Gaza's Christian minority: Israel's unseen victims
The birthplace of Christ, Palestine was once home to a sizable Christian community. According to UN figures from December 1946, 145,000 Christians lived in the country, representing 12% of the total Palestinian Arab population.
In the wake of the 1948 Nakba, 75,000 Palestinian Christians were expelled from their homes and became refugees in neighbouring countries, as well as in the West Bank and Gaza, which already had a Christian population of 35,000.
Around 39,000 others remained in their homes in what later became Israel, setting roots as the nucleus of the Palestinian Christian community behind the Green Line. In Jerusalem, the Christian population fell from 30,000 in 1947 to just 10,000 by 1967.
As of 2017, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics there are around 50,000 Christians living in the occupied Palestinian territories. Roughly 47,000 live in the West Bank while just over 3,000 live in the Gaza Strip, constituting 8% and 0.7% of the population respectively. Other studies put the number of Christians in Gaza at less than 1,000.
Whilst the statistics show an alarming drop in the overall population of Palestinian Christians since Israel’s formation as a state, Gaza’s Christians have been particularly affected, forced to live under Israel’s ruthless blockade and the resulting economic meltdown.
"Gaza's Christians have been an inseparable part of the Palestinian consciousness, and an important force within the Palestinian national movement"
Dating back to 452 CE, the Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius in Gaza’s Al-Zaytoun neighbourhood stands as a testament to Gaza’s deeply rooted Christian community.
Mostly Greek Orthodox, Gaza’s Christians today are made up of three groups: the original inhabitants of the area; refugees who arrived in Gaza mainly from the city of Ramleh during the Nakba; and the diaspora Christians who returned with Yasser Arafat in 1994 following the signing of the Oslo interim agreement with Israel.
Both culturally and linguistically they are Arab, and most follow the same customs and traditions as the Muslim majority. As such, they have been an inseparable part of the Palestinian consciousness, and an important force within the Palestinian national movement.
The Christian presence in Palestinian society, however, is most visible in their economic and institutional contributions. A study by the Bethlehem-based Dar Al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in March this year found that Christian institutions have been vital in keeping Palestinian society afloat, by playing a key role in the job market and reducing unemployment.
In a 2008 interview, Father Manuel Musallam, the former head of Gaza’s Catholic Church, noted that Gaza’s Christian minority controlled one-third of Gaza’s economy, mainly through owning and running real estate and commercial units.
It is, however, difficult to verify these claims given that official statistics are unavailable, and because since 2005 Gaza’s economy has seen the emergence of a new wealthy class that made millions through the commercialisation of smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Cash was frequently laundered through the purchase of land and real estate, some of which were owned by Christians who had left the Gaza Strip.
Christian contributions to other sectors, particularly healthcare and education, remain undebatable. Established in 1988 at the height of the First Intifada, the Ahli Arab hospital, originally the Baptist Health Centre, currently provides health care to around 160,000 patients annually. Adjacent to the hospital there are a number of Christian-founded clinics that provide healthcare to thousands of Gazans.
The Jerusalem-based eye hospital, Saint John, has been providing eye care to Gazans through its Gaza’s branch since 1992. In 2016, helped by the Qatar Fund for Development, an additional, better equipped building was added to the branch.
Gaza is also home to five Christian schools, four Catholic and one Orthodox. Combined, they provide high-quality (private) education to nearly 3,000 students, only 180 of whom are Christian themselves.
Culturally, Gaza’s YMCA represents one of the city’s oldest and most respected cultural centres. The organisation’s charitable activities and its role as a hub for many of Gaza’s key personalities cannot be overstated.
Enshrined in the 2002 Palestinian Basic Law is the protection of the freedom of religion. Article 18 expressly guarantees “freedom of belief, worship and the performance of religious functions.”
Because Palestine is not a state in the literal meaning of the word, the Palestinian Authority (PA) under Article 10 binds itself to all the UN human rights conventions and declarations, particularly articles 16 and 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantee freedom of religion.
In Gaza and the West Bank, Christians are not bound by Islamic law relating to personal affairs such as marriage, divorce, child support and inheritance, and may only follow the laws of their respective Christian ecclesiastic systems. However, Hamas, the Islamist movement ruling the Gaza Strip, implements a more conservative interpretation of Islam that restricts proselytism.
This is one of the main pretexts used by pro-Israel Christian groups, especially among US Evangelicals, to accuse Hamas of being the driving force behind the decline in Gaza’s Christian population. However, Father Manuel Musallam asserted that Hamas has been unjustly smeared in Western media as intolerant, urging Hamas to establish a Christian media centre to refute such claims.
Archbishop Alexios, who has served the Christian community in Gaza for years, praised Hamas’ security forces for proactively protecting Gaza’s Christians, following a number of attacks in 2008 on the community by a local Salafi group. What’s more, a 2019 report by the US State Department on International Religious Freedom noted that, save for the lack of public celebrations of Christmas, Hamas did not impede the community’s private or communal religious activities.
"There seems to be an unspoken understanding in Palestinian society that religious affiliation is second to being Palestinian, sharing the same destiny and, more importantly, being indiscriminately the victims of Israel's matrix of oppression"
Overall, a 2020 poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Christians felt integrated in Palestinian society and did not face discrimination. While inter-religious marriages between Christian and Muslim Palestinians remain uncommon, this can be attributed to efforts by the Christian minority’s desire to preserve its communal coherence.
Considering this general atmosphere of tolerance, why is the population of Gazan Christians dwindling?
The real culprit
There seems to be an unspoken understanding in Palestinian society that religious affiliation is second to being Palestinian, sharing the same destiny and, more importantly, being indiscriminately the victims of Israel’s matrix of oppression.
Before 1948, for example, Christians represented 86% of Bethlehem’s population. Today, as the Israeli segregation wall cut through the city and settlements claimed much of its land, the population has dropped to a staggering 12%.
Much like their Muslim brethren, Palestinian Christians are overwhelmed by a sense of despair due to land confiscations, restrictions on movement, diminishing personal and collective security, and economic hardships.
A 2020 poll found that Christians in the West Bank who wished to emigrate cited economic reasons. A smaller percentage wanted to emigrate for educational opportunities, safety, or liberty and religious tolerance. The study linked the economic deterioration to Israel’s occupation.
Earlier in 2017, a study by Dar Al-Kalima University - based on interviews with 1,000 Palestinians, half of whom were Christians - attributed Christian emigration from Palestine to the impact of Israel’s occupation.
“The pressure of Israeli occupation, ongoing constraints, discriminatory policies, arbitrary arrests, confiscation of lands added to the general sense of hopelessness among Palestinian Christians,” driving them into a desperate situation where there is no conceivable future.
In Gaza, the situation is unequivocally bleaker. Like the Muslim majority, Gaza’s Christians are cut off from the world, including the Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth.
Every year, the Israeli authorities grant a limited number of permits to travel to the West Bank and Israel to celebrate Christmas or Easter.
Even though the Israeli authorities declared they will allow 500 Gazan Christians to enter Israel and the West Bank this holiday season, critics argue that the decision falls within the Bennett government’s broader plan to ease the restrictions on the Gaza Strip in response to international criticism and fearing the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Strip might spiral into another armed conflict.
Granted, Israel’s indiscriminate mistreatment has brought Gaza’s Muslims and Christians closer together, pushing both communities to the brink of economic meltdown. Owing to the deteriorating economy caused by Israel’s 15-year blockade and consecutive bombardments, Gaza’s Christian community has been losing 5% of its population on average each year, driven by an exodus of young people.
In that, Gaza’s Christian community is not different from the Muslim majority. Al Jazeera Arabic reported that among young Gazans, 51% would leave Gaza if given the chance. Israeli National Public Radio estimated that between 2014 and 2020, about 40,000 young Gazans left without returning. Unofficial Palestinian sources say the number could be as high as 70,000.
It does not require much speculation to understand that a decline in Palestine’s Christian population only serves Israel’s agenda. Cutting off Palestinian Christians from one another and from their holy sites, as with the Muslim majority, weakens the structural integrity of Palestinian society and disrupts its collective identity.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa