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The Palestinian Christians are Christians of any denomination who have ethnic or family origins in Palestine. In both the local dialect of Palestinian Arabic and in classical or modern standard Arabic, Christians are called Nasrani (a derivative of the Arabic word for Nazarethmarker, al-Nasira, and similar to the Hebrew "Notzri") or Masihi (from the same root as the Hebrew word for Messiah). Aggregate figures on the number of Palestinian Christians today are estimates due to the difficulty in collecting comprehensive information on the different Diaspora populations.

According to the census data collected by the Ottoman Empire, the Christian population in 1914 was 40% of the modern-day area consisting of Israelmarker, West Bankmarker, Gaza Stripmarker, Egyptmarker, Jordanmarker, Lebanonmarker, Syriamarker, Iraqmarker, and Turkeymarker; today it is no more than 5%. The demographics changed largely due to the chronic emigration of Christians and, since the 1970s, their lower birth rates and persecution by Israelmarker and Muslim extremists in the region. In British Mandate Palestine, Christians made up as much as 40% of the population, though some put the figure at 13%.

Denominations and leadership

Today, the majority of Palestinian Christians live abroad. It is known that Christians make up between 40,000 and 90,000 people, or 1.1 to 2.4% of the population of the Palestinian territoriesmarker. Most are in the West Bankmarker, though there is a community of 2,000 in the Gaza Stripmarker. The related Arab Christians in Israel number between 144,000 and 196,000, or 2.1 to 2.8% of the total population, and about 8.8% of the non-Jewish Arab population.

The majority of Palestinian Christians belong to the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, one of the 16 churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. This community has also been known as the Arab Orthodox since the 1890s. There are also Maronites, Melkites, Jacobites, Roman Catholics, Syrian Catholics, Copts, Anglicans and other Protestants among them.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, TheĆ³filos III, is the leader of the Palestinian and Jordanian Greek Orthodox Christians, but Israel and some church members have refused to recognize his appointment. If confirmed, he would replace Patriarch Irenaios, who's status within the church became disputed after a term surrounded by controversy and scandal given that he sold Palestinian property to Israeli Orthodox Jews. Archbishop Theodosios of Sebastia is the highest ranking Palestinian clergyman in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, is the leader of the Palestinian Roman Catholics. The Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem is Suheil Dawani, who recently replaced Bishop Riah Abou Al Assal. The Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem and Jordan is Dr. Munib Younan. Elias Chacour of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church is Archbishop of Galilee.


Background and early history

Estimates of the number of Arab Christians vary. Christians today make up 9.2% of the population of the Near East. In Lebanon they now number around 39% of the population, in Syria about 10 to 15%. In Palestine before the creation of Israel estimates range up to as much as 40%, but mass emigration has slashed the number still present to 3.8%. Israel Arab Christians constitute 2.1% (or roughly 10% of the Israeli Arab population). In Egypt, they constitute between 9-16% of the population (the government claims 6%). Around two-thirds of North and South American and Australian Arabs are Christian, particularly from Lebanon, but also from the Palestinian territories, and Syria.

Most Palestinian Christians see themselves as Arab Christians, although some, echoing similar narratives in the Lebanesemarker Maronite community, reject this label and claim to be descended from Levantine people who were present before the coming of the Arabs, or from Europeans who came to the region during the medieval Crusades. In addition, they may also descend from a mixture of Armenians, Jews who converted to Christianity in the first 3 centuries AD, Byzantine, pre-Islamic Arabs (Ghassanids), and Crusaders. The region called Palestine or Israel is considered the Holy Land by Christians, and major Christian holy cities like Bethlehemmarker and Nazarethmarker are located in the Palestinian Autonomy and Israel, respectively.

During the Ottoman period, the number of Christians approached 30% . Emigration to the predominantly Christian-populated areas of neighboring Lebanon, as well as South America drastically reduced the number of Christians by the beginning of the twentieth century. Prior to the independence of the state of Israel, approximately 10% of Palestine's (excluding Transjordanmarker) Arab population was Christian. This is reflected in the large number of prominent Palestinian that are Christian, including Hanan Ashrawi, Emile Habibi, the late Edward Said, Elia Suleiman, Atallah Mansour, Azmi Bishara, Anis Shorrosh, Nayef Hawatmeh, Rifat Odeh Kassis and activist Raymonda Tawil, who is also the mother of Yassir Arafat's wife Suha. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was founded in 1967 by Palestinian Christian George Habash. The current Palestinian Ambassador to the United States, Afif Saffieh, is also from a Christian family. However, the Christians were also often found in the more affluent segments of Palestinian society that fled or were expelled from the country during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War; in West Jerusalemmarker, over 50% of Christian Palestinians lost their homes to the advancing Israeli army, according to the historian Sami Hadawi.

Recent history

The proportions of Christians in the Palestinian territories is such that they only constitute around one in seventy-five residents. In May, Reuters reported that 33,000 Christians remained in the West Bank, with around 17,000 following the Roman Catholic tradition and most of the rest following the the Greek Orthodox church. Both Bethlehem and Nazarethmarker, which were once overwhelmingly Christian, now have strong Muslim majorities. Today about three-quarters of all Bethlehem Christians live abroad, and more Jerusalem Christians live in Sydneymarker, Australia than in Jerusalem. Indeed, Christians now comprise just 2.5 percent of the population Jerusalem; those remaining include a few born in the Old City when Christians there constituted a majority.

In a 2007 letter from Congressman Henry Hyde to President George W. Bush, Hyde stated that "the Christian community is being crushed in the mill of the bitter Israeli-Palestinian conflict" and that expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were "irreversibly damaging the dwindling Christian community."

In Gazamarker, there is a small Christian minority of about 3,000 people, among a population of 1,500,000. During the Fatah-Hamas conflict in February 2006, a number of Christian shops, such as Internet cafes, pharmacies and music stores, were attacked by unknown assailants. Some of these attacks have been claimed by a little-known extremist Islamic organization, calling itself the Swords of Truth. On 6 October 2007, Rami Ayyad, the manager of the only Christian bookshop in Gaza and a member of the Baptist Church, was found murdered.. No group claimed responsibility for the killing, and no one has openly accused Hamas of persecution. Hamas spokeman Fawzi Barhoum said Hamas would "not spare any effort to find the culprits of this crime and bring them to justice." In February 2008, fourteen gunmen attacked the YMCA in Gaza which serves Palestinians of all religious denominations.. Bombs were planted in the office and library and one of the devices was detonated, destroying thousands of books. There were no injuries or fatalities. Reuters has reported that fringe Gazan groups affiliated with al Queda were responsible for the post-Hamas election attacks.

After Pope Benedict XVI's comments on Islam in September 2006, five churches, among them two Greek Orthodox churches - as such, not affiliated with either Catholicism or the Pope - were firebombed and shot at in the West Bank and Gaza. No one was hurt and no one claimed responsibility. Former Palestinian Prime Minister and current Hamas leader Ismail Haniya condemned the attacks and police presence was elevated in Bethlehemmarker, which has a sizable Christian community.

In February 2009, a group of Christian community activists within the West Bankmarker wrote an open letter asking Pope Benedict XVI to postpone his scheduled trip to Israel unless the government changes its treatment. They highlighted improved access to places of worship and ending the taxation of church properties as key concerns. The Pope began his five-day visit to the Israel-Palestine area on Sunday May 10, planning to express support for the region's Christians. In response to Palestinian public statements, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor criticized the political polarization of the papal visit, remarking that "[i]t will serve the cause of peace much better if this visit is taken for what it is, a pilgrimage, a visit for the cause of peace and unity".

Christian exodus

Christians began to emigrate from Palestine in large numbers in the mid-19th to early-20th centuries to escape both poverty and the religious persecution of Christians by the Ottoman Empire. Over the past few decades, a considerable number of Palestinian Christians have emigrated, mainly to Australia, the United States, and Canada. The Palestinian Authority is unable to keep exact tallies. As well, Muslim Palestinians have higher birth rates than the Christians, which strongly affects the demographics.

The causes of this Christian exodus are hotly debated, with various possibilities put forth. Reuters has reported that the emigrants left for better living standards rather than any other reason. The BBC has also blamed the economic decline in Palestine as well as pressure from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the exodus. A report on Bethlehem residents stated both Christians and Muslims wished to leave but the Christians possessed better contacts with people abroad and higher levels of education.

Within the Israeli Arab community, the policies enacted and implemented by the Israeli government are considered to be a contributory factor. The Arab Human Rights Association has stated that Israeli authorities have denied access to holy places, prevented repairs needed to preserve historic holy sites, and carried out physical attacks on religious leaders.

An opposing view holds that Muslim fundamentalist pressure against Christians has played a role. For example, public use of the political slogan "After Saturday comes Sunday" (abel es-sabbat jibel-ahad)-- meaning that "after the fundamentalists finish the Jews, they'll deal with the Christians"-- is cited. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies issued a report in May 2005 blaming Islamic pressure for the exodus, stating that "Christian cemeteries have been destroyed, monasteries have seen their phone lines cut, and convents have been broken into".

The Jerusalem Post has stated that the "shrinking of the Palestinian Christian community in the Holy Land came as a direct result of its middle-class standards" and that Muslim pressure has not played a major role according to Christian residents themselves. It reported that the Christians have an public image of elitism and of class privilege as well as of non-violence and of open personalities, which leaves them more vulnerable to criminals than Muslims. Hanna Siniora, a prominent Palestinian human rights activist, has attributed harassment against Christians to "little groups" of "hoodlums" rather than to the Hamas and Fatah governments.

In a 2006 poll of Christians in Bethlehem by the Palestinian Centre for Research and Cultural Dialogue, 90% reported having Muslim friends, 73.3% agreed that the Palestinian Authority treats Christian heritage in the city with respect, and 78% attributed the ongoing exodus of Christians from Bethlehem to the Israeli travel restrictions on the area. Daniel Rossing, the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs' chief liaison to Christians in the 1970s and 1980s, has stated that the situations for them in Gaza became much worse after the election of Hamas. He also stated that the Palestinian Authority, which counts on Christian Westerners for financial support, treats the minority fairly. He blamed the West Bank barrier wall as the primary problem for the Christians.

The United States State Departmentmarker's 2006 report on religious freedom criticized both Israel for its restrictions on travel to Christian holy cites and the Palestinian Authority for its failure to stamp out anti-Christian crime. It also reported that the former gives preferential treatment in basic civic services to Jews and the latter does so to Muslims. The report stated that, generally, the ordinary Muslim and Christian citizens enjoy good relations in contrast to the "strained" Jewish and non-Jewish relations. A 2005 BBC report described Muslim and Christian relations as "peaceful" as well.

Important Christian Palestinian figures



Cultural figures



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