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Holy Land's Christians caught in midst of conflict

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/SODA-6NS3Q9?OpenDocument Source: Reuters Foundation Date: 12 Apr 2006 Holy Land s Christians caught in midst of
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 11, 2006
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      Source: Reuters Foundation
      Date: 12 Apr 2006

      Holy Land's Christians caught in midst of conflict
      By Megan Goldin

      BETHLEHEM, West Bank, April 12 (Reuters) - A 76-year-old Greek Orthodox
      monk is beaten up by villagers, his carefully tended olive trees are
      uprooted and his isolated West Bank monastery is defaced with graffiti
      depicting nuns being raped.

      The land of Jesus's birth is not always an easy place for Christians to
      live in 2006.

      The population of Christians in the Holy Land, particularly in the
      Palestinian territories, is dwindling as more and more leave for a better
      life abroad, turning the community into a tiny minority squeezed between
      Muslims and Jews.

      The traditional merchant class, heavily dependent on tourist money, has
      suffered a recession since a Palestinian uprising began in 2000 and Israel
      walled off Bethlehem with a barrier.

      The Israelis say it is designed to stop suicide bombers and Palestinians
      call it a land grab.

      "(Christians) are suffering from both Islamic extremists and Israeli
      security concerns," said Canon Andrew White, a former Middle East envoy for
      the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Anglican Church.

      While incidents as violent as the harassment of the Greek Orthodox monk are
      rare, life for Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has become more
      precarious in the past decade.

      Caught in the midst of conflict, Churches have sought to help local
      Christians quietly by not rocking the boat and being careful over
      criticising the Palestinian Authority, which might be seen by some as
      tantamount to supporting Israel.

      "The world has got to wake up to the reality of what is going on and not
      just view it as a political matter, taking one side or another, and realise
      that Christians are the people caught in between," White told Reuters.

      At the time of the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Christians were a
      majority in the Holy Land. Until a century ago, they made up about 20
      percent of the population.

      Migration by the educated, middle-class Christian population was
      precipitated by Arab-Israeli wars in the 20th century and intensified in
      the past few decades as violence grew.

      Today, there are about 50,000 Christians in the Palestinian territories --
      about 1.5 percent of the population -- and about 100,000 Christians in
      Israel -- approximately two percent.

      Like all Palestinians, Christians have suffered from Israel's occupation of
      the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

      Some hold leadership positions in the Palestinian Authority, others in
      militant factions. Most are imbued with a strong sense of Palestinian


      Corruption and lawlessness in the West Bank and Gaza in the past decade
      have hit Christians harder than others because, as a minority, they have
      not been able to defend themselves easily.

      Exasperated at the failure of the Palestinian Authority to act and the
      reticence of churches to speak up, a group of Christians in Bethlehem drew
      up a list of grievances that included theft of their land by Muslims,
      attacks and desecration of Church property.

      The Christians passed the list to Church leaders, saying local authorities
      had done little to help.

      These days Christians face extra uncertainty from the rise of the militant
      Islamist Hamas group, whose charter calls for the establishment of an
      Islamic, rather than a secular, state -- a goal that causes many Christians
      to have misgivings about remaining.

      Since the group's election victory in January, however, Hamas officials
      have vowed to address Christians' grievances, kindling the hope that life
      might actually improve under the fundamentalist Islamic movement.

      There are no accurate figures on the rate of emigration but estimates
      suggest about 1,000 Christians a year are leaving.

      "If the situation continues, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the
      Church of the Nativity will become cold, empty museums," said Samir
      Qumsieh, a Palestinian-Christian businessman, referring to two of the
      holiest Christian shrines.

      Throughout the Middle East, Christian scholars say, tension is rising
      between Arab Christians and their Muslim neighbours who see Christians as
      belonging to a Western World they blame for the conflict in Iraq and other
      regional troubles.

      "Even though Christianity grew in the Middle East, the Christians are
      increasingly seen as being part of the West and therefore at risk at being
      targeted because of it," White said.

      Besides the harassment of the Greek Orthodox monk in the Bethlehem area, a
      parish school in the West Bank city of Ramallah has been firebombed twice
      and a Bible study centre received threats to shut down or be burned to the

      "From time to time the youths of our parish are attacked by young Muslim
      men through forcible entry into the convent's courtyard," one Roman
      Catholic priest told Reuters.

      Last year, Christian-Muslim rioting erupted in two West Bank towns and
      there were confrontations between Druze Arabs and Christians in a Galilee
      village in Israel.

      The incidents had roots in cultural clashes over family honour -- they were
      sparked by anger over allegations of women being dishonoured -- as well as
      conflicts over land.

      They were indicative of the situation faced by the dwindling Christian
      population in a society where the size and influence of the clan is often
      the final arbiter in disputes.

      Infighting over theology or historical slights waters down Christian
      influence further.

      "We are seen as Christians in the eyes of our Muslim countrymen and
      Palestinians in the eyes of Israel and the West. We lose on both fronts,"
      said one, speaking anonymously.


      In the case of the harassed monk who lives in a monastery with two nuns,
      the abuses have been going on for over a decade.

      "One day as I tended my olive trees, they came and beat me up, very badly.
      They tore up my clothes. They were ready to kill me. Then they put wire
      fencing around me and they said we'll put the pig inside and we'll kill him
      because pigs are not wanted on this land," the monk said in a testimony.

      Late last year, graphic drawings depicting nuns being raped were daubed on
      monastery property.

      The Greek Orthodox Church dismissed the matter as a land dispute between
      neighbours. Another Church source said the Church feared its interests
      could be hurt if it spoke out.

      Land disputes are a particular source of tension between Muslims and
      Christians in the Bethlehem area. Space is running short in a city largely
      blockaded by Israel and Muslim families are growing faster than Christian ones.

      Christians complain that their appeals to Palestinian courts have fallen on
      deaf ears, although the land disputes have also sometimes involved Muslim

      "It is not an Islamic-Christian confrontation. Historically, we have lived
      in peace," Qumsieh said. "They are targeting Christians because we are the
      weak link."
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