The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is visited by thousands of pilgrims every year, despite the security issues in the region [Templar1307]
c The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is visited by thousands of pilgrims every year, despite the security issues in the region [Templar1307]

Palestine: The decline of Christianity in the West Bank

The last six decades has seen Christian populations plummet in Palestine. What is causing this mass exodus from this Christian landmark?

In the British mandated Palestine, before the establishment of Israel in 1948, the percentage of the Christian population stood at 18%. This figure has now dwindled to under 1.5%, with fewer than 2.5% of Jerusalem’s population—the city holy to all three Abrahamic religions—being Christian. Why has the number of Christians in the region diminished so rapidly?

Christians controlled the Levant, stretching from Lebanon down to the Red Sea, from the reign of the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine, in 306AD, until the Muslim Caliph Omar al-Khattab conquered the region in 637. Since then, the native Christians have not held power, instead submitting to colonial powers such as the Ottomans and the British in the strategically located land.

The beginning of the decline in Christian presence in Palestine became apparent during the British Mandate in the post-WWI era when the British barred any Christian Palestinians from returning if they left before the War.

After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there was a mass exodus of approximately 725,000 Palestinians from the country. The issue of whether Israel expelled the Palestinians, or whether they fled of their own accord is much debated by historians, yet the Christian emigrants are often forgotten.

Many Palestinians then fled to America, Australia and South America; however, other reasons have been suggested as to why the Christian population in particular continues to shrink. The birth rate of the Christian population in the Palestinian Territories is far behind that of the Muslim population, but more worryingly, the swelling sectarianism between the Christian population and those who adhere to a radical interpretation of Islam are pushing many in the former category out of their homes.

The Christian population in the West Bank currently stands at fewer than 8% of the people, in contrast to 75% who are Muslim and 17% who are Jewish. The subjugation of the Christian percentage has continued with disturbing rhetoric. A prolific Imam from Gaza, Dr. Ahmad Abu Halabiya, rallied for the deaths of those who act like Americans and Jews, including Christians.

[note color=”#CED4EB”]The discrimination in Palestine is not the only case of anti-Christian sentiments: Boko Haram, a jihadist group in Nigeria, have launched numerous attacks on churches, raising fear among the Christian population. Mali has also seen a recent rise in militant Islam, and reports of Christians being beheaded.[/note]

There are three churches located in the Gaza Strip: the Gaza Baptist Church, the Saint Porphyrius Church and the Holy Family Catholic Church. In 2007, a leader from the Gaza Baptist Church, Rami Ayyad, was murdered following months of threats and intimidation. The murder came just after Hamas’ coup in the Strip in 2007, where they declared an ‘end of secularism and heresy in the Gaza Strip’.  The bloodshed continued with gunmen attacking the Rosary Sisters School Gaza city and, in 2008, the YMCA in Gaza City was blown up.

There have been disturbing accusations heralded against the more radical Islamic factions in Gaza, including against Hamas itself. El Shafie, from One Free World International, who fled from Egypt to Israel after converting to Christianity, has claimed that Hamas had exhumed Christian graves in Gaza and then burnt the bodies.

The aftershock of these brutal attacks has reverberated into the everyday lives of Christians. Recently there have been reports that two Christians, Ramez Al-Amash and Hiba Abu Dawoud, were forced to convert to Islam, despite the Quran asserting that there ‘should be no compulsion in religion’.

Across the divide of Israel, in the Fatah governed West Bank, intimidation also continues. In 2002, Palestinian gunmen attacked the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, but in 2011, violent clashes between different Christian groups in the Church of Nativity caused days of riots over the Christmas period. The culpability of intimidation does not just lie in the hands of radical Islamic factions, especially in the West Bank.

In December 2012, coinciding with the Israeli government’s Operation Pillar of Defence in Gaza, Jewish settlers in the West Bank bombarded Christian churches and homes with intimidating graffiti and there have been reports of Molotov cocktails being used against the Christian population.

The recently re-named ‘State of Palestine’ is yet to become a fully-fledged member of the United Nations so international laws, which could take them to the International Criminal Court, do not apply.

Israel has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and, therefore, has a duty to protect religious minorities inside Israel. This includes the ‘C’ zones within the West Bank, which the Oslo Accords assigned to Israel, and the ‘B’ zones, which has joint ownership between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The ICCPR states that religion should not be a ground for discrimination and that everyone has freedom of religion, to adopt a religion of their choosing, and to manifest their religion as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others. The fact that there have been allegations against Hamas of forced conversions means that Hamas, as a potential partner in any fully-fledged Palestinian state, would have breached human rights as recognised in international laws. Similarly, the lack of protection offered by the Israelis in their Zones in the West Bank violates the ICCPR as they protect Jewish settlers, but do not seem to offer the same protection for other religious minorities.

In order to move forward, those living in the region and those in the international community should first separate the persecution by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and that perpetrated by Israel. Only then can analysts, and subsequently the media, begin to unravel and address the situation so the human rights abuses can be brought to light. Additionally those involved in the conflict need to address the issue of sectarian violence and push for peace.

If, however, the discrimination faced by Palestinian Christians is not addressed, their migration will continue in the same high numbers. Experts fear the exodus will continue, and it will instead become a museum for the past Christian presence there.

Rosanna Rafel


Rosanna has just completed a Masters degree from SOAS (where her focus was on the Middle East), and is currently the Communications Assistant at the Henry Jackson Society and the Editor for Israel for the Asfar Journal. She is interested in human rights, Islamic law and foreign policy in particular with regard to the Middle East and North Korea.

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