Palestinian Christians, Bethlehem & East Jerusalem

Palestinian Christians, Bethlehem & East Jerusalem

 Palestinian Christians, Bethlehem & East Jerusalem
IMEU, MAR 22, 2013

Palestinian Christians

Today, there are roughly 200,000 Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land,

descendants of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world.

The majority of Palestinian Christians are Greek Orthodox, with smaller numbers of Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Copts, Episcopalians, Ethiopian Orthodox,

Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Maronites, Syrian Orthodox, and several other

Protestant denominations.

There are no official figures on the number of Palestinian Christians in the occupied territories, but according to the Lutheran ecumenical institution the Diyar

Consortium there are 51,710 Christians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

They are concentrated mainly in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus.

Christians comprise roughly 2% of the population of the West Bank, while Gaza’s

estimated 3,000 Christians account for less than 1% of the coastal enclave’s

population. The number of Christians in the occupied territories has continued to

dwindle as many emigrate as a result of the difficulties of living under Israeli military occupation. (See here for a 2012 report from the program 60 Minutes on the plight of Palestinian Christians.)

According to Israeli government figures, as of 2009 there were about 154,000

Christian citizens of Israel, or about 2.1% of the population. Of those, approximately

80% are Palestinian Arabs, including 44,000 Roman Catholics, while the rest are

non-Arab immigrants, mostly spouses of Jews who came from the Soviet Union in

the early 1990s.

In recent years, settlers have begun so-called “price tag” attacks against Palestinians

in response to Israeli government actions that displease them, such as the

dismantling of settlement “outposts” (nascent settlements built without official

approval from Israeli authorities). Often, such attacks take the form of vandalism and desecration of

Muslim and Christian holy sites.

In the occupied territories, Palestinian Christians suffer from the same restrictions, including on movement, applied to all Palestinians living under Israel’s 45-year-old military rule. These same restrictions do not apply to the more than 500,000 Jewish settlers living in illegal settlements in the occupied territories.

Although Israeli officials frequently claim that Palestinians, including Christians,

have free access to their holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem and other areas under

Israeli control, in reality Israeli restrictions make it difficult or impossible for most Palestinians in the occupied territories to worship freely. According to the US State Department 2011 Report on International Religious Freedom, published in July 2012:
“Strict closures and curfews imposed by the Israeli government negatively affected residents’ ability to practice their religion at holy sites, including the Church of the

Holy Sepulchre and al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, as well as the Church of the


Nativity in Bethlehem.

“The separation barrier significantly impeded Bethlehem-area Christians from

reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and made visits to Christian

sites in Bethany and Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who live on the Jerusalem side of the barrier.”


See here for a map of settlements surrounding Bethlehem

The town of Bethlehem itself has a population of approximately 22,000.

Today, Christians comprise approximately 18% of Bethlehem’s population.

Bethlehem is surrounded on three sides by Israel’s West Bank wall, which has been

deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice.

There are currently 22 Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land

belonging to Bethlehem, including Nokdim, where recently resigned Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lives. As with Israel’s West Bank wall, all Israeli

settlements built on occupied land are illegal under international law.

In and around Bethlehem there are some 32 physical barriers to Palestinian

movement erected by Israel, including checkpoints, roadblocks, dirt mounds, and


In June 2012, the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born,

was named by UNESCO as an endangered heritage site, in a move opposed by the

Obama administration.

East Jerusalem

See here for 2010 map of settlements in and around East Jerusalem
See here for interactive “Jerusalem and its Environs” map

There are approximately 250,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem. They can

travel inside Israel and vote in municipal elections, but do not have Israeli citizenship

or the right to vote in national elections, and face the constant threat of losing their residency rights if they can’t prove the city is their “center of life” to Israeli authorities.

Following its capture in the 1967 War, Israel expanded the municipal boundaries of

East Jerusalem, which comprised about four square miles, adding an additional 45

square miles (more than 17,000 acres) of the occupied West Bank to the city, which

was then annexed to Israel. Neither move has been recognized by the international community, including the United States.

There are approximately 200,000 Jewish settlers living in the expanded boundaries

of East Jerusalem, in violation of international law.

Although Israel has attempted to make a distinction between them, according to international law, there is no legal difference between East Jerusalem and the rest

of the occupied territories. As such, Israel has no internationally recognized legal

claim to any part of East Jerusalem, including the Old City and its holy sites.

In an attempt to separate and isolate East Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied

West Bank, Israel has built a ring of settlements around its outskirts. This ring has

been reinforced by the wall Israel is constructing, which also separates Israeli


ts in and near East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.

Since 1993, Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have been forbidden by

Israel to enter East Jerusalem without a difficult to obtain permit. As a result,

millions of Palestinian Muslims and Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza are prevented from accessing their holy sites in Jerusalem.

According to the 2009 US State Department International Religious Freedom Report: “Many of the national and municipal policies in Jerusalem were designed to limit or diminish the non-Jewish population of Jerusalem.”

According to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem: “Since East Jerusalem was annexed in 1967, the government of Israel’s primary goal in Jerusalem has been to

create a demographic and geographic situation that will thwart any future attempt to challenge Israeli sovereignty over the city. To achieve this goal, the government has

been taking actions to increase the number of Jews, and reduce the number of

Palestinians, living in the city.” Methods used by Israel as part of an effort to

“Judaize” or alter the religious composition of Jerusalem by increasing the number


of Jews while decreasing the number of Palestinians, include:

Revoking residency rights and social benefits of Palestinians who stay abroad for

at least seven years, or who are unable to prove that their “center of life” is in


Encouraging Jewish settlement in historically Palestinian-Arab areas through official


and unofficial organizations.

Systematically discriminating against Palestinian neighborhoods in municipal

planning and in the allocation of services and building permits.

Destroying Palestinian homes and structures built without difficult to obtain

permission from Israeli authorities. Since 1967, approximately 2000 Palestinian

homes have been demolished in East Jerusalem. According to official Israeli statistics

, from 2000 to 2008 Israel demolished more than 670 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. It’s estimated that the number of Palestinian housing units threatened

with demolition is as high as 20,000.

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