It’s a surprisingly short drive from West Jerusalem to Bethlehem – 10 or 15 minutes, at the most. But on a hot summer night a couple of weeks ago, it felt like I had traveled light-years, setting out from a bustling city-center Jerusalem neighborhood and arriving at a modest home in a quiet Bethlehem village.
In my mind, the leafy, well-lit street from which I departed was quickly juxtaposed with my gloomy destination. I flashed back to a journey I had made from West to East Berlin in the late 1980s. Back then, the Stasi (East German secret police) were the threat.
Today in Bethlehem, it’s the Islamists.
After the guards glanced at our United States passports, my American friends and I were waved through the checkpoint that separates Israel from King David’s ancient hometown.
Upon our arrival, the wariness of our hosts also felt eerily familiar to me. I could almost read their minds: “Who saw them come into our house? Who might be listening? Can we trust these friends-of-friends?”
For me, having visited Berlin before its infamous wall came down, the mood was reminiscent of the bad old days: Life behind the Iron Curtain.
My friends and I spent time with, among others, a Christian woman and her small family. I wish I could tell you her name. And I would like very much to describe her circumstances – her needs, her struggle to keep financially afloat and her family’s specific fears.
I also wish I could use real names when I write about other Bethlehem Christians – those I’ve met and those I’ve heard about through trustworthy friends.
Why can’t I name names or cite locations? Because the slightest hint that Bethlehem’s Christians are “informing outsiders” about the troubles they face might very well endanger them, not to mention their friends and family members.
Today, much of the tension in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the West Bank is blamed on the “Israeli occupation” and the security fence.
In some places, including Bethlehem, there is indeed a formidable military wall – also reminiscent of Berlin – officially called the “West Bank Barrier.” It divides Arab communities from the Israeli population.
It is true that the wall is an encumbrance on the people who live behind it. It is an eyesore and, in some places, has taken a heavy toll on business and commerce.
The checkpoints into Israel can be a nuisance. This is particularly so since Arabs and Israelis alike were able to come and go without restrictions until the ill-starred Oslo Peace Accords robbed them of their freedom of movement.
But the security wall has also saved Israeli lives. It was erected during the Second Intifada, during which a seemingly endless barrage of exploding buses, pizza shops, cafes and other public venues devastated Israel for well over three years, costing more than 1,000 lives.
It is widely reported that after the West Bank Barrier was constructed, the number of suicide bombings decreased by more than 90 percent.
Today, terrorism continues in Israel, but it wears a different face. Palestinians primarily target soldiers and religious Jews who live in settlements. These attacks are sporadic and unpredictable, involving stabbing with knives or machetes, vehicles ramming groups at bus stops or the stoning and firebombing of cars and buses. One recent attack on a chic Tel Aviv café involved firearms.
Since September 2015, 40 people have been killed in these terrorist attacks and 517 people have been injured.
As for the security barrier, when the Palestinian cry of “Tear down this wall!” is heard in Israel, the response is defiant: “Stop the terrorism or forget about it.”
In the meantime, it is quite clear that the West Bank’s Christian population is diminishing. In 2013, Rosanna Rafel reported that “in British-mandated Palestine, before the establishment of Israel in 1948, the percentage of the Christian population stood at 18 percent. This figure has now dwindled to under 1.5 percent.”
This plummeting Christian population is invariably blamed on the “Israeli occupation.” But if this is so, why isn’t the Muslim population diminishing too?
Christians are escaping the West Bank because of anti-Christian persecution.
In Bethlehem, Christians are not just a minority population in an overwhelmingly Muslim community. They aren’t simply marginalized; they don’t just suffer discrimination. Too often, they are threatened and intimidated; injured or even killed. They are cautious. They are uneasy. Many of them live in fear.
In the March 2016 issue of Providence Magazine, The Philos Project Executive Director Robert Nicholson wrote a persuasive article, “Why are Palestinian Christians Fleeing?”
He explained that “the Palestinian Authority – the government created by the PLO to manage the West Bank and Gaza – is, by its own constitution, an Islamic state that embodies the principles of sharia.”
Christians living under the PA are “accorded sanctity and respect,” but, as is the case under all sharia-based systems, Christians are relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Of course, it is illegal to convert from Islam to Christianity. Let’s not even mention the fact that sale of land to Jews is crime punishable by deatha .
Discrimination against Christians under the Palestinian Authority isn’t just legal – it’s also social. Living as a Christian, one is constantly reminded that he or she is not a member of the majority culture.
Bethlehem’s Christians are at risk of being detained by authorities based on vague accusations. An “interview” with local officials may lead to stern threats or, even more frightening, to an arrest on trumped-up charges.
Justus Weiner, a scholar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, has written extensively about the condition of Christians under the Palestinian Authority.
“Under that regime,” Weiner explained to me, “Christian Arabs have been victims of frequent human rights abuses by Muslims. There are many examples of intimidation, beatings, land theft, firebombing of churches and other Christian institutions, denial of employment, economic boycotts, torture, kidnapping, forced marriage, sexual harassment, and extortion. PA officials are directly responsible for many of the human rights violations.”
Weiner told me that Muslims who have converted to Christianity are in the greatest danger. They are defenseless against abuse by Muslim fundamentalists. Some have been murdered.
Many Christians are subject to various fees and fines, which amount to bureaucratic extortion or protection money – a thinly disguised “jizya” tax.
Chuck Kopp has been a pastor in Jerusalem for nearly half a century; he and his wife lived for several years in Bethlehem. “We can no longer remain complacent regarding the plight of the Christian minority in the Palestinian Authority,” he recently told me. “Something significant needs to be done to rectify this current imbalance.”
Meanwhile, story after story confirm that Christian women are sexually harassed, threatened and even raped for not following Islamic dress codes.
In my book “Saturday People, Sunday People,” I wrote about a young Christian woman from a village near Bethlehem who was walking home from school. She was not “covered,” meaning she did not wear an Arab-style headscarf or a long skirt.
When a gang of local Muslim males cruised past her, made obscene remarks and tried to force her into their car, she escaped and ran home, where she tearfully poured out her terrifying experience to her brother “Habib.”
It didn’t take Habib long to figure out who the Arabs were.
He knocked on the door where the ringleader and his friends hung out. When Habib demanded that they leave his sister alone, they laughed at him.
They were, however, not amused. In the days that followed, they began to track Habib.
One afternoon, Habib and his cousin went to a nearby forest to walk and talk and relax. Suddenly 13 young men, who had arrived in cars and on motorbikes, surrounded them. At first, they seemed only to be armed with sticks and a billy club. Then the knives appeared.
While his cousin was beaten and held back from interfering, Habib was stabbed 28 times. He was knifed on the head, neck, hands and the inner thighs (the attackers were trying to sever a main artery) and left for dead. Once the assailants fled and the cousin was released, he frantically drove Habib to the hospital before he bled out. Habib received massive blood transfusions; his wounds were repaired, and his life was spared. But he still requires further surgery.
During our visit in Bethlehem, my friends and I also spoke to a workman – we’ll call him George – who does outdoor maintenance near a Bethlehem school. This year, despite an intense heat wave, and notwithstanding the fact that he is not Muslim, he was angrily threatened with physical harm for publicly drinking a bottle of water during Ramadan.
Elsewhere, we heard about a Christian property owner who had rented an apartment to a Muslim family. When the rent came due, the new tenants refused to pay. This continued for months. The local authorities were alerted, but they simply shrugged. “Nothing we can do about that,” they said. “Our hands are tied.”
In recent years, several church properties in Bethlehem have been vandalized, set ablaze or invaded by violent intruders during celebrations or worship services. PA law enforcement usually arrives long after the emergency call is made – if at all.
In a recent tragedy, a young man suffering from mental retardation and who lives in a Christian village (one of his friends refers to him as “a blessed boy”) heard offensive anti-Christian statements emanating from a local mosque.
Infuriated, he shouted an insult to Muslims.
Later, he posted something equally anti-Islamic on Facebook.
A few days later, the “blessed boy” vanished. At the time of this writing, he has been missing for more than three months. His family is utterly traumatized, afraid to approach the local authorities. They fear both devastating news and deadly retaliation.
We ourselves were blessed, listening and learning from the Christians we visited. Meeting us was an act of great courage on their part. For us, it was an extraordinary opportunity.
As Nicholson wrote,
I’ve spoken to numerous Palestinian Christians who describe how Muslim terrorists would commandeer Christian homes and use them to direct sniper fire on Israeli soldiers. Others speak of systematic discrimination in hiring, housing and education. Of course, all of these conversations take place in private meetings and hushed tones.
Christians in Bethlehem rarely interact with Muslims beyond the marketplace, and are, in fact, very much afraid. But in public, Palestinian Christians equate their situation with that of their Muslim neighbors and laud the happy coexistence between the two groups.
They don’t have a choice. They are hostages inside their own city.