During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk every day and then celebrate with family each evening at dinner. Several years ago during this special season, I was leading a group of BYU Jerusalem students on a field trip into the West Bank (known today as the Palestinian Territories or simply as Palestine). Nablus, ancient Shechem, was just heating up as one of the flash points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so a BYU Palestinian security guard (all of whom were loved by the students) accompanied us as additional safety precaution for our trip into this Palestinian area. As we made our way back to Jerusalem, the students were surprised when he pulled out his lunch and began to eat it. As he looked around with a sandwich in one hand, he said to the shocked students, “Hey, I’m Christian!” It had not dawned on them that any of the security guards could have been Christians; they were simply assumed to be Muslims.
My experience as tour director to the Holy Land is that most North American tourists assume that all Palestinians or Arab-Israelis are Muslims. Truly the Arab Christians are “the forgotten faithful” (see “The Forgotten Faithful: Arab Christians,” National Geographic, June 2009, 78–97). Surprisingly, in 1914 more than 26 percent of the population living in what is known today as Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, and Syria were Christian (87). Not too long ago, Palestinian Christians constituted the majority in Bethlehem, representing about 80 percent of the population. Today they make up about 10 percent of what is now decidedly a Muslim city. The decline in Bethlehem, as well as Nazareth, parallels what has happened in the entire region, where Christians now constitute less than 9 percent of the total population. Ironically, today, much of the West views these Christians suspiciously, and at the same time they are increasingly marginalized and even forced to convert or flee by their Muslims neighbors. They are between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
It may be interesting to note that there have been many well-known Christians from the Middle East or Middle Eastern descent. For example, Abdalá Jaime Bucaram Ortiz, Lebanese Catholic president of Ecuador (1996–97); John Sununu, Palestinian-Lebanese Greek Orthodox Christian U.S. political leader; Carlos Ghosn, Lebanese Maronite Christian CEO of Nissan and Renault; Hanan Ashrawi, Anglican Palestinian activist and spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority; Paul Anka, Syrian Christian U.S. pop singer; Salma Hayek, Lebanese-Mexican Roman Catholic actress; Azmi Bishara, Arab-Israeli Greek Orthodox member of the Israeli Knesset; and Tony Shalhoub, Lebanese Maronite Christian and Emmy Award-winning TV star of Monk.
A few more experiences in the Middle East reveal the unique situation that Middle Eastern Christians find themselves in today.
In a private conversation with a Palestinian Christian friend several years ago, he told me he did not like living under Israeli occupation but he feared that if the Palestinian established their own nation, it would become an Islamic religious state. In what I can only describe as complete but composed despair, he added, “There may be no future for me and my family in this land,” a land where Christianity was born and a land where his family had lived for more than five hundred years as Christians.
During a tour of the Holy Land five or six years ago, several participants talked to a Palestinian during one of our rest stops. Apparently, the brief discussion had begun with a few harmless questions about his opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, as they talked with him, it became clear that they supported the current policies of the political state of Israel, including the expansion of the Jewish settlements into Palestinian lands of the West Bank. As I drew nearer, they asked him, “Why don’t the Palestinians just move to Jordan and allow Israelis to have their own country?” They apparently assumed that Palestinians did not have the same kind of historical connection or claims to the land that Jews did—that the Palestinians, as Muslims, were aliens and foreigners in the Holy Land.
These tourists were surprised when he responded, “Why don’t you Americans think or care about us, your Christian brothers and sisters? Aren’t we followers of Jesus like yourselves? Aren’t Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, and Jerusalem sacred to us too?” Then he revealed himself as a Palestinian Christian—not a Palestinian Muslim. They simply assumed, like my BYU students, that all Arabs or Palestinians were Muslims. They discovered in their conversation that his family had lived in the land for centuries and had been Christians far longer than their own families, who were most likely pagan peasants living in the backwaters of Europe when his progenitors accepted Christianity in the Holy Land nearly two thousand years ago. Somehow, it now seemed wrong to them that believing Christians who had lived in the land for so long were persecuted, driven, and marginalized by competing political, economic, and religious ideologies of the region.
This month’s National Geographic article on Middle Eastern Christians is a great introduction to their story, highlighting an important insight to the conflict that may not be as familiar to us as it should be. In the end, it is all a lot more complex than we generally assume.