ELENA VIOLA FOR THE ALTERNATIVE INFORMATION CENTER (AIC)
Recent Israeli settler attacks on Christian holy sites and churches have highlighted the specific struggle faced by Christian Palestinians in Jerusalem.
Christian holy sites and places of worship in Jerusalem have been violently attacked by Israeli settlers over the past several months. In the aftermath of the shameful slogans and “price tags” drawn on the city’s Baptist Church in West Jerusalem, on a Christian cemetery on Mount Zion and on the Greek Orthodox monastery in the Valley of the Cross, Elena Viola examines Christian Jerusalemites’ life in the ‘holy’ city.
Christians have inhabited Jerusalem since the time of Christ and his followers and have always lived amongst Muslims and Jews. Although the number of Christians in Jerusalem has never been high, primarily due to the conversions occurring during the advent of Islam and the big wave of Christian emigration in the aftermath of the 1947 and 1967 wars, this already restricted number of Christians continues to shrink.
From 32,000 community members prior to the 1948 Middle East War and subsequent establishment of the state of Israel, the Christian population in Jerusalem has dramatically dropped to some 8,000 individuals in 2011.
“The sharp decline in the number of Christian Jerusalemites is the result of the implementation of Israel as a de facto state on this land,” Yusef Daher, Executive Secretary of the World Council of Churches, says. “The Israeli government policy throughout the whole history has been unilateral: turning Jerusalem both into a Jewish city and into the capital of Israel, while getting rid of all the Christian (and Muslim) Palestinians.”
The Christian Palestinians are negatively impacted “by an Israeli government that is leading more and more towards fanaticism”, continues Daher, and this is reflected in many aspect of daily life in Jerusalem. Among the issues Christians currently face in Jerusalem, Israel’s policy to restrict residency rights and housing opportunities are paramount.
While any Jewish person can become not only an Israeli citizen but also a Jerusalem resident by virtue only of his faith, all Palestinians who have been out of Jerusalem for more than seven years and/or acquired a foreign nationality or a residence permit abroad are liable to automatically lose their “permanent residency” in the city of their birth. For Jerusalem’s Christian community, this means than in the coming seven years, the number of Christians in the city is likely to drop to 5300 individuals.
Israel has designated only 13% of East Jerusalem for construction, thus greatly increasing housing density for Palestinians in the city while forcing others to leave. Those who remain in the city of their birth encounter bureaucratic difficulties when attempting to build a life for their families.
Elias Baseer, accountant at the YMCA of East Jerusalem, explains that, “after a five-year-long wait and almost NIS 150,000 invested, I finally got permission to build a house in (East Jerusalem’s) Beit Safafa village. If I can’t afford to complete my house by the end of this year, I will have to pay NIS 50,000 more to extend my permit. And after that deadline, the Israeli authorities can revoke my housing licence at any time.”
Christians struggle to keep themselves afloat in Jerusalem. If life for non-Jewish inhabitants is equally hard in the city, Christian Palestinians have to deal with other complications due to their minority beliefs.
If in the past Christians traditionally ran successful businesses and lived in upper class neighbourhoods of what today is known as West Jerusalem, nowadays they are squeezed within a limited market and due to Israel’s cutting of the West Bank off from Jerusalem, they can only trade with the 200,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem.
Furthermore, a large majority of Christian Jerusalemites today work for Christian NGOs and receive minimal salaries. “The average money a family with four members needs to have a decent – not ‘good’ but ‘decent’ – life is three times that salary,” Baseer says, “therefore people have to engage with many different activities to not drown under the pressure of this overwhelming city.”
Another important aspect is the education within Jerusalem’s Christian community. Christian families often send their children to expensive private schools because, as Baseer continues, “on the one hand, they want to provide their children with a Christian education and, on the other hand, they don’t want their kids to be constantly harassed by the other pupils. In a city like Jerusalem, where the three monotheistic faiths live together, it is almost impossible to abstract from people’s – even children’s – belief.”
Christian and Muslim Palestinians have an overall good relationship between each other. They are partners in their trade activities and share the same daily struggle to survive Israel’s growing occupation and colonisation of Jerusalem.
“What is difficult to make Muslim Palestinians understand though,” Baseer states, “is that even the Christian community is not monolithic inside: there are Catholics, Armenians and Orthodoxies. This complex issue comes out whenever one (community) part strengthens a commercial deal with Israel. In these circumstances, not only the person who is responsible is blamed and considered a traitor, but also the entire Christian community.”
“If we are either spat on or harassed by the Israeli settlers, we will forgive them because this is what our religion tells us to do,” Deher says. “But now the situation has gone too far: Israeli settlers damage and steal our properties and the government endorses them.”
“The Israeli government has always been right-wing,” states Baseer. “But there is a kind of government that complicates the things up to 20% and another one that does it up to 80%. The current one,that backs violent and shameful aggressions, is dangerous up to a 99%.”
“How can the Israeli authorities reach the 100% threshold?” Baseer concludes, saying. “Just kicking all of us out from our houses and taking full control of Jerusalem.”