Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Christians "Endangered Species" in Palestine
Last year's census put Christians at a mere 1.8% of the population of Palestine, according to our two Palestinian Christian guides during our tour yesterday of Birzeit. This made Christians an "endangered species", they lamented. They believed this number to be still decreasing and shared how sad it would be when there were no Christians left in the Holy Land where Jesus lived. They noted the high was 80% during the early Christian period, which greatly declined during the Muslim conquest of the region during the 700s. By the time of the Ottoman Empire, only 40% were Christian and when Israel was created, the census numbered Christians at 27% of the population. From 27% to 1.8 was a steady decrease, I noted, and asked what they thought had caused it. Our guides said that Christian Palestinians were the wealthiest and could afford to emigrate abroad in 1948 and during the subsequent difficult period of occupation. Also, European countries and others were more willing to give visas to Christian Palestinians than to Muslim ones. The guides noted that Christians had been driven out quicker by the Israeli occupation than the Ottoman empire period or original Muslim conquest of the region.
Incidentally, our guides were very quick to point out to the group that not everyone knows that not all Arabs were Muslim and shared with us a conversation he had had with an American from Texas when he was there visiting. The Texan simply did not believe there were any Christian Arabs and refused to believe him when he said he was Christian. Our guide just shook his head and muttered rhetorically, "Are there really people that ignorant in the world?" (Of course, everyone at the table looked at me, as the only American amidst a group of Europeans. I wanted to say, "No, only Republicans are! (Ha ha, just kidding. That was for my Dad and brother's benefit.)
Interestingly, that evening walking home, I ran into my landlord, who motioned me to come with him to see something. I followed him to the back porch of a neighbor's house where a crowd of people were gathered around a statue of the Virgin Mary. The crowd was lighting candles and rubbing the statute with cotton balls. The owner of the house was a Palestinian who lived many years in San Diego and spoke perfect English and explained to me what was going on. She said that a friend of hers had given her this statue about two weeks ago and she had put it in her window on display. After a couple days she noticed the Virgin was covered in oil. She washed it off and then a day or so later, it was again covered in oil. "What kind of oil," I asked? "Olive oil!" They took it as a sign from God of blessings to come and the whole Christian community had come to receive the blessing. (Birzeit is 50% Christian, one of the few towns where Christians are in such high numbers) They even rubbed the statue with a cotton ball for me and I went home with a ball saturated in olive oil in a plastic bag. (I shared with them the definition in Science and Health of oil that included consecration and inspiration and they said, "Yes, we hope so. We need many blessings for our people.")