"It is undeniable that the Palestinian people- Muslim and Christians- have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty 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."
The above words were spoken by the President of the United States Barack Obama in Cairo to millions of people around the world. Never before had a US president even admitted the existence of Palestinian Christians let alone speak of the suffering of Palestinian Christians.
For years Americans were fed the stereotypical image of Palestinians as nothing less than Islamic terrorists. Jewish Israelis on the other hand were presented with the image of people with similar values and 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 47 minute 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 Bendict XVI. In welcoming the pope at the King Hussein Mosque in Amman, Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammad gave 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. Wikipedia states that Christians today make up 9.2 per cent of the population of the Near East. In Lebanon, they now number around 39 percent, in Syria from 10 to 15 percent. In Palestine before the creation of Israel, estimates range up to as much as 40 per cent, but mass emigration has slashed the number at present to 3.8 percent. In Israel, Arab Christians constitute 2.1 percent (or roughly 10 percent of the Arab population). In Egypt, they constitute between 9 and 16 percent of the population (the government figures put them at 6 percent).
Around two-thirds of North and South American and Australian Arabs are Christian, particularly from Lebanon, but also from Palestine and Syria. The current president of El Salvador, Antonio Saca, comes from well-known Christian Palestinian ancestry; his family emigrated from Bethlehem in the early 20th century.
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 work (or lack thereof) and emigration opportunities as the main reason for the flight of Christian Palestinians to the Americas, Australia and Europe. Unlike followers of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, Christians have no 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 UN Office of Humanitarian Aid announced just prior to the visit of the Pope in May showed that Bethlehem, the birth place of Christ is being choked. In its report, the UN 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 UN 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 boosts only 40% Christian population.
While it is safe to say that the US administration still views the Middle East conflict in political rather than religious terms, it is refreshing to hear a US president give recognition to a small but faithful Palestinian Christian community.