Obama Reaches Out to Palestinian Christians

It is undeniable that the Palestinian people - Muslim and Christians - have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands of a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation of the Palestinian people is intolerable.
-President Barack Obama, Cairo, June 4

The above words were spoken to millions of people around the world. Never before had a U.S. president even admitted the existence of Palestinian Christians, let alone spoke of their suffering.

For years Americans were fed the stereotypical image of Palestinians as nothing less than Islamic terrorists. Jewish Israelis, on the other hand, were presented to Americans as people with similar values, part of the Judeo Christian heritage. Right-wing Christian televangelists and Christian Zionists portrayed the "evil Palestinians" who were somehow an obstacle to the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. These Christian Zionists never admitted the existence of fellow Palestinian Christians, let alone admit that they were suffering at the hands of the "chosen" Jewish people.

In his speech at Cairo University, President Obama spoke in general terms about the rights of other Christian communities, including Egyptian Coptic Christians and Lebanese Maronites.

In the past month the issue of Arab Christians was raised in public during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. In welcoming the pope at the King Hussein Mosque in Amman, Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammad made special reference to Arab Christians: "Christians were in Jordan 600 years before Muslims. Indeed, Jordanian Christians are perhaps the oldest Christian community in the world, and the majority have always been Orthodox."

Statistics regarding Arab Christians vary. Christians today, according to some sources, make up 9.2 percent of the population of the Near East. In Lebanon, they now number around 39 percent, in Syria from 10 to 15 percent. In Egypt, they constitute between 9 and 16 percent of the population (government figures put them at 6 percent). In Palestine before the creation of Israel, estimates range up to as much as 40 percent, but mass emigration has slashed the number at present to 3.8 percent.

Although the number of Christian Palestinians in Jerusalem and the occupied territories has dwindled over the years, they are still a key component of the Palestinian and Arab peoples of the region. Activists blame violence, occupation, and uncertainty, coupled with the lack of work, as the main reasons for the flight of Christian Palestinians. Unlike followers of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, Christians have little religious attachment to physical locations. Scholars refer to the response of Jesus to the Samaritan woman's question about whether to worship in Jerusalem or in the Sumerian mountains. Jesus replied to her: "Neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

A survey issued by the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Aid, just prior to the visit of the pope in May, showed that Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, is being choked. In its report, the U.N. showed how the 176,230 Palestinians who live in the Bethlehem District amid 86,000 Israelis stood to lose even more of their land to 19 settlements and 16 outposts.

"The physical and administrative restrictions allocate most of Bethlehem's remaining land reserves for Israeli military and settler use, effectively reducing the space available to the Palestinian inhabitants of Bethlehem," the report stated. Bethlehem's potential for residential and industrial development had been reduced, as had its access to natural resources, it said. According to the report, the security wall has also made it difficult for Christians and Muslims to travel to religious sites outside of the city. The once predominantly Christian town a few kilometers south of Jerusalem today boasts only a 40 percent Christian population.

While it is safe to say that the U.S. administration still views the Middle East conflict in political rather than religious terms, it is refreshing to hear a U.S. president give recognition to a small but faithful Palestinian Christian community.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian Christian journalist and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. His email is info@daoudkuttab.com.

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