionism wants the West to swallow: that all Arabs are fanatical Muslims. That large, educated, Western-oriented communities of Arabs have survived in the land of Christianity’s birth for nearly 2,000 years makes it more difficult for Sharon to move at will, particularly against Christian targets like Bethlehem and Bayt Jala, without attracting international criticism, and in many circles, well-deserved opprobrium. Within the boundaries of the British Mandate of Palestine their numbers have remained stagnant since 1948, when they represented over 10 percent of the Arab population. The Muslim and Druze population has grown substantially, largely due to high birthrates and increased longevity, and the Jews have eclipsed everyone else for the moment, principally due to continued immigration.
The two books complement each other in excellent fashion. Donald Wagner is a Presbyterian minister whose previous books on the subject have been aimed at the large number (his estimate is 20 percent) of the 50 million Evangelical American Protestant Christians who blindly support the secular state of Israel for misguided religious reasons – that the return of Jews to Palestine will hasten the Second Coming. This work is aimed at a wider audience and is essentially a history of Christianity in Palestine since the death and resurrection of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples in Jerusalem 50 days later. The Zionists have made a special effort to downplay the presence of Christians in the Holy Land in the first three centuries of the Christian era, implying, as did former West Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, that “Christianity . . . developed far from the scene of Jesus’ last ministry, notably in Antioch and other parts of the Middle East” and that “Jerusalem itself . . . remained comparatively untouched by the views expounded by the latest victim of Rome” (p. 27). This is a deliberate calumny intended to imply that Jews, not Christians, have lived uninterrupted in Jerusalem since the death of Christ, when in fact they were expelled by the Romans in 70 A.D. and only allowed to return in any number under Islamic rule.
The Christian Byzantines despised them for their collaboration with the emperor Julian the Apostate, who promised to rebuild their temple in return for support against the Christians, and later their collaboration with the Persians, when they invaded and conquered the Holy City in 610. As an example of the view of those who clung to their Hebrew heritage, they used the so-called “Temple Mount”, i.e., the site of the second Jewish Temple, as a rubbish heap. It was the greatly revered father of Orthodoxy, St. John Chrysostom, (347-407), patriarch of Constantinople, who first coined the phrase “Christ-killers,” referring to the Jews of Antioch, and likened synagogues to “dens of iniquity.” Under Islamic rule the Jews prospered at the expense of the Orthodox Christians, who were always suspected by the Muslims of having ultimate allegiance to the emperor in Constantinople rather than the caliph in Damascus and later Baghdad.
Wagner’s book is divided into ten chapters, the first three dealing with Christianity in Palestine under early Christian and Muslim rule, and the final seven with the Christian communities there since 1880, particularly since Zionism intruded into their lives and encouraged an exodus that continues to this day. The native Christians in Palestine numbered approximately 145,000 within the borders of the British Mandate in 1948 and remains roughly that today. Had the state of Israel not forced some 75,000 to leave in 1948-49 and brought about a further decline after its military occupation of the West Bank in 1967 and subsequent establishment of illegal Jewish settlements on Arab lands, “by natural increase their numbers would be well over a million today” (p. 209).
Sennett makes a more moderate estimate, reckoning that “by the year 2000 [the population] should have reached about 420,000.” The only bright spot in this otherwise discouraging picture is that some 60,000 of the so-called Jewish immigrants to Israel from Russia are actually Christians (with one supposed Jewish grandparent), including functioning Orthodox priests (pp. 215-16). But the fact that a Russian Orthodox clergyman, claiming a probably fictitious Jewish ancestor, can happily settle in Nazareth, while a Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem who emigrated to the United States cannot return to his homeland, “even though I have a birth certificate from the Church of the Nativity . . . , even though my parents’ house sits vacant, even though we can trace our lineage back hundreds and hundreds of years,” points out the vicious hypocrisy of the Israeli so-called “Law of Return” (p. 17).
Sennett’s book is a journalist’s account of the state of Christianity in the Holy Land at the close of the second millennium. As the Middle East correspondent for the Boston Globe 19972001, the author, a self-described lapsed Catholic with a Jewish wife, takes as unbiased a view as one could hope for in portraying the sad state of the local Palestinian Christian communities, beset by hatred and mistrust from both Muslim fundamentalists and Zionist extremists, aided and abetted by the Israeli state. It is quite a lengthy book, but eminently readable and with a surprising depth of understanding of local history and Israeli-Palestinian political intricacies. As the outbreak of the second intifada and Sharon’s ruthless response raises the level of violence, he fears for the safety of his wife and three young sons and reluctantly abandons Jerusalem for London, but not before recording an excellent account of what Christians in the Holy Land are up against and why their numbers continue to decline. He is particularly good in dealing with the Israeli targeting of Christians in the three major West Bank centers of Bethlehem, Bayt Jala and Bayt Sahour (pp. 119121 and 442-445), long before the most recent onslaught over the Greek Orthodox Easter 2002 and the shameful siege of the Church of the Nativity.
When dealing with the Israeli occupation and its vile treatment of all Palestinians, including Christians, Sennott does not hesitate to tell the truth. He is likewise unwilling to play down the actions of certain elements among the Muslim Palestinians that have also made life for local Christians untenable. But he also highlights the very close ties Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat has long had with his Christian countrymen and the efforts he has made over the years to include them in his administration and to come to their aid when Muslim extremists have attacked them (e.g. in Gaza, pp. 376-77).
There are a few minor errors, such as confusing the terms “Assyrian” and “Nestorian” and placing them in Syria, rather than Mesopotamia (p. 9), and “ordination” with “dispensation” (p. 277). The Muslim town of Umm al-Fahm in Israel has never had a Christian population (p. 274), so the fact that there are “virtually no Christians left” does not come as a surprise. The town of Marjayoun in southern Lebanon is not “a Maronite stronghold” (p. 287), but overwhelmingly Greek Orthodox, with small Protestant, Maronite and Muslim minorities. The road from Madaba to Amman, Jordan, does not “cut through the patchwork of Jordan Valley farmland” (p. 249) but runs level along the East Bank plateau of ancient Moab, and the Christian population of Jordan is not a mere 80,000 (p. 240) but more like 200,000. The Papal Mass in Beirut in May 1997 was attended by more like one million faithful, rather than 500,000 (p. 305), and the Christian population in Lebanon remains closer to 40 percent than 25 percent (not including Palestinian refugees and Syrian workers, who are almost entirely Muslim), particularly if one counts those temporarily working outside the country in neighboring Arab States.
Both these books are to be recommended for their overall accuracy and for calling attention to the hideously unpleasant reality for Palestinian Christians in Israel and the Occupied West Bank and Gaza. If people like Wagner and Sennott continue to speak the truth, one can hope that spokesmen for peace like Nobel prize winner Jimmy Carter will ultimately prevail.