If Palestine becomes a state, will Christians return to Bethlehem? Part 1

“In 1992 Bethlehem was 92% Christian, now it is only 8% Christian.” (Mordechai Ben-Menachem 14 October 2014)

That surprising claim led to the header’s question. I’d put the lid down on blogging about the possibility of Palestinian statehood, but both new points need addressing after they cropped up over the weekend.

And another’s important: what’s the proper Christian perspective? This will cover some essential theology which, with my earlier post on the 1967 war, could give my readers, believer or not, some fresh insights.

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The Church of the Nativity at Manger Square, the oldest standing church in the Holy Land ; courtesy Obethlehem.com

Bethlehem is, after all, the birth-place of Jesus Christ. His yet-again dispersed followers would need a special reason to take the immense trouble of returning home. Perhaps after a period of complete cessation of hostilities? That would need miraculous changes in human nature – not impossible – plus dismantling of extensive demonic strongholds.

Personal visitations of Jesus to individual Jews and Muslims continue and many more are becoming secret believers since this email of November 2010 about them, for God is pouring out His Spirit on all flesh in these latter days.

My answer to my question is, “No, I think not; not until Jesus returns!” – as He himself promised He will do. But as He’s already putting in private supra-natural appearances then one could suggest that, after a fashion, He’s already ‘returning’ (eg. the Emmaus road encounter of Jesus in ‘another form’ – Mark 16.12 and Luke 24:13-35).

I offer no apology for temporarily continuing with the Palestinian issue because it’s closely connected with ‘the apple’ of the Lord’s eye – Jerusalem – as revealed in His Word (see Zecharia 2:8)  Also, major events over recent years point inescapably and unequivocally to prophetical scriptures foretelling what’s happening, or soon about to, in this ancient city sacred to three major faiths.

The Christian exodus

The opening quotation is from an in-depth interview with William Koenig, accredited Christian journalist at The White House and published in last week’s ‘Eye-View’ report.

As a scientist technologist, former researcher/lecturer at Ben-Gurion University who is professionally engaged in systems/software engineering, and prolific author of books and professional papers in various areas, Mordechai should be a well-informed person.  His reference to Bethlehem was only one point in a wide-ranging conversation covering  such topics as 1,400 years of Arab colonisation, ethnicity, Egypt, Europe, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Islam.

Nevertheless, his claim needs checking.

Wikipedia refers to 1948 and 1967 censuses showing Christian/Muslim demographic ratios as 85%:13% and dropping to 46%:54%. The Palestinian Authority’s 1997 census doesn’t distinguish between the religions but in 2005 and 2009 the Christian percentage falls to 40% and then 15% (sources uncited).

Referring also to Daniel Pipes’ wealth of knowledge, I found he started a report in 2001 with a specific reference to Bethlehem, viz:

“The ‘Middle East Quarterly’ begins its eighth year with its first issue devoted to a single topic—that of disappearing Christians in the Middle East.

“The transfer of power of Bethlehem from Israel to the Palestinian Authority just before Christmas 1995 inspired a spate of articles on Bethlehem’s diminishing Christian presence. They noted that a place not long ago 80 percent Christian is now but one-third Christian. For the first time in nearly two millennia, the most identifiably Christian town on earth has lost its Christian majority. The same changes have taken place in two other famously Christian towns, Nazareth and Jerusalem….”

His article has several updates to 2012, but perhaps the increasingly frequent news of persecution has made it difficult to incorporate subsequent events. Some posts on this blog tagged ‘persecution’ indicate the enormity of this issue.

On the other hand, last month in Christian Arab presence in Bethlehem in Crisis, Arab Daily News reported as follows:

“Today, according to Christian activists who are struggling to survive in Bethlehem, the Christian population there has been eclipsed by a growth of both Muslim refugees who are relocating to avoid the persecution by Israel in Hebron and by the increasing number of Israeli Jews who are taking Christian lands to build exclusively jewish-only settlements.”

After remarking about the hostility of Muslim Arabs and their activists and then quoting a Christian activist’s email, the reporter Ray Hanania writes,

“As both Israeli and Muslim activist groups grow, the Christian voice has remained stagnant and almost insignificant. Christian speakers are invited to speak at Muslim and Jewish organization events more as a political statement. Jews invite Christians to their conferences in order to use the Christians as a criticism against Islam while Muslims also invite Christians to their conferences in order to use the Christians as a criticism against Israel and Zionism.”

Ray’s well-balanced article is worth taking the time to read. He examines the issues in some depth, noting that the Christians are manipulated and muted by both Islamist and Jewish factions against their opponents. Also, the troubles and their significant effect upon tourism have made it very hard to sustain a living.

Consequently, he admires the campaign by George Sleibi to encourage support for the Christian community in the Holy Land, “in response to the growing regional Israeli-Palestinian conflict and decline of the Christian minority”.  He is affiliated with a group of denominations’ informative website OBethlehem.com, which covers the challenges facing Christians. Ray quotes him as saying,

“The Christian presence in the Holy Land is declining daily. Currently, the Holy Land’s Christians comprise only 2% of the population. The continued emigration of Christians as a result of ongoing instability is having a negative impact on their presence in the land where Jesus was born, crucified and resurrected. Should this trend continue, an important spiritual destination, shared by billions throughout the world, will become nothing more than a museum, as the indigenous Christian community who represent the Christian presence in the Holy Land cease to exist.”

Alarming, yet in the light of a just-published study we appreciate the possibility of Ray being cautiously circumspect (see Study: self-censorship rife among Palestinian reporters).

Here’s one instance of the effect the Israeli-Palestinian troubles had upon the birth-place of Jesus Christ.

Bethlehem hostage crisis

Andrew WhiteCanon Andrew White was called by Yasser Arafat, and later by the Israeli government, to act as intermediary for the 39-day siege of The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, during April-May 2002.  It was the result of homes in the predominantly Christian town of Beit Jala having been forcibly taken by Palestinians for firing rockets and mortars the short distance down and across a valley into the Jewish new town of Gilo.

“As expected”, writes Canon White, “The Israelis responded by sending in helicopters to destroy the homes (the militants’ positions) from which the missiles were fired. Once again Christians were caught in the middle (emphasis RB).

The militants then retreated to Manger Square, took control of the Church of the Nativity and took hostage of clergy and worshippers. PM Ariel Sharon and Arafat refused to climb down and international diplomacy was brought to bear in finding countries which would accept 13 leaders into permanent exile and 26 others for trial. (As they went to Gaza no trial was held.)

Again in that November 2010, I referred to this event and quoted Canon Andrew on the difficulties in the three faiths agreeing on the historic Alexandria Declaration, as coming from

“…the Christians who often feel they have to be even more Palestinian than the Muslims, to show they are committed to the cause.”

This declaration was one of the first initiatives to bring together Christians, Jews and Muslims in pursuit of peace in the region and the first major event of 2002 in which Andrew took a leading and pivotal role.

Andrew had no wish to be ordained because he’d qualified and was practising as an anaesthetist, yet felt God was calling him into the Church of England – and it was later confirmed by a prophetic word, as below!

He became very interested in Judaism and rabbinical studies during his theological education. This gave him the opportunity to take further his interest in international affairs, especially in the Middle-East. So he travelled around those parts and became acquainted with various leaders, as well as in Cambridge.

Although ordination in 1990 involved London parish work, his involvement in Jewish-Christian relations continued along with a new interest in Islam. To the surprise of his vicar, Andrew even had regular audiences with the Pope to brief him on his work and contacts in the political and diplomatic areas soon developed.

An aside: I was going to describe Andrew White as Archbishop of Canterbury Carey’s emissary in the Middle-East. But upon checking his biographical The Vicar of Baghdad, I was surprised to find a mutual connection with one of our church leader’s mentors.:

“On a second visit to Jerusalem, between graduation from Cambridge and my ordination, I was instructed by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi to go and see a woman known as Sister Ruth Heflin, who ran a very charismatic and rather American church called the Mount Zion fellowship. She proved to be the most forceful person I have ever met. Indeed I was scared of her. At the end of the first meeting I attended, at her house in East Jerusalem, she came up to me and started to prophesy over me.

“She had never met me before and knew nothing about me, but she declared that my calling in life was, “to seek the peace of Jerusalem and the Middle East”.

“At that stage, I couldn’t make any sense of this (and I certainly had no idea that ‘the Middle East’ might include Iraq) but what I did understand was that her home was filled with the glory of God as I had never experienced before.” (As our local sister can verify!)  

To be continued in Part 2 with interesting references to several Palestinian Christians.

One thought on “If Palestine becomes a state, will Christians return to Bethlehem? Part 1

  1. Pingback: What have Paul Keith’s video and Mary Magdalene got in common? | Richard's Watch

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