ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church


The Changing Face of the Holy Land: Eager for security and
stability, Christians move on

Editor’s note: Of late, there has been a considerable amount of press in the West about the changing face of the Middle East, in particular, the emigration of the region’s Christians and other minorities. ONE asked the noted sociologist from Palestine, Dr. Bernard Sabella, to give us a glimpse at when this emigration began in the Holy Land and whether or not it is indeed accelerating.

The city of David was once a Christian town. But, its churches are emptying as families pick up and move to Chile or Honduras or Florida. Since the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, or intifada (2000-2003), up to 4,000 Palestinian Christians, especially from the Bethlehem area, have left their homeland.

The emigration of Christians from the Holy Land is not a recent phenomenon. During years of relative calm, when pilgrims and tourists flock to the Holy Land, Christian emigration tends to decline because of the positive economic impact; the livelihoods of Christians in the Holy Land have depended on pilgrims for centuries. Nonetheless, it is estimated that up to 200 indigenous Christians, or about 50 families, leave annually.

The violence of the intifada and Israel’s retaliatory actions are over. But the stalemate between Israel and Palestine and the impact of the Israeli separation barrier and other measures impeding the freedom of movement have crippled the Palestinian Christian community. Pope Benedict XVI, while on his pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 2009, reflected on this stating: “A stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached — the wall. In a world where more and more borders are being opened up — to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges — it is tragic to see walls still being erected. How we long to see the fruits of the much more difficult task of building peace! How earnestly we pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built!”1

Who are Palestinian Christians?

The expression “Palestinian Christian” or “Arab Christian” often confuses Westerners. How can one be Arab or Palestinian and Christian? Are not all Arabs and Palestinians Muslims?

Arabs make up the Arab Nation, a term that refers to the cultural, ethnic and linguistic identity of the Arab people. Palestinian is a national identity while religion is a particular form of identification. Hence, one can be an Arab Palestinian Christian much like an Irish American Catholic.

Arab Palestinian Christians are an “integral part of their societies,”2 and claim that in their homeland, which we call the Holy Land, “the continuing presence of a living Christian community is inseparable from the historical sites. Through the ‘living stones’ the holy archaeological sites take on life.”3

These “living stones” belong to a number of churches, but all follow Jesus. Some of these churches are rooted in the early church and were embraced by the original Arab tribes while others were imported during the Crusader and Colonial periods. The Aramaic, Arabic, Armenian and European family names of these Christians of the Holy Land reflect the kaleidoscopic nature of the community. Intermarriage among the Christian faithful is common. Almost 50 percent of current marriages are mixed, which makes for Christian unity at the grassroots.

The following table provides the numbers and percentages of the Christian population in Israel and Palestine4:

Church/Denomination Israel Palestinian Territories Total %
Melkite Greek Catholics 43,437 1,000 44,437 27.7%
Greek Orthodox 33,030 25,000 58,030 36.2%
Latin Catholics 23,623 17,000 40,623 25.3%
Anglicans 2,200 1,500 3,700 2.3%
Lutherans 1,300 1,500 2,800 1.7%
Other denominations 7,000 4,000 11,000 6.8%
Total 110,590 50,000 160,590 100.0%

Dwindling Number of Palestinian Christians

The percentage of the Christian population in the Holy Land has decreased over the years because of massive Jewish immigration and a high birth rate among Muslims.

The following table gives an overall picture of the Christian population in the Holy Land since the late 19th century.5

Year Total Muslims Christians Jews
1890 532,000 432,000 – 81.2% 57,000 – 10.7% 43,000 – 8.1%
1931 1,033,000 760,000 – 73.5% 89,000 – 8.6% 175,000 – 16.9%
1947 1,954,000 1,181,000 – 60.5% 143,000 – 7.1% 630,000 – 32.4%
1948 1,402,800 582,100 – 41.5% 104,000 – 7.0% 716,700 – 51.5%
1950 2,360,100 1,070,100 – 45.4% 87,000 – 3.6% 1,203,000 – 51.0%
1960 3,228,200 1,221,445 – 37.8% 95,455 – 3.0% 1,911,300 – 59.2%
1970 4,030,287 1,341,106 – 33.3% 107,181 – 2.7% 2,582,000 – 64.0%
1980 5,275,900 1,869,200 – 35.6% 124,000 – 2.4% 3,282,700 – 62.0%
1990 6,626,420 2,524,120 – 38% 155,600 – 2.0% 3,946,700 – 60.0%
2000 9,212,861 4,072,361 – 44.3% 160,000 – 1.7% 4,980,500 – 54.0%
2010 11,267,300 5,271,300 – 46.6% 160,000 – 1.4% 5,836,000 – 52.0%

The percentage of Christians living in the Holy Land has decreased from 10.7 percent in 1890 to 1.4 percent in 2010. There are three principal explanations for this: First, the local Christian community has a relatively lower population growth compared to the rest of the population; second, the ongoing political conflict and instability; and third, the dire economic and social consequences of a prolonged political stalemate.

Christian families in the Holy Land are relatively small, with an average size of four to five members, compared to Muslim and religious Jewish families, which average one and a half to two times as many children as Christian families. During the decade 2000 to 2010, Christian numbers remained the same because of lower birth rates and the emigration of Christian youth.

The 1948 Arab-Israeli war left its impact on the Holy Land’s indigenous Christian population — 60,000 of its members became refugees (among the total 726,000 refugees) and 30,000 were displaced within the boundaries of the new state of Israel. Thanks to the assistance of the various churches and the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, many of the refugees, irrespective of religious background, were able to recover and resume their lives.

Christian Numbers Since the June 1967 War

If 1947 is taken as the base year, when the Christian population was at 143,000, population experts would expect the figure to have doubled naturally by 1980 and to have reached the mark of 400,000 or more by 2010, assuming a growth rate of 2 percent per year. To the contrary, the present figures indicate the disappearance of six out of every ten Christians since 1948. Some would argue this is strictly due to trends of demographic nature. But in reality, these matters alone do not explain the steadily declining numbers, particularly in the occupied Palestinian Territories.

The first Israeli-run census of the population of the Palestinian Territories in 1967 placed the number of Palestinian Christians at 42,494, of whom 2,478 were in Gaza. By a standard growth equation, this number should have been more than 100,000 by 2012.

Some would argue that the Christian population in Israel has tripled since 1948. But this argument does not tell the whole story; recent surveys point to a desire among 26 percent of respondents to emigrate from Israel — the same percentage as those in the Palestinian Territories. Christians in Israel are not fully integrated in Israel’s society and economy. Feeling marginalized, the younger generation in particular seriously contemplates emigration.

A positive side of the argument, however, is that when there is some political and economic stability, people are less likely to think of emigrating. Respondents in one survey said they would not think of leaving if there were peace in the region. But in a number of surveys undertaken since the 1990’s, more than 60 percent of Christian respondents in both the Palestinian Territories and Israel consistently cited political and economic factors as reasons to emigrate. Religious fanaticism was not cited as a cause until a survey in 2006, which found that 8 percent of respondents thought the rise in religious fundamentalism was making them think about emigrating.

The role of the churches has been crucial in sustaining the Palestinian Christian community, whether in education, housing or providing medical and other social services. But the work is not restricted to Christians as witnessed by the Pontifical Mission and its mandate by the Holy See to serve all those in need irrespective of religion. The churches reinforce the commitment of local Christians to be an integral part of their society.

In the end, however, it is the “much more difficult task of building peace” as His Holiness has insisted that will ensure that walls will fall and hopefully enable the Holy Land’s Christians — and all Israelis and Palestinians — to remain in the Holy Land and allow it blossom in the love and hope of us all being created in the image of God.

Dr. Bernard Sabella is professor emeritus of sociology at Bethlehem University in Bethlehem, Palestine.

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