Originally published in the NY Post December 27, 2008.
I AM sitting on stone stairs fac ing the Jaffa Gate, a 10-minute walk from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional spot of the crucifixion. Christianity began here, some 2,000 years ago, and is still practiced here by Arabic-speakers in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.
I am on the phone with a Palestinian Christian who is talking to me from Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace. "My friend," he says, "6,000 Palestinian Christians have left Bethlehem in the last six years.
"There is growing [Islamic] fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza. Tell the people of America that we fear that we Christians in the territories and Gaza will become the forgotten people."
Christians are leaving in increasing numbers. Fifty years ago, they were 15 percent of the total population of Gaza and the West Bank; now, they're less than 2 percent. Where Christians were the majority in Bethlehem, they're just a fifth the town's population, and falling.
American lawyer J.R. Weiner has been collecting evidence from a variety of sources on the kind and quantity of persecution of Palestinian Christians. It includes social and economic discrimination as well as boycotts and extortion of Christian businesses; forcing Christian Arab women to wear the veil and follow Muslim dress codes; using laws that forbid land sales to Israelis to obstruct the sale of land from one Palestinian Christian to another, and incitement against Christians by Palestinian Authority officials.
One man told Weiner: "I know many businessmen who have been extorted. There wasn't a Christian businessman exempt. Many of them are now out of business - nearly 90 percent. Christian vendors have been forced to pay protection money to stay in business . . . most of the bribes and extortion are . . . of course, paid in cash."
The owner of a café near Manger Square, who'd lived in Bethlehem for 30 years, refused to pay bribes to a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade - and was shot. He survived and fled the country.
Many Americans know that sermons in mosques in Gaza often malign Jews, using the most medieval anti-Semitic stereotypes - but few are aware that Christians are often equally maligned.
For example, official Palestine Authority TV in Oct., 2000, broadcast a live anti-Christian sermon at the Gaza mosque by the former rector of the Islamic University of Gaza, Ahmad Abu Halabiya. A brief excerpt:
"From here, Allah the almighty has called upon us not to ally with the Jews or the Christians, not to like them, not to become their partners, not to support them, and not to sign agreements with them . . . as Allah said, 'O you who believe, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies.' "
A Christian Arab citizen of Israel whom I've known for years tells me, "Something has changed during the last three to five years. All my life I simply thought of myself as an Arab. I did not distinguish between Muslim and Christian. I have discovered that, all of a sudden, I am a Christian!
"I have never really thought of myself in this way but now I do, and it is not out of choice but out of necessity. I am being pushed toward it by rising Muslim intolerance. They no longer see us as their equals."
Arab nationalism (largely a creation of Arabic-speaking Christians) is being replaced by radical Islam, which has no plans for the existence of Christian minorities holding full citizens' rights. It is not surprising then that Christians of the West Bank and Gaza are discovering that the official Palestinian idea is now that of an Islamic state under sharia law.
In this brave new Palestinian world, Arabic-speaking Christians are neither equal nor welcome, and this largely explains the exodus.
Quite soon, "that little town of Bethlehem" may have no more Christian residents. They will become one more in a list of "forgotten people."
(Also see Pierre Rehov's film, Holy Land: Christians in Peril.)