“Oh little town of Bethlehem” – Palestinian Christians, Reality, Challenges and Prospects – Revd Dr Munther Isaac

The world turns to Bethlehem during Christmas, but they have a fairytale image of the little town. However, this is a real community with real challenges. This webinar gives an insight into the reality and challenges of Palestinians and Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land.

Revd Dr Munther Isaac is a Palestinian Christian pastor and theologian. He now pastors the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem. He is also the academic dean of Bethlehem Bible College, and is the director of the highly acclaimed and influential Christ at the Checkpoint conferences.

Good evening, friends, and thanks for joining this webinar. Thanks for attending thanks for showing interest in Palestinian Christians, and in what we have to say about our reality and our circumstances today, our message and our prospects.

Thank you to the Balfour Project for inviting me again. Which means I wasn’t that bad the first time.

The first time I spoke more on Christian Zionism as a theologian. Today, I will be speaking more and put on my clergy hat, if you wish, and I will be speaking as a pastor trying to reflect or to communicate, to project to you the situation of Palestinian Christians. our reality today, in this time, when everybody’s focus and attention is on Bethlehem during Christmas, during this Advent season.

I’m happy for this invitation, because we want to remind people that Bethlehem is not just a town in history is not just a name in the Bible, but it’s a real town today in Palestine, with Palestinians who live in it, and I’ve been living in it for quite a while now, hundreds of years, if not more. Bethlehem is the place where it all started, there has always been a Christian presence in this town.

So today, I am part of the Palestinian Christian community. And it should not be a surprise that today there are Palestinian Christians. It continues to shock me that people are surprised to know that we exist. Maybe you’re not aware of the political reality. But this is where it all started. It only makes sense that there are Christians here and indeed we are honoured to be those who continue the trajectory or the witness of the first Christian witness in the land where it all started.

If I zoom into Bethlehem as a town today, a city of maybe 30,000 Palestinians. Among them, I would say around 8,000 to 9,000 Palestinian Christians belonging to different church traditions and denominations. The two biggest churches are the Catholics and Orthodox. but we also have Lutherans and Syrian Orthodox and a few other churches. As Christians we cooperate well together, we have many initiatives as churches together, very strong ecumenical relationships. But we also have a very good relationship with our Muslim neighbors, with whom we’ve shared the city for a long time.

Sadly, today, the numbers of Christians are dwindling. And I will be sharing as to why in a minute, but Bethlehem remains very clear in its identity as not just the Palestinian town but distinctly Christian town, because of the Church of the Nativity.

But Bethlehem is in the West Bank, and it’s in the occupied territory. And when you get into Bethlehem, it’s so hard to miss the occupation because the Israeli occupation of our lives literally controls every aspect of our life. Just to begin with a small town of Bethlehem, the small district of Bethlehem, I would say, is surrounded today by 22 illegal Israeli settlements, and the Wall that separates it from Jerusalem. So the settlements and the Wall pretty much isolate the town of Bethlehem. Today, if you look at the map of the West Bank, you will realise that our experience as Palestinians, our experience is confined within the cities. Israel controls everything outside of the cities.

I call our experience as gated communities because literally all it takes for Israel is to close these checkpoints to enter and exit our cities and then we’re beseiged. And that’s not hypothetical, it happens a lot.

And I’m not even talking about the fact that we in Bethlehem are not able to go to Jerusalem, which is just a few kilometers away. As a child, I remember taking a bus from outside of our home, and 15 minutes later, we’re in Jerusalem. Today, if I am among the privilege to have a an Israeli permit by the military to go to Jerusalem, very few people have that permit. And if it only takes me 15 minutes to cross the checkpoint, then it’s a blessing.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Palestinians cannot go to Jerusalem. And you have right now a whole generation of Palestinians who live in Bethlehem, who have not seen Jerusalem, which is part of our tragedy. Going back to the idea that we are besieged. Today, we estimate that we Palestinians control only 13% of the land of Bethlehem, because the Wall and the settlements have confiscated the rest of the land. We cannot build on all of the land, our existence is confined to the sounds of Palestinian cities.

So really, when I talk about the reality of living under occupation, it is an occupation that controls everything, beginning from the geography, the entrances and exits to our towns, but it goes way beyond that. Israel controls the air, though the phone wave, the underground, we cannot dig for water, exports and imports economy. Right now, they are making it difficult for visitors who wish to stay longer than few days in Bethlehem or live in Bethlehem to work or to volunteer, or even spouses of Palestinians are finding it very, very difficult. In a very cruel system, spouses of many Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians, are not able to obtain a visa to live in Bethlehem with their spouse, and as a result choose to live outside. It’s another way of forced emigration of Palestinian families.

So all of these challenges make the quality of life really, really difficult for Palestinians. It’s ironic that since the peace process started, all we’ve seen is the expansion of Israeli settlements at the expense of Palestinian life. And as a result, we’ve seen more and more Palestinians leaving, unemployment is so high, interestingly, especially in Bethlehem. The economy of Bethlehem depends almost entirely, maybe to a fault, on tourism. And as such, we’ve had a devastating two years because of COVID.

We’re grateful that tourists and pilgrims are beginning to come back to Bethlehem, we pray, they choose to stay longer and Bethlehem and not just visit for a day or at best for two to three hours to visit the Nativity Church. But because of this dependence on tourism, there isn’t much opportunity beyond tourism to many Palestinians in Bethlehem. When people ask me, ‘Why are Palestinian Christians leaving?’ I remind them that most statistics and studies show that Palestinian Christians and Muslims almost leave at the same rate, which tells you something about the overall reality of difficulty, restrictions, unemployment, life under occupation and the limitations, all while we’re seeing our occupiers expand.

And today, it should not come as a surprise for those who follow that more and more human rights organisations, legal organisations, including Israeli ones, are using the word apartheid to describe these Israeli policies of control, and segregation. So when I’m asked about the biggest challenge Palestinian Christians face, I say we face these challenges because we’re Palestinians and their occupation of Bethlehem. This is by far our biggest challenge. And everything else falls within this big matrix of occupation.

And today, one of the missions of the church is to stop this wave of emmigration. I always say I don’t think that you will find any other context other than the Palestinian context in which the main priority of the church, the mission of the church, is to keep its people on that land. But this is today our biggest fear that more people leave because of the reality, the more we will continue to experience this emmigration and our biggest nightmare is for Palestine to become empty of Christians.

This situation that I described off of apartheid is what many are calling the death of the two state solution. And maybe the death of the two state solution, our fear is the death of any peaceful solution. And to be honest, this is a nightmare that many of us are having and wishing against, working against that there will be a resolution.

But within our cities, with this reality of despair, as a pastor, I have so many discussions with young people who are considering emmigration and giving them hope, or encouraging them to stay is very difficult to be honest, humanly speaking, it’s hard to convey, because I understand it doesn’t make sense to stay here. But at the same time, we are needed because despite the very difficult situation, please understand that not only is there a strong numbers, strong Palestinian Christian presence today, it’s resembles the wider picture of Palestinians. We speak about the Palestinians’ somoud – resilience, steadfastness. And I think the church embodies that spirit of somoud. We’ve survived 1000s of years, of empires, one empire after the other. How do we continue to survive as Palestinians and as Palestinian Christians? Just look at our history. From biblical times until today, this land has always been under occupation. This land has always been controlled by empires. Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Turkish Empire, before that the Crusaders, the British Mandate.

And we still see Israel as a continuation of that settler colonial process. This has created a sense of resilience among many Palestinians.

So yes, some are leaving, or many are leaving, but those who stay are very resilient. The church embodies that spirit. Today in the occupied Palestinian territories, I’m talking about the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, (maybe my focus is on Bethlehem, but I speak in general), there is a very strong Palestinian Christian presence, not in numbers necessarily – in the Palestinian territories were around 1% – but in terms of presence, it is a very active presence. We have many schools, many hospitals, in fact, 1/3 of the health sector in the West Bank is either supported by the church or run by the church. It’s a big number for 1%.

As I said, we have so many schools, we have universities, cultural centres, poets, politicians, many of the Palestinian authorities. And I must admit, despite many things we can say about the Palestinian Authority in terms of performance and some challenges, some deficiencies and maybe the performance when it comes to negotiations and so on. We can criticize the Palestinian Authority for many things. But when it comes to absorbing or to giving rights to all citizenship, I think that’s something to be commended for. So for us as Christians in this land, under the Palestinian Authority, 10 Palestinian towns and villages have Palestinian mayors by law, the law says that we must have Palestinian mayors in these towns and villages. This includes Bethlehem where the mayor is Christian even though we are less than 30%. In Ramallah, the major Palestinian town today, Christians make less than 5%, the mayor also is Christian. We have many government officials, the Minister of Health the Minister of Tourism and others, the Minister of Finance, of Communication, are Christian. So in a cabinet of around 22 ministers, four are Christians.

So in terms of our presence, our contribution, it’s not proportional to our numbers. And we are anything but a silent, victimised minority. We have a strong sense of pride as being part of the Palestinian people continuing that process and somoud resilience, but also, as I said, continuing in the Christian presence where it all started.

So this is why we continue and encourage people who visit, don’t just visit the sites. We want you to visit the Nativity Church and so on. But remember that the Holy Land is much more than sites, its people, it’s very active churches, very impactful churches with very strong messages to the community.

Maybe to give a sense of some of the things we’re doing a small church like ours, like the Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, that’s the name of our church. Just yesterday, we had a big national conference, organised by our church, on creation care, and environmental care. So as a church, we’re playing a leading role in that field. Today, we had a big conference, another national conference, in Ramallah, on gender justice, in the court and in the society, and also in the church.

So our presence is just not just, we pray and do our Christian stuff. But we’re trying to be the salt and light into our community. We have many interfaith initiatives with our Muslim neighbours. Because we’re beginning to see some trends of Islamism that is creating a gap between Christians and Muslims. It’s a phenomenon that’s been taking place in the Arab world for the last 20 years or so. It’s that tension, I would describe it more as a gap. And as such, we’re meeting with many concerned Muslim leaders and scholars who see this and we are trying together to bridge that gap.

So this is I’m trying to give you a window into the life of Palestinian Christians, the bigger picture under occupation, but even within that very active community, but maybe to continue and to close the circle on our challenges. I mentioned the political, economical, but it’s really important also to address one of the biggest challenges we have is what I call Western social attitudes to the land.

I spoke briefly to this group of Christian Zionism. But it’s much more than traditional Christian Zionism. Western Christian attitudes to this land span from Balfour days, the idea of a land without people, looking at Palestinians in a colonial sense, and not seeing us as equals seeing the land as empty, even though they knew the land had people. This approach continues today in many church circles. Think of the language in the church, the language of Jews returning to the land. It’s very common language, even among friends. And I say that language puts me as a Palestinian in this as if now I am occupying someone else’s land when you say they return to the land as if I didn’t get the memo that this is their life, and it’s now my fault. I become the occupier even though we’ve been living here for hundreds, if not 1000s of year.

So the language of the church, the theology of the church which focuses exclusively sometimes on the Jewish people in the land, the covenant with Abraham and so on, and Christian Zionism is the most extreme expression. But at the same time today, one of our biggest attitudes is the fact that there are many what I call diplomatic churches, neutral churches, churches who pray for both sides and pray for peace and think that they are contributing for peace. But by not challenging Israel on its human rights abuses, breaking the international law, and looking at the conflict as if it’s a conflict between equals, they are enabling the occupier, they are just empowering the occupier.

So today we are struggling to be honest, not just from Christian Zionist, but from churches who are silent, churches who take neutral positions or churches who just pray for peace and don’t want to be political. Because in all of that, I believe they are enabling the oppressor. And I’ll come back to that at the end.

So on top of all of that, it’s very disheartening to be honest, when we are struggling to survive, literally struggling to survive, doing all that we can trust in God’s grace, struggling to maintain our institutions, our schools, yet seeing billions of dollars, billions, not millions, coming from churches to Israel and to settlement projects.

It’s so disheartening, and that’s a soft word when during the Trump presidency, we saw this massive Christian support to Israel. It’s very disheartening when we cry out, for example, as in the latest example of the World Council of Churches, many of us Palestinian Christian activists were there and saying, ‘What about the reports that call Israel apartheid and the response we get?’ ‘Well, apartheid is not a helpful language, it will alienate our friends, let’s use a more soft language and say we’re more concerned about the reality on the ground.’ You want us to be more concerned about the feelings of your friends, we’re more concerned about describing the reality on the ground as it is.

So it’s very disheartening to see the church not taking a strong stand for justice, or on the other extreme churches are very much pro-Israel. There is so much work to do when it comes to how churches should be involved in our land. So in this very difficult reality and this reality of despair, where honestly we don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel, what is the Christian message? And what does Christmas mean to us here in Bethlehem?

So if you bear with me for the next five minutes, I’m going again to adopt my clergy hat and speak as a pastor, what is Christmas to us here? And what will I be preaching about in this season? The attention of the world where many celebrations, many big celebrations national on the municipality level on the government level on church level, ecumenical many, many celebrations. And, Bethlehem becomes anything but this small little and silent town.

I’ve been thinking recently about the song Silent Night., because in reality Christmas night in Bethlehem today, just as it was 2000 years ago, is anything but silent. The song should be hectic night, noisy night, difficult night. Let’s remember that when Jesus was born 2000 years ago, he was born in similar circumstances. Let’s consider the terminology and vocabulary surrounding the birth narrative. A census is a way of taxation and control. And just think of this young family, a pregnant young woman having to travel in difficult circumstances, just because this Emperor in Rome to get more tax and he wants to do a census.

So we talk about a ruthless Empire, which then we see its manifestation when there was a massacre against children. And it’s in this environment that Jesus was born, anything but silent, my friends. A family that later became a refugee because of political tyranny. They had to escape Bethlehem to Egypt. And the first people who brought the good news that a Saviour was born, were shepherds. Not high class in the community. I come from the Shepherds Field, we still make the joke about ourselves.

And this is important element of the narrative again, because 2000 years ago, the good news was usually that a son of Caesar is born, or a victory is happening. The good news that came the day Jesus was born, not in Rome or a palace. Well, not that there was a political or military victory. No, no, the good news was Jesus was born in a manger in a cave, among a family that was really nobody. In that sense, when you think of the word, Immanuel, I think it’s clear to me that God takes sides in the story.

He, God, is in solidarity with a family that became a refugee family, God is in solidarity with the oppressed, with the marginalized, with those who are living under the impact and the influence of a difficult tyrant Empire.

And God brings good news through the lowly, those who we didn’t give so much status to. This is good news for us as Palestinians, in that God is in solidarity with us in the midst of our difficult reality. And in the midst of this difficult reality, 2000 years ago, the angels came with this message of peace on earth. What is this peace? I think we’ve softened and cheapened this peace. I think many times when we talk about it as just this individualistic feeling. This was a challenge to the Pax Romana concept of Caesar bringing peace through might, through power, through control, through a new, strong, economical system. This is a radical challenge by the Gospels to that mentality, ideology of empires.

To me again, that’s so comforting. And in that this is a challenge to the logic of empires. This is a challenge to the message of the occupation and apartheid today. To me, when I hear these words, peace on earth, I hear it more as a mandate. We have a mandate to make peace. We are called to be peacemakers, all us Christians. Jesus said that Blessed are the peacemakers. But what does that mean? Does it mean neutrality or playing for both sides? Again, from the Christmas narrative, I don’t think so. If you see two people arguing then you pray for both sides, and you tell them to get along. But if you see two people, not just fighting, but one stepping on the throat of the other, literally suffocating him and beating him, you don’t call for peace. You call for the end of the oppression and the violence.

And this is what is needed today. This is our call as Christians, as Palestinians today. If you really want to help us live in peace, and continue the message here, please help us get rid of this ugly occupation, this ugly reality we live in. And this is not a time for neutrality and diplomacy. We’re losing hope, literally from the human sense, we’re losing hope from governments who are losing hope from the international community. How many vetoes do we need, how many resolutions do we need? But, and I will conclude here before we get some questions, despite everything I want to tell you that we are hopeful. And it’s not cheap hope. No, we’re hopeful people because we’re here, we’re resilient. We’re working. Our hope today is our ministries, our mission. Hope is that waiting for something. I think I’ve said this like 10 times in the last three weeks in my sermons. We’re not waiting for something. We create something through our action. My predecessor at Christmas Lutheran Church, Reverend Mitri Raheb, he used to say, continues to say ‘Hope is what we do today.’ And the Christian hope is rooted in our action. So as we are holding fast to that hope, the Christian message where it all started in Bethlehem and beyond, we call you to join us in our ministry of hope, and in our ministry of peace.

So thanks for your patience and for listening.

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