Just a few days before Christmas, the Gatestone Institute, an influential conservative think-tank, published a detailed report on the persecution of Christians within the Palestinian Authority in general, and in Bethlehem in particular.
Gatestone Institute has been accused of anti-Muslim bias and cherry-picking data in the past. The report, however, written by author and scholar Raymond Ibrahim, is very well sourced with links to many reports by the Begin-Sadat center for Strategic Studies, Open Doors, The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, and even CNN.
A quick survey of his sources, and assessment of other online resources all show the same facts–the Christian population of Bethlehem has been in constant decline for a long time. They face persecution from Muslims and are at an all-time low of 12% of the population.
The reason for it, however, seems to be debated. In his report, Ibrahim blames the Muslim persecution, but the CNN article he refers to blames the Israeli “occupation” for the increased emigration of Christians from Bethlehem. Wikipedia who always strives to stay objective, seems to lean more toward the Israel-blaming side. So which is it?
Nils Beskow, a Swedish priest, visited the Holy Land in 1898-1899 and wrote a detailed account of over 300 pages published in 1901. In the chapter about Bethlehem he wrote:
“There is a wind of poetry resting over Bethlehem and its surroundings, including its inhabitants … Due to their strong family connections, it is a matter of honor for them that no one shall go hungry. Therefore, there are no beggars in all of Bethlehem, which I have gotten confirmed from people who have lived in the city for many years. During my many visits, indeed I never saw a beggar which was a stark contrast to Jerusalem where one could scarcely take a step without being surrounded by beggars constantly shouting ‘alms, sir, alms!’ A city with no beggars is indeed a rare sight in the Western world. In the Eastern world Bethlehem might be the only city who can be given such an honor. If we add to this that the entire city, except for only three hundred souls, confess to the Christian faith, it seems indeed as if there is a special blessing over the place where our savior had his first home on this earth. And one understands why this little town among the Judean mountains is the dearest place on earth for the Bethlehemian. It is not strange that he wishes to live his life in the town where his cradle stood and that he longs to go home to die in Bethlehem, if he, as often occurs, is forced to go to a foreign land.” (Nils Beskow, “Det Heliga Landet,” Stockholm 1901, pages 177-179)
It is almost melancholic to read this 120 years after Beskow’s visit. Bethlehem has changed a lot since. Wikipedia cites a different source of an American traveler in 1867 who also describes the city as Christian with very few Muslims.
From looking at the different sources, who give slightly different numbers, it seems that the ratio was around 80% Christians and 20% Muslims just before 1948 when Jordan occupied the West Bank and Bethlehem came under Jordanian rule. The influx of Palestinian refugees arriving significantly increased the percentage of Muslims. In 1967 after it came under Israeli military rule, the figure is almost 50-50 with just a slight advantage to the Christians. But even so, there was a big percentage of Christians. As late as 1996 it was still close to half–as high as 46%.
Now, only 12% of Bethlehem’s inhabitants are Christian, which begs the question–what happened since 1996?
This is where the narratives differ. One side, represented by the Gatestone Institute will tell you that 1995 is when Israel gave up its military rule, and gave the city to the Palestinian Authority. Since then, Muslim hostility towards Christians has increased, the Muslim calls to prayers throughout the city have grown louder, persecutions and vandalisms of churches are occurring more and more, and are not sufficiently addressed by the local police. Most Christians feel unwelcome in the birthplace of Jesus, and they are emigrating en masse.
The other side, which is the one you will hear from CNN, or if you speak to Christian leaders in Bethlehem, is that Israel is to blame for everything. The emigration of Christians from Bethlehem is because of the separation barrier, farmland being seized, Israeli settlements, etc. They will explain that this affects all Palestinians, but Christians more than Muslims, because they will more easily emigrate. They often have higher education and are more urbanized, so it is easier for them to assimilate in a Western country. If they bring up the well-documented persecution from Muslims, they will tell you that Israel is also to blame for that. The occupation has “radicalized” the Muslims. Most mainstream media outlets accept this narrative, as it makes their story more coherent. Palestinians suffer because of Israel, period. No room for nuances, and definitely no room to show the Palestinians as oppressors of minorities within their communities.
Many suspect that the Christians leaders who say these things to the mainstream media are under threat of imprisonment or execution if they openly criticize the Palestinian government.
No side seems to consider that both claims can be true. The Palestinian Christians are caught in the middle and seen as “the other” by two sides in a conflict. Of course many of those who can emigrate opt to do so.
Within Israel proper, however, we have seen an increase of over 300% of the Arab Christian population since 1948. Christians in Nazareth and Haifa are thriving. Again, one side will tell you it’s because Israel and not the Palestinians rule them, and this is proof that Israel are “the good guys.” The other side will tell you it’s because they are Israeli citizens, and not under the same pressure as the Palestinians. Then they will throw in a few anecdotes about racist incidents against Arab citizens in Israeli society (which is not as common as some may portray).
However you look at it, the fact remains that the Christians are fleeing from the areas under the Palestinian rule and are thriving under Israeli rule. Does this make Israel the good guy? Not necessarily. Israel could have refused to give Bethlehem to the Palestinians in 1995. Israel could have annexed Bethlehem and make it a part of the Jerusalem area, as proposed by the 1947 UN division plan. Israel could have given all Bethlehemites Israeli passports and the same citizen status as the people in Nazareth. Instead Israel succumbed to international pressure and “grant them sovereignty,” which really means that they handed them over to a ruthless dictatorship.
So maybe it is all Israel’s fault after all.