Palestinian Christians are, often, an oddity whenever the Arab-Israeli conflict is discussed. Some people are even surprised that such a group exists in the first place. Still others prefer to view the conflict as being primarily between Jews and Muslims, and if Christians are to included in this narrative it is always as a means to emphasise the greater battle.
According to Bernard Sabella, Associate Professor of Bethlehem University, in his paper "Palestinian Christians: Challenges And Hopes" points out that the people have deep roots in the land.
Palestinian Christians have deep roots in the land. The great majority, estimated at 400,000 worldwide or roughly 6.5 percent of all Palestinians, are of indigenous stock, whose mother tongue is Arabic and whose history takes them back, or at least some of them, to the early church. At present, the 50,000 Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip make up only 2.2 percent of the total population estimated in the mid-nineties at 2,238,0001. Palestinian Arab Christians in Israel were estimated, for the same year, at 125,000 or 14 percent of all Arabs in Israel'. Christians in Palestine and Israel make up 175,000 or 2.3 percent of the entire Arab and Jewish population of the Holy Land.
A majority of fifty-six percent of Palestinian Christians are found outside of their country. This situation of out-migration resulted from the exodus of 726,000 Palestinian refugees in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Fifty to sixty thousand Palestinian Christians, comprising 35 percent of all Christians in pre1948 mandatory Palestine, were among the refugees'. In 1996, these refugees and their descendants are spread over the entire Middle East but primarily in the sixty refugee camps dotting the topography of the West Bank (19 refugee camps); Gaza Strip (8 refugee camps); Jordan (10 refugee camps); Syria (10 refugee camps) and Lebanon (13 refugee camps).
As for Palestinian Christians, refugees and non-refugees, they are found mostly in urban areas of the Middle East but many have opted to leave to far away lands such as the USA, Central and South America, Australia and Canada. The dispersal of Palestinians since 1948 has spared no one family or group. The demographics of Palestinian Christians is as much shaped by the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as it is the demographics of Palestinians in general.
According to some estimates, current population of the Palestinian Christians is 60,000 as opposed to 400,000 when Israel was established. Fundamentalism, war, and job opportunities are some of the factors that have been blamed for the depletion of indigenous Christians in Palestine but these factors can, also, explain the exodus of some Muslim Palestinians as well because these factors impact everyone.
Sabeel, an ecumenical grassroots movement among Palestinian Christians, have been examining some of these issues affecting the Palestinian Christians and have recognised that the difficulties they face is part of a wider struggle involving the Palestinian people, in general.
During Sabeel's 6th International Conference, which was held November 2-9, 2006, a statement was issued that emphasised (among other things) that Palestinian Christians are an integral part of the Palestinian people. They share the same aspirations and destiny as their Muslim sisters and brothers. All Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been living under an illegal Israeli occupation for almost 40 years. With many peace-loving people from around the world, whether faith-based or secular, Muslims and Christians continue to work for the end of the Israeli occupation and the establishment of a viable, independent and sovereign state in Palestine.
The Israeli Arab community – Christian and Muslim – continues to struggle for total equality with its Jewish counterpart. The obstacle, however, is the nature of the state of Israel. It is a Jewish state and not a state for all its citizens. Therefore, the struggle will continue until total equality is achieved.
But challenges still remain, and one of the biggest one is to ensure that the Arab Israeli conflict does not descend into the kind of religious war that is hungry for an all-out Armageddon. And while one does not know how the conflict will eventually unravel, it's best to go back to the Christmas story, for a change, and consider the hope enshrined in the words of the angels when they sang, "peace on earth and goodwill towards all men."