Bethlehem’s Beleaguered Christians
By Linda Burkle, Ph.D
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Just a few short weeks ago, across time zones and languages, the sound of this beloved Christmas carol could be heard around the world. Throughout the world, Christians gathered in places of worship to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Many also traveled to Bethlehem to pay homage to the birthplace of Jesus, enshrined under the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square. “According to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, 1.16 million foreigners visited the Church of the Nativity in 2013, the most recent year statistics were available.”
Bethlehem is located in the Palestinian controlled West Bank, but most enter through one of Israel’s twenty-nine checkpoints. here is an abundance of shops, lodging, and attractions catering to Christians. The “birthplace of Jesus” creates much business and fuels the local economy—it is anything except still.
Beyond the tourism however, life of local Christians is hard. Both Muslims and Christians live under the constraints of travel limitations, checkpoints, and other everyday restrictions like walls built to prevent suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. Government corruption and ideology is to blame in part for the poverty, substandard infrastructure and high unemployment that abounds in the area.
These conditions incentivize radicalization and terrorism—families of suicide bombers receive a monetary stipend. Christians have borne the brunt of the hardship, often living as second class citizens beholden to an Islamic government which rejects and despises the heart of Christianity—a Jewish Messiah. Many are fleeing. and as a shrinking minority they are subject to persecution.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, “In 1950, Bethlehem and the surrounding villages were 86 percent Christian. But by 2016, the Christian population dipped to just 12 percent, according Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboun. Across the West Bank, Christians now account for less than 2 percent of the population, though in the 1970s, Christians were 5 percent of the population. In Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, today there are just 11,000 Christians.”
Fox News recently aired a documentary, Battle in Bethlehem featuring reporter Pete Hegseth exploring life today for Christians in Bethlehem. He discovered that most were reluctant to openly express their feelings due to fear of retribution. Hegseth was, however, able to interview Brian Schrauger, an American living in the region. Schrauger shared his belief that many leave because “Christians here have found it increasingly difficult to live to do business the way things are done here—legally with the police and with the courts. They’re subject to the Palestinian Authority. And that’s just become increasingly difficult.”
Under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, religious freedom is codified in the Basic Law, which was approved in 2002 by the Palestinian Legislative Council and signed by then-President Yasir Arafat. The Basic Law declares Islam the official religion but also calls for respect and sanctity for other “heavenly” religions such as Judaism and Christianity. “All Palestinians are required to declare their religious affiliation on identification papers. Either Islamic or Christian ecclesiastical courts handle legal matters relating to personal status. Inheritance, marriage, and divorce are handled by such courts, which exist for Muslim and Christians.”
While neither the United Nations nor the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom have acknowledged the persecution of Christians under the Palestinian Authority (PA), it is cited in the 2019 World Watch List published by Open Doors USA, an organization devoted to the persecuted. In its indicators, both violence and pressure were noted. Pressure occurs at multiple levels: family, community, national and church life. The source of persecution is identified as Islamic oppression.
In her paper The Persecution of Christians in the Palestinian Authority, Dr. Edy Cohen concludes that the “ongoing international neglect of the plight of the Christians under PA rule can only lead to the vanishing of Christianity from the place where it emerged.” She goes on to describe several incidents in which Christians were physically attacked and churches vandalized, desecrated, and robbed. The police were unresponsive; no one was arrested. The Maronite church in Bethlehem has been attacked six times, including an arson attack. None of these incidents were covered by PA media; a gag order was imposed in many cases. Dr. Cohn further states:
“It is unlikely that the latest wave of attacks will lead to the arrest, let alone prosecution, of any suspects. The only thing that interests the PA is that events of this kind not be leaked to the media. Fatah regularly exerts heavy pressure on Christians not to report the acts of violence and vandalism from which they frequently suffer, as such publicity could damage the PA’s image as an actor capable of protecting the lives and property of the Christian minority under its rule. Even less does the PA want to be depicted as a radical entity that persecutes religious minorities. That image could have negative repercussions for the massive international, and particularly European, aid the PA receives.”
During one of my trips to Israel, I spoke with the pastor of a prominent church in Bethlehem. He shared how difficult it is to be an Arab Christian leader there. Although his church provides a variety of much-needed social services to Christians and Muslims alike, he has been shot at several times, his church has been bombed, and his brother was killed because of his faith.
I also spoke with a young Christian Arab woman who returned to live in Bethlehem after obtaining a law degree in the United States. She said that her siblings chose to live abroad after schooling rather to be return to Bethlehem. I asked her why she returned. She stated that she was concerned that a Christian presence in Bethlehem would disappear and she felt it was her duty to stay despite the hardships and persecution. I pray that she can continue to be a light in that increasingly dark place.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.
May it always be so.
Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.