Forgotten Christians: Not All Displaced Palestinians are Muslims

Forgotten Christians: Not All Displaced Palestinians are Muslims,
by Anders Strindberg

UN Observer
May 18 2004

2004-05-18 | “The Palestinian Christians see themselves, and are seen
by their Muslim compatriots, as an integral part of the Palestinian
people, and they have long been a vital part of the Palestinian
struggle. As the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, the Reverend Riah Abu
al-Assal has explained, ‘The Arab Palestinian Christians are part and
parcel of the Arab Palestinian nation. We have the same history, the
same culture, the same habits and the same hopes.'”

Introduction by Jude Wanniski: The Christian Palestinians.

I’ve noted before the high quality of Pat Buchanan’s weekly magazine,
The American Conservative, which he co-publishes with Scott
McConnell. There is always at least one piece in each issue that by
itself is worth the price of admission, and always several worth
reading. The current May 24 issue offers this dazzling piece by
Anders Strindberg on a major missing piece to the Middle East puzzle.
Read it and you can begin to see why the most important barrier to
peace in the Middle East is neither Arab nor Jew, but a Christian
Zionist from Houston named Tom DeLay. Yes, the American Jewish
Political Establishment has a powerful lobby in Washington, but it
would not be nearly as powerful if it did not have the leverage of
the born-again fundamentalists.

Jude Wanniski

The following article is republished in conjunction with

Forgotten Christians
Not all displaced Palestinians are Muslims.
By Anders Strindberg

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is playing to full houses in
the Syrian capital Damascus. Watching it here turns out to be much
the same as watching it on opening night in New York – customarily
rowdy moviegoers observe a reverent silence, the usual sound of candy
wrappers is replaced by sobbing and gasping, and, at the end of it
all, the audience files out of the theater in silence and
contemplation. Many of those watching the movie on this occasion are
Palestinian Christian refugees whose parents or grandparents were
purged from their homeland – the land of Christ – at the foundation of
Israel in 1948. For them the movie has an underlying symbolic meaning
not easily perceived in the West: not only is it a depiction of the
trial, scourging, and death of Jesus, it is also a symbolic depiction
of the fate of the Palestinian people. “This is how we feel,” says
Zaki, a 27-year old Palestinian Christian whose family hails from
Haifa. “We take beating after beating at the hands of the world, they
crucify our people, they insult us, but we refuse to surrender.”

At the time of the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, it is
estimated that the Christians of Palestine numbered some 350,000.
Almost 20 percent of the total population at the time, they
constituted a vibrant and ancient community; their forbears had
listened to St. Peter in Jerusalem as he preached at the first
Pentecost. Yet Zionist doctrine held that Palestine was “a land
without a people for a people without a land.” Of the 750,000
Palestinians that were forced from their homes in 1948, some 50,000
were Christians – 7 percent of the total number of refugees and 35
percent of the total number of Christians living in Palestine at the

In the process of “Judaizing” Palestine, numerous convents, hospices,
seminaries, and churches were either destroyed or cleared of their
Christian owners and custodians. In one of the most spectacular
attacks on a Christian target, on May 17, 1948, the Armenian Orthodox
Patriarchate was shelled with about 100 mortar rounds – launched by
Zionist forces from the already occupied monastery of the Benedictine
Fathers on Mount Zion. The bombardment also damaged St. Jacob’s
Convent, the Archangel’s Convent, and their appended churches, their
two elementary and seminary schools, as well as their libraries,
killing eight people and wounding 120.

Today it is believed that the number of Christians in Israel and
occupied Palestine number some 175,000, just over 2 percent of the
entire population, but the numbers are rapidly dwindling due to mass
emigration. Of those who have remained in the region, most live in
Lebanon, where they share in the same bottomless misery as all other
refugees, confined to camps where schools are under-funded and
overcrowded, where housing is ramshackle, and sanitary conditions are
appalling. Most, however, have fled the region altogether. No
reliable figures are available, but it is estimated that between
100,000 and 300,000 Palestinian Christians currently live in the U.S.

The Palestinian Christians see themselves, and are seen by their
Muslim compatriots, as an integral part of the Palestinian people,
and they have long been a vital part of the Palestinian struggle. As
the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, the Reverend Riah Abu al-Assal has
explained, “The Arab Palestinian Christians are part and parcel of
the Arab Palestinian nation. We have the same history, the same
culture, the same habits and the same hopes.”

Yet U.S. media and politicians have become accustomed to thinking of
and talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one in which an
enlightened democracy is constantly forced to repel attacks from
crazy-eyed Islamists bent on the destruction of the Jewish people and
the imposition of an Islamic state. Palestinians are equated with
Islamists, Islamists with terrorists. It is presumably because all
organized Christian activity among Palestinians is non-political and
non-violent that the community hardly ever hits the Western
headlines; suicide bombers sell more copy than people who congregate
for Bible study.

Lebanese and Syrian Christians were essential in the conception of
Arab nationalism as a general school of anti-colonial thought
following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the
20th century. During the 1930s, Hajj Amin al-Hussein, the leader of
the Palestinian struggle against the British colonialists, surrounded
himself with Christian advisors and functionaries. In the 1950s and
’60s, as the various factions that were to form the Palestine
Liberation Organization (PLO) emerged, some of the most prominent
militants were yet again of Christian origin. For instance, George
Habash, a Greek Orthodox medical doctor from al-Lod, created the Arab
Nationalists’ Movement and went on to found the Popular Front for the
Liberation of Palestine. Naif Hawatmeh, also Greek Orthodox, from
al-Salt in Jordan, founded and still today heads up the Democratic
Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Among those better regarded in
the West, Hannan Ashrawi, one of the Palestinian Authority’s most
effective spokespersons, is a Christian.

In fact, over the decades, many of the rank and file among the
secular nationalist groups of the PLO have been Christians who have
seen leftist nationalist politics as the only alternative to both
Islamism and Western liberalism, the former objectionable because of
its religiously exclusive nature, the latter due to what is seen by
many as its inherent protection of Israel and the Zionist project.

Among the remnant communities in Palestine, most belong to the
traditional Christian confessions. The largest group is Greek
Orthodox, followed by Catholics (Roman, Syrian, Maronite, and
Melkite), Armenian Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans. There is also
a small but influential Quaker presence. These communities are
centered in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, and

For them, the conflict with Israel is quite obviously not about
Islamism contra enlightenment but simply about resistance against
occupation. To be sure, there have been periods of tension between
the Christian communities and members of the Islamist groups, yet to
many Christian Palestinians the Islamist movements have emerged by
default as the heroes in the conflict with Israel. Following the
incremental atrophy of leftist ideals, the Islamists are seen as the
only ones who are willing and able to fight the occupation. The
Lebanese Hezbollah, widely seen as a nonsectarian organization that
is able to cooperate with people of all faiths, is particularly
admired both among the refugees in Lebanon as well as those who
remain in Palestine. “We have received far more support and comfort
from the Hezbollah in Lebanon than from our fellow Christians in the
West,” remarked one Christian Palestinian refugee in Damascus. “I
want to know, why don’t the Christians in the West do anything to
help us? Are the teachings of Jesus nothing but empty slogans to

This is a justified and important question, but the answer is not
straightforward. The Catholic Church has, in fact, long argued for an
end to the Israeli occupation and for improvement of the
Palestinians’ situation. The leaders of the Eastern Orthodox churches
have taken similar, often more strongly worded positions. Likewise,
many Lutheran and Calvinist churches run organizations and programs
that seek to ease the suffering of the Palestinians and draw
attention to the injustices with which they are faced. Usually
working within strictly religious frames of reference, however, their
impact on the political situation has been minimal.

This political limitation has not applied to those parts of the
Evangelical movement that have adopted Zionism as a core element of
their religious doctrine. Christian Zionists in the U.S. are
currently organized in an alliance with the pro-Israel lobby and the
neoconservative elements of the Republican Party, enabling them to
put significant pressure on both the president and members of
Congress. In fact, they are among the most influential shapers of
policy in the country, including individuals such as Ralph Reed, Pat
Robertson, and Jerry Falwell, and groups such as the National Unity
Coalition for Israel, Christians for Israel, the International
Christian Embassy Jerusalem, and Chosen People Ministries.

Christian Zionism is an odd thing on many levels. A key tenet of
Christian Zionism is absolute support for Israel, whose establishment
and existence, it is believed, heralds Armageddon and the second
coming of Christ. The politically relevant upshot of this is that
without Israel’s expansion there can be no redemption, and those who
subscribe to this interpretation are only too eager to sacrifice
their Palestinian fellow Christians on the altar of Zionism. They do
not want to hear about coreligionists’ suffering at the hands of

Israeli and Jewish American leaders have until recently kept their
distance from the Christian Zionist movement. But Beltway alliance
politics coupled with a sharp turn to the right among American Jewish
organizations since Israel began its onslaught on Palestinians in
September 2000, has driven them into each other’s arms.

One of the most potent forces behind the Evangelical Zionist
influence in Washington is Tom DeLay, leader of the Republican
majority in the House. DeLay insists that his devotion to Israel
stems from his faith in God, which allows him a clear understanding
of the struggle between good and evil. Be that as it may, he is also
able to cash in financially and politically from his position. Part
of DeLay’s growing influence within the Republican Party stems from
the fact that his campaign committees managed to raise an impressive
$12 million in 2001-2002. Washington Post writer Jim VandeHei
suggested, “In recent years, DeLay has become one of the most
outspoken defenders of Israel and has been rewarded with a surge of
donations from the Jewish community.”

In Oct. 2002, Benny Elon, Sharon’s minister of tourism and a staunch
advocate of a comprehensive purge of Palestinians from the Holy Land,
appeared with DeLay at the Washington convention of the Christian
Coalition. Crowds waved Israeli flags as Elon cited Biblical
authority for this preferred way of dealing with the pesky
Palestinians. DeLay, in turn, received an enthusiastic welcome when
he called for activists to back pro-Israel candidates who “stand
unashamedly for Jesus Christ.” In July 2003, Tom DeLay traveled to
Israel and addressed the Knesset, telling the assembled legislators
that he was an “Israeli at heart.” The Palestinians “have been
oppressed and abused,” he said, but never by Israel, only by their
own leaders. DeLay received a standing ovation.

Christians find themselves under the hammer of the Israeli occupation
to no less an extent than Muslims, yet America – supposedly a Christian
country – stands idly by because its most politically influential
Christians have decided that Palestinian Christians are acceptable
collateral damage in their apocalyptic quest. “To be a Christian from
the land of Christ is an honor,” says Abbas, a Palestinian Christian
whose family lived in Jerusalem for many generations until the purge
of 1948. “To be expelled from that land is an injury, and these
Zionist Christians in America add insult.”

Abbas is one of the handful of Palestinian Christians that could be
described as Evangelical, belonging to a group that appears to be
distantly related to the Plymouth Brethren. Cherishing the role of
devil’s advocate, I had to ask him, “Is the State of Israel not in
fact the fulfillment of God’s promise and a necessary step in the
second coming of Christ?” Abbas looked at me briefly and laughed.
“You’re kidding, right? You know what they do to our people and our
land. If I thought that was part of God’s plan, I’d be an atheist in
a second.”

Anders Strindberg is an academic and a journalist specializing in
Mideast politics.