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ICC Note:
A fantastic article capturing the plight and complexity of the Christian situation in Palestine. ICC’s newsletter carries an article on just this subject in its May edition.
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Holy Land ‘s Christians caught in midst of conflict
By Megan Goldin
For the full article, go to Reuters

BETHLEHEM, West Bank, April 12 (Reuters) – A 76-year-old Greek Orthodox monk is beaten up by villagers, his carefully tended olive trees are uprooted and his isolated West Bank monastery is defaced with graffiti depicting nuns being raped.

The land of Jesus ‘s birth is not always an easy place for Christians to live in 2006.

The population of Christians in the Holy Land , particularly in the Palestinian territories, is dwindling as more and more leave for a better life abroad, turning the community into a tiny minority squeezed between Muslims and Jews.

Caught in the midst of conflict, Churches have sought to help local Christians quietly by not rocking the boat and being careful over criticizing the Palestinian Authority, which might be seen by some as tantamount to supporting Israel .

At the time of the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Christians were a majority in the Holy Land . Until a century ago, they made up about 20 percent of the population. Today, there are about 50,000 Christians in the Palestinian territories — about 1.5 percent of the population — and about 100,000 Christians in Israel — approximately two percent.

LIST OF GRIEVANCES

Exasperated at the failure of the Palestinian Authority to act and the reticence of churches to speak up, a group of Christians in Bethlehem drew up a list of grievances that included theft of their land by Muslims, attacks and desecration of Church property. The Christians passed the list to Church leaders, saying local authorities had done little to help.

There are no accurate figures on the rate of emigration but estimates suggest about 1,000 Christians a year are leaving.

“If the situation continues, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity will become cold, empty museums,” said Samir Qumsieh, a Palestinian-Christian businessman, referring to two of the holiest Christian shrines.

Throughout the Middle East, Christian scholars say, tension is rising between Arab Christians and their Muslim neighbors who see Christians as belonging to a Western World they blame for the conflict in Iraq and other regional troubles. “Even though Christianity grew in the Middle East , the Christians are increasingly seen as being part of the West and therefore at risk at being targeted because of it,” White said.

Infighting over theology or historical slights waters down Christian influence further. “We are seen as Christians in the eyes of our Muslim countrymen and Palestinians in the eyes of Israel and the West. We lose on both fronts,” said one, speaking anonymously.

HARASSED MONK

In the case of the harassed monk who lives in a monastery with two nuns, the abuses have been going on for over a decade. “One day as I tended my olive trees, they came and beat me up, very badly. They tore up my clothes. They were ready to kill me. Then they put wire fencing around me and they said we’ll put the pig inside and we’ll kill him because pigs are not wanted on this land,” the monk said in a testimony.

Late last year, graphic drawings depicting nuns being raped were daubed on monastery property. The Greek Orthodox Church dismissed the matter as a land dispute between neighbors. Another Church source said the Church feared its interests could be hurt if it spoke out.

Land disputes are a particular source of tension between Muslims and Christians in the Bethlehem area. Space is running short in a city largely blockaded by Israel and Muslim families are growing faster than Christian ones.

Christians complain that their appeals to Palestinian courts have fallen on deaf ears, although the land disputes have also sometimes involved Muslim landowners.

“It is not an Islamic-Christian confrontation. Historically, we have lived in peace,” Qumsieh said. “They are targeting Christians because we are the weak link.”