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Christians Flee Growing Islamic Fundamentalism in the Holy Land

Justus Reid Weiner (Institute for Contemporary Affairs)

  • The Christian population of the areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has sharply declined in recent decades, as tens of thousands have abandoned their holy sites and ancestral properties to live abroad. Those who remain comprise a beleaguered and dwindling minority. In sharp contrast, Israel ‘s Christian community has prospered and grown by at least 270 percent since the founding of the state.
  • While Israel understands that the construction of the security barrier inconveniences some of the Christian communities living in its vicinity, Israel has shown sensitivity to Christian interests in planning the route of the barrier.
  • The plight of Christian Arabs remaining in the PA is, in part, attributable to the adoption of Muslim religious law in the PA Constitution. Israel , by contrast, safeguards the religious freedom and holy places of its Christian (and Muslim) citizens. Indeed, in recent years Israel has been responsible for restoring many of the churches and monasteries under its jurisdiction.
  • The growing strength of Islamic fundamentalism within the Palestinian national movement poses problems for Christians, who fear they will be deemed opponents of Islam and thereby risk becoming targets for Muslim extremists. This is exacerbated by the fact that Hamas holds substantial power and seeks to impose its radical Islamist identity on the entire population within the PA-controlled territories.

Who Threatens Christians in the Holy Land ?

Palestinian Christians have a higher rate of emigration compared to Palestinian Muslims and the Christian population of the West Bank and Gaza has plunged from about 20 percent after World War II to less than 1.7 percent now.1 Tens of thousands have abandoned their holy sites and ancestral properties to live abroad.2

Some senior Christian clerics claim that the dramatic rise in Christian emigration from PA-controlled territories is a result of the Israeli “occupation.”3 However, in-depth research demonstrates that the precipitous decline in the Christian population is primarily a result of social, economic, and religious discrimination and persecution within Palestinian society in the West Bank and Gaza .

In a July 3, 2006, article, “Who Harms Holy Land Christians?,” syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, a long-time critic of Israel, paraphrased a letter from Michael H. Sellers, an Anglican priest in Jerusalem, to U.S. Congressmen Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Joseph Crowley (D-NY), who were circulating a draft resolution blaming the Christian decline on the discriminatory practices of the Palestinian Authority.4 Sellers insisted that “the real problem [behind the Christian Arab exodus] is the Israeli occupation – especially its new security wall.”

Yet two-thirds of the Christian Arabs had already departed between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan occupied the West Bank and Egypt the Gaza Strip, prior to the “occupation” and decades before construction began on the security barrier to protect Israel ‘s population from waves of deadly suicide bombers. During the same period, hundreds of thousands of Christians were leaving other Muslim-ruled countries in the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa . Every one of the more than twenty Muslim states in the Middle East has a declining Christian population. In fact, Israel is the only state in the region in which the Christian Arab population has grown in real terms – from approximately 34,000 in 1948 to nearly 130,000 in 2005.5

Novak also refers to Sellers as “coordinator of Jerusalem ‘s Christian churches.” Actually, there are at least 16 traditional, Oriental, and Protestant churches represented in Jerusalem , yet only three other clergymen signed the letter with Sellers – and all three are known for their close loyalty to Arafat’s Palestinian nationalism.

Israel ‘s Security Barrier

Novak also quotes Father Faras Arida, a Catholic priest in the West Bank village of Aboud , who asserts that the security barrier costs villagers their water and olive trees. In fact, the water resources used by Aboud will remain on the side of the barrier where the village is situated. At the same time, the Israeli government is to fully compensate farmers for the 1,500 olive trees uprooted during the barrier’s construction.

Although the security barrier inconveniences some West Bank residents, it was designed to include dozens of gates for transit and agriculture for those on legitimate business, including Christian residents, pilgrims, and clergy. As noted by former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp, Israel has displayed particular sensitivity to Christian religious concerns, taking measures to ensure their access to holy sites. To this end, Israel has negotiated with Christian communities directly impacted by the barrier, and has, in some instances, rerouted construction to better accommodate their requests.6

Significantly, the barrier would not exist but for Palestinian terrorism.

Israelis across the political spectrum would reject any demand to remove the security fence before the Palestinians stop their attacks. The blame for its construction belongs squarely on the Palestinian leadership that sponsored years of bloody terrorism against Israeli civilians. Prior to the erection of the fence, Palestinian terror killed an average of 103 Israelis and wounded 688 each year. After the completion of the first portion of the fence, an average of 28 people were killed and 83 wounded per year – a decrease of approximately 90 percent.7 The last two “successful” suicide bombers in Jerusalem murdered a total of 18 people by entering through unfinished portions of the barrier near Bethlehem.

Novak also ignores the Palestinians’ refusal to negotiate the occupation’s end. In 2000 and 2001 Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority rejected a generous Israeli offer of a Palestinian state comprising the Gaza Strip, much of eastern Jerusalem, and virtually all of the West Bank in exchange for peace with Israel. Rejecting even Arafat’s façade of negotiations, Hamas, which won the January 2006 Palestinian elections, has demonstrated no interest whatsoever in any negotiated settlement with Israel .

Islamic Religious Extremism

Novak further alleges that I initiated the congressional letter that blamed the Palestinian Authority for the flight of Christian Arabs from the Holy Land – a role that exists only in the columnist’s imagination. I am a scholar who has spent nine years researching this subject. In the process I have interviewed scores of Christian Arabs, and published five scholarly articles and a monograph on the topic – none of which Novak saw fit to cite.8 “From Christian Arabs under the thumb of the PA, I have heard testimony of forced marriages of Christian women to Muslim men, death threats against Christians for distributing the Bible to willing Muslims, and Christian women intimidated into wearing traditional ultra-modest Islamic clothing. Churches have been firebombed (most recently in Nablus , Tubas, and Gaza when the Pope made his controversial remarks) and/or shot up repeatedly. And this is the tip of the iceberg.”

Under the Palestinian Authority, whose constitution gives Islamic law primacy over all other sources of law, Christian Arabs have found their land expropriated by Muslim thieves and thugs with ties to the PA’s land registration office. Christians have been forced to pay bribes to win the freedom of family members jailed on trumped-up charges. And Arabs – Christians and Muslims alike – have been selling or abandoning homes and businesses to escape the chaos of the PA and move to Israel , Europe, South America, North America , or wherever they can get a visa.


1. Other factors include declining economic conditions in the PA (J. C. Watts, “Yasser Arafat vs. Christians,” Washington Times, Dec. 4, 1997, at A19) and Islamic law in the PA Constitution (David Bedein, “Final Version of Official Palestinian State Constitution,” Makor Rishon [Hebrew], April 17, 2003).

2. For further reading on the plight of Christian Arabs, see Justus Reid Weiner, Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society (2005). This monograph can be downloaded free of charge at It is also available to purchase from

3. These Christian clerics include Michael Sabbah, Munib Younan, and Riah Abu el-Assal.

4. Robert D. Novak, “Who Harms Holy Land Christians?,” Washington Post, July 3, 2006.

5. Eric Rozenman, “False Premises, Repeated Errors in Robert Novak Column on Christian Arabs,” March 17, 2006, available at: This is a response to an earlier publication by Novak.

6. Jack Kemp, “Absolute Necessity,” New York Sun, April 26, 2006, available at This is a response to a previous publication by Novak.

7. Israeli Ministry of Defense, “Security Fence’s Effectiveness,” News Brief, July 1, 2004, available at

8. See additional related scholarship by Justus Reid Weiner: “Human Rights Trends in the Emerging Palestinian State: Problems Encountered by Muslim Converts to Christianity,” 8(3) Michigan State Journal of International Law 539 (1999); Appendix “Israel and Palestine” to Forum 18 Report “Freedom of Religion: A Report With Special Emphasis on the Right to Choose Religion and Registration Systems,” financed by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (February 2001); “Palestinian Christians: Silent Victims of a Zero-Sum Game,” 8(2) Mediterranean Journal of Human Rights 383 (2004); “Palestinian Christians: Equal Citizens or Oppressed Minority in a Future Palestinian State,” 7 Oregon Review of International Law 26 (Spring 2005); and “Palestinian Christians: A Minority’s Plea for Rights Silenced by the Politics of Peace,” The Journal of Human Rights (October 2005).