This week, Christmas pageants across the country will reenact the scenes of the nativity; carolers will sing the beloved hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”; and millions will turn their hearts toward that ancient city, where many believe that Jesus was born. But it’s likely most Americans haven’t pondered what that birthplace is like today — or who lives there.
Bethlehem is the most heavily Christian city in Palestine. Its Arab Christian mayor, Vera Baboun, describes her hometown the “capital of Christmas” and says that between Bethlehem proper and the surrounding Bethlehem governate, there are upward of 38,000 Christian residents. Christmas celebrations there form an integral part of city life. “Bethlehem is the city that gave the message of peace to the whole world,” Baboun told me in a November interview at a conference hosted by the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. “But today, Bethlehem does not live the peace that it gave to the whole world.”
The existence of Palestinian Christians, and the difficulties they face under Israeli occupation in their homeland, is a blind spot for American Christians. Evangelicals in particular are often strong supporters of Israel and suspicious of Muslims but don’t seem to realize that those aren’t the only groups at play in the region.
“I and many other Americans of Palestinian Christian ancestry will often get asked: When did you convert? ‘2,000 years ago, when did you convert?’ is a standard response,” said Gregory Khalil, president and co-founder of the U.S.-based Telos Group, a self-styled pro-Israel and pro-Palestine organization that advocates peace in the region.
“One of the greatest challenges that IDC is working to tackle is the perception that the Middle East is void of religious minorities,” said Philippe Nassif, executive director of In Defense of Christians a U.S.-based organization dedicated to raising awareness of the challenges facing Middle East Christians. Nassif, who is of partial Arab Christian descent, told me that while some mainline Protestant congregations have begun to recognize and advocate for Palestinians in recent years, American evangelicals display little such awareness. They typically see support for Israeli security policies as an inherent Christian duty — while ignoring that those policies have also made life difficult for Christians in Palestine and have cut them off from parts of their homeland.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), an outspoken conservative Christian politician and proponent of Israel, demonstrated that particular myopia when he gave the keynote speech at a 2014 conference hosted by IDC. A contingent of Arab Christians booed Cruz off stage after he declared “Christians have no better ally than the Jewish state.” For Palestinian Christians, that simply isn’t true.
It makes sense that the Holy Land, perceived as being embodied by the State of Israel, is of particular concern to Christians. And to the degree that many evangelical Christians are conservative Republicans, their worldview matches up with an American foreign policy view that places a premium on Israeli security. But by forgetting their Palestinian coreligionists, American Christians aren’t just missing the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are missing an opportunity to live out the message of peace that Jesus, born in Bethlehem, gave to the world.
Israel gained administrative and military control over much of Bethlehem in 1967, a set of circumstances later formalized in the 1993 Oslo accords. During the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising that started in 2000, Israel erected a wall that divided much of Palestine from Israel. The barrier was intended to protect Israeli civilians from terrorist attacks — hundreds of innocent people had died — but it also isolated Palestine and choked off its economic growth.
Bethlehem, and its Christians, have suffered deeply as a result. It’s difficult for local authorities there to ensure access to clean water and maintain basic infrastructure — a situation worsened by the Palestinian Authority’s own endemic graft. Residents have relatively few economic or educational opportunities, and even peaceful dissidents may be subject to arrest or punitive home demolition. The wall also severed the connection to their religious twin city, Jerusalem. Christians had once traveled freely between Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Now they must apply for permits and wait for hours in crowded lines at checkpoints.
Arab and Muslim-majority countries have largely taken up the cause of Palestinians, who are mostly Arab and Muslim. That cause has been heavily tainted by groups such as Hamas, a militant organization that controls Gaza, a part of Palestine, and promotes violence against Israel.
That’s the narrative that runs strongest among evangelicals, and may help explain their one-sidedness on the issue. According to a 2013 Pew Research survey, more than 80 percent of evangelical Christians in America believe that God gave the land of Israel for Jewish people; just 40 percent of American Jews believe the same. American evangelicals are also more likely than American Jews to believe that a two-state solution, in which a Palestinian state and Israel can peacefully coexist, is impossible.
Fundamentally, however, American Christians have misunderstood one of the core complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict: that it isn’t simply a confrontation between Muslims and Jews. Christians, too, are caught up in the strife, but typically overlooked.
Christians have lived in Palestine since the earliest days of Christianity. They trace their lineage to early Aramaic-speaking Christians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and later, Crusaders. Most now identify as ethnically Arab.
But indigenous Christians across the Middle East have only recently come across the radar of American Christians. The Islamic State has decimated historic Christian communities in Iraq and Syria, forcing thousands of Christians to flee their homes. “ISIS put these populations on the map” in the worst sort of way, said Nassif. Recent campaigns inside the U.S. have sought to raise awareness and garner congressional support for vulnerable religious minorities in the region, giving many American Christians their first introduction to Middle Eastern Christianity.
This wasn’t the first major Christian exodus from the Middle East, however. There were two previous waves in the past century — in 1948 when Israel was established and fighting broke out between Arabs and Israelis, and during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Thousands of Palestinian Christians fled the violence and were never allowed to return to their homes.
To be sure, these earlier Christian exiles were fleeing a threat far different and far less violent than the Islamic State. And it’s important to note that Christians on both sides of the West Bank barrier currently live far safer lives than Christians in many other places in the Middle East right now.
But even when conservative Christians are aware that Palestinian Christians face difficulty, they tend to believe it is exclusively the result of Islamic extremism. As Baboun told me, when she travels abroad, the question she fields most frequently is about the relationship between Muslims and Christians in Bethlehem. But, she says, “I always tell them this is the wrong question. Because we are Palestinians. As Christians and Muslims, we are living under the same pressure to keep on our daily bread, the education of our children, our daily life.”
Rather, she enjoins, “Ask the correct question: Why up to this point are we not witnessing a peaceful solution between Palestinians and Israelis?”
The answer to that question is complex, and certainly both sides have contributed to the conflict’s stubborn longevity. But it’s also safe to say that there is suffering on both sides of the wall that divides Israel from Palestine — and that American evangelicals have largely ignored that it is possible to love Israel and to also oppose some of the injustices its government commits, just as it is possible to love America and also oppose some of the injustices our own government commits.
American Christians can support Palestinian Christians without giving up support for Israel, as Khalil’s organization demonstrates. It could be as simple as holding a church fundraiser for NGOs in Palestine working for gender equality or organizations that support local jobs to ease the region’s high unemployment. It could mean starting book clubs to read nuanced works such as “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East” that compassionately weave together the stories of Israelis and Palestinians who both love the same land. It could mean not giving up on the peace process, or even lobbying U.S. representatives to work towards a two-state solution, which many (though not all) Israelis also support.
There is surely nothing more Christ-like than to remember the Christians who care for his birthplace and preserve Bethlehem’s message for future generations — and to wish for them a better and more dignified existence. I believe American Christians have enough love in their hearts for all who reside in the holy land. All of us, every single human being, are part of God’s family. In this season of peace, it is incumbent upon Christians to acknowledge suffering and to stand for the powerless. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?