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Heinz Theisen {*}

Being a Christian in Bethlehem


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 50/2013, P. 565 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In the Islamic world, Christians play an increasingly inferior role. In the Bethlehem area they at least live in coexistence with their Islamic environment, which is however fragile and subject to many conditions.


Around 1900, circa thirty percent of the Palestinians were Christians. Although the absolute number has hardly fallen, they represent today in the Palestinian territories only 1.37 percent of the population. This is connected with a massive loss of influence. In the once mainly Christian Bethlehem, the percentage of Christians has declined from about 80 to 28.2 percent. In the entire Bethlehem district, which includes the refugee camps, only 12.7 percent of the population are Christians. These figures cannot simply be explained by the "Israeli occupation." They must rather be seen as part of the exodus of Christians from the Middle East. In the once Christian Lebanon, the 84 percent Christians of 1926 have dwindled to now only 30.3 percent. Today, Christians live again in an internal culture struggle.

In Bethlehem, the diversity of Christianity is still mirrored: Oriental Orthodox churches as e.g. Armenian, Syrian, Copts and Ethiopian, Catholic Churches of the East as e.g. Maronite, Melkite, Chaldean and Latin and various Protestant churches and Free Church associations. Despite the fragmentation and frequent lack of mutual solidarity, the Christian churches coexist. Also in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem they have learned to tolerate each other.


Fragile Coexistence

As long as in the Islamic world not even the two great faiths of Shia and Sunni integrate each other, you should not too much hope for an inclusion of Judaism or Christianity. According to the Koran, Jews and Christians are recipients of the biblical revelation. They were not able to decide to accept the final revelation. In the Koran there is no passage that raises their hope of integration. They are not entirely alien from the Muslims but do not have full communion with them. "O you who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians as friends. They are but friends to one another. And if any amongst you takes them as friends, then surely he is one of them..." it says in Surah 5.51.

This partial recognition pervades the relationship of Islam to the "People of the Book" and allows a dual strategy: keeping distance to them, and taking advantage of them. As "protégés," special taxes were imposed on them, and today Christian countries are regarded as attractive destinations of immigrants. Muslims are allowed to marry Christian women, the children are Muslims. Conversely, Muslim women are forbidden to marry across religious boundaries. The present relationship between Christian and Muslim Palestinians mirrors the Qur'anic guidelines. This is amazing for us, because we are no longer accustomed to it that religious texts actually are in force. In Palestine, in matters of the marital status different laws for religious communities are applied. In case of conflict, as e.g. with divorce and the legal custody of the children, Islamic law is always given priority. Only a conversion to Islam gives Christians the benefits of Islamic law.

The coexistence of Christianity and Islam in Bethlehem knows its own rules. The in Europe popular interreligious dialogues play only a role if they are paid and encouraged from the outside. The in Europe ubiquitous concept of integration is nowhere used. Anyway, due to well-established rules Christians and Muslims are for centuries peacefully living side by side. The conditions are negotiable if the Christians are able to put something in the balance. The Christians of Bethlehem have something at their disposal, the Christians in the Gaza Strip not. There, less than 3,000 Christians live among 1.5 million Muslims. The government of Hamas enacted extensive measures for Islamization. Already the school children are aligned to their course. Even Christian girls must wear Islamic clothes in public schools.

The Christians in the West Bank and particularly in Bethlehem are better off. Pilgrims from all over the world, numerous hotels and Christian organizations offer income also to Muslims. Christians prove to be very useful in Bethlehem and be rewarded with tolerance and respect. They shape the social and educational system. In the West Bank, 41 percent of the social institutions and 38 percent of schools are in Christian ownership.

The fact that Christians nevertheless emigrate has economic, societal and personal reasons which merge into each other. Christian women feel already alien in an increasingly Islamic order, due to the dwindling marriage market and the re-Islamization of the dress regulations. The better education of Christians, which should rather serve their position in Palestine, makes also their emigration easier. After all, the threat of violent attacks is hanging above them like the sword of Damocles.


Only those who adapt themselves ...

Many immigrants from the strictly Islamic Hebron behave derogatorily and aggressively towards Christians in Bethlehem. They want like conquerors control Bethlehem. One important reason for this claim to power is the religiously motivated contempt.

Only those who adapt themselves may hope for toleration. The evangelicals, whose number is increasing in the Holy Land, however, are regarded as intruders. Not only those who convert to Christianity but also their missionaries are threatened with death. While the traditional churches enjoy a sort of protection of their further existence, the evangelicals cannot rely on it. One of their pastors in the region of Bethlehem gets constantly death threats.

In general, the increasing persecution of Christians happens less by the States than by Islamist movements, against which, however, the governments do not grant protection. The Christians in Iraq and Syria are now caught between the Shia and Sunni fronts. In the again secularly ruled Egypt even the military government is not able to protect them against extremists. They could until now not hope for Western aid, because the West has ideologically focused on promoting "democracy". But in the Middle East democracy in no way associated with the protection of minorities.

While Russia takes care of the Orthodox Christians of Syria and offers them Russian citizenship, the West supports rather the Islamist rebels, in the naive assumption that fighter against a dictator would automatically be democrats. Democracy, however, is the roof. That's why the building should be built previously. Before not the floors education, civil society, good governance and economy are built, democratically motivated interventions endanger actually the Christians.


Appeasement Rituals

In Bethlehem, in everyday conflicts between a Muslim and a Christian, for Muslims it is a matter of course to support the Muslim - regardless of the facts. Among Christians, however, there is no comparable solidarity. They are on the defensive and avoid public criticism and militant appearance. Also the proportional representation, according to which the mayor has always to be a Christian (since 2012 a lady mayor) does not change the de-Christianization of Bethlehem. Without own majority the mayor is entirely dependent on the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah.

It is all the more surprising how often in Bethlehem you are told that there are no significant problems in the relationship between Christians and Muslims. Secularly and nationally minded Palestinians see the hostility to Israel as a priority and do not want to know anything of religious conflicts. In the academic area, you meet often secular Muslims who are pointedly not interested in religious differences. They regard the lack of Palestinian statehood as a reason for the continued emigration.

The Christian church officials are prone to playing down, in the legitimate fear that their members run away even faster by a dramatization. They often feel obliged to inter-religious hopes. At conferences they affirm their mutual tolerance to Muslim colleagues.

Only in personal conversations in private you learn something of the real atmosphere. On the streets and in everyday professional life, demarcation and mistrust prevail between the religions. The headscarf, which today is worn almost by every Muslima, distinguishes quite visible the religions. The urban districts may be quickly distinguished whether they are Muslim or Christian. For several years, Muslims buy with considerable sums of money Christian souvenir shops. About the origin of money one may speculate.

The by the Palestinians vehemently demanded own nation-state would be disastrous for the Christians among them. The power conflicts between secularists and Islamists, who until now have been kept apart by the division of the West Bank and Gaza as well as with the help of Israel, would then waged unbridledly. The massive international aid would be reduced, and the state would, for lack of any inspection, be even more corrupt than the National Authority. With regard to their own State, the Palestinians should be all the more careful, the more the nation states in the Middle East disintegrate in internal civil wars.

Not nation and religion but training and education, jobs and economic growth would be the way to transform the clash of cultures into a struggle for civilization. The conflicts between the collective political or religious identities are simply unsolvable. The only help which is possible is a general paradigm shift: away from collective and religious identities toward individual self-understanding and related material interests. If the new paradigms would gain acceptance, the question of who owns the West Bank, would be about as important as now in Europe the question who owns Alsace or Silesia.


Christians as a Bridge?

The numerous social welfare and educational institutions should no longer, out of misconceived solidarity, encourage the individual identities and the sense of victimisation. If for instance the by the West funded Christian schools and the Catholic University of Bethlehem call for a boycott of any cooperation with Israel, then they support old paradigms. The Western funding of educational institutions serves then the identity, at the expense of rationality. The Christian schools in the town of Beit Jala and in East Jerusalem and the Bethlehem University which are known to me give the nationalism of their Palestinian teachers and lecturers too much space. This contradicts the universalist spirit of Christianity and science.

A new University in Bethlehem, which is maintained by very rich Palestinian investors and the United Arab Emirates at the Persian Gulf, on the other hand, focuses on the individual fate of its students and trains its graduates for the world market. This deliberately transnational and cross-cultural training is in the nature of globalization. An education which forms people to self-thinkers begins with the deconstruction and relativization of national, cultural and denominational coinages.

In view of the superiority of the Israelis, is not wise to refuse the exchange. Love of one's enemies would be nowhere more advisable than here, because it is no sacrifice but an adaptation strategy which is beneficial for both sides. Instead, our professorial colleagues, too, condemn the new individualism of students as "selfishness". They are irritated that they are no longer unceasingly politicizing. Of course, the individualism may be exaggerated, as in Europe, where it often enough turns into narcissism, and absence of emotional bonds. But in the Middle East, this menace is a topic for tomorrow. In the conflict between collectivistic and individualistic paradigms, the Christian conception of man as person should be emphasized. It puts personal and social responsibility, rights and duties, and participation in a relationship of reciprocity. Also in the golden rules of the "Global Ethics" it is about this reciprocity. But I have never heard this term, where it is needed the most.

The Don Bosco Salesians are the main providers of vocational education in the Middle East. In Bethlehem they provide annually up to two hundred apprenticeship places - the best way out from unemployment up to the middle class. Such activities should be promoted more than the social assistance, e.g. for "refugee camps." These camps in poorer neighborhoods in Bethlehem are deliberately preserved as refugee camps.

An activating assistance strategy in the sense of challenging educational and job-creating measures, on the other hand, could lead to a more sustainable development. From the demographic development of Orient and Occident follows the task to regard the lack of young people in Europe and the youth bulge in the Middle East and North Africa as complementary challenges. For Christians who see themselves as the universal people of God, there is no Holy Land which you absolutely must have. Their understanding of God exceeds secular territories. Enlightened Christians are secular in the sense of separation of religion and politics. They preach reconciliation instead of holy wars and advocate a universalism which is contrary to the demon of culturalist isolation. They could be a bridge between the West and the Middle East.


    {*} Heinz Theisen, Dr. phil., is professor of political science at the Catholic University of Cologne.


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