Sister Sophie is a French-speaking nun from Lebanon who runs the Creche, an orphanage in Bethlehem sponsored by the Vatican. She’s maybe 80 years old, though she won’t say. And it doesn’t matter. She shows the energy of a teenager as she takes care of 40 infants whose prospects of adoption are close to nil. Sister Sophie also has the heart of a saint.
Adoption isn’t banned in the West Bank, but there’s a catch. It is subject to sharia law. Orphans can only be adopted by Muslim families. But they rarely adopt. It’s frowned upon in Muslim culture. So the orphans, some with serious birth defects, stay with Sister Sophie until they’re passed on to an orphanage for older children.
Their sad plight is a reflection of the adversity endured by Palestinian Christians in a largely Muslim society. They do wonderful things. They operate colleges, schools, and hospitals, open to all. But from the Palestinians and the Israelis who control the West Bank, they get little in return. Their motivation comes from Christ’s teachings, their thanks from the grace of God.
Christians play an important institutional role here, taking care of many holy sites. (This is what the Crusades were about.) But the various Christian sects, small as they are, bicker among themselves, notably over who should control the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem. As a result, a prominent Muslim family handles access to the church.
The custodial job at sacred sites will get more difficult as the Christian population continues to dwindle in Israel and the West Bank. “It’s been declining since 1948 [when Israel became a state] and is declining very sharply,” says Alex Awad, dean of students at Bethlehem Bible College. “I’m afraid in 15 years, forget about Christians in the Holy Land.” In the West Bank and Gaza today, Christians are probably less than 2 percent of the population.
“Who’s emigrating?” says Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor, whose International Center of Bethlehem is the town’s third largest employer. “The best educated Palestinians, especially Christians.” Many emigrants have family connections in America. They leave because they can.
Life is hard for Christians in the West Bank. Even on holy days, Palestinian Christians have trouble getting through Israeli checkpoints in time to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site of Christ’s crucifixion. The wall between Israel and the West Bank has dramatically reduced terrorist attacks, but it’s also made it difficult for Palestinian students to reach a school run by the Sisters of Charity on the Mount of Olives.
Those are petty inconveniences. For the most part, Israelis are oblivious to the Christian community. One Israeli who sympathizes with the Palestinians told me he’s scarcely aware of a Christian presence at all. And as a marginalized religious minority in the West Bank, Christians face restrictions.
“Our evangelism is not accepted in any Islamic society,” says Awad. “But we’re allowed to have our colleges, our schools, our hospitals.” Missionary work is limited to “indirect evangelism.” That’s like don’t ask, don’t tell: Whatever you do, keep it out of sight.
There’s another problem. The growth of radical Islam among Palestinians in recent years is “an increasingly dangerous threat to Christian communities, to individuals, and to the mode of life they practice,” says Justus Reid Weiner, an Israeli, in a report on the “human rights of Christians in Palestinian society.” The owner of a Christian bookstore in Gaza was murdered in 2007.
Christians in the West Bank are fortunate to have at least one powerful defender, Palestinian prime minister Salaam Fayyad. He says he will do everything he can to keep the Christian community from shrinking. And he says he wants to hear immediately of any persecution of Christians.
As part of a Christian group that spent a week in Israel and the West Bank last month, I talked to numerous Palestinian Christians. I was struck by the lack of evidence for the idea that Christians are a buffer between Israelis and Palestinians, an impediment to conflict. They aren’t.
They are highly critical of Israel and strongly support a Palestinian state. “I am more willing to live under an Islamic state with sharia law than not have a Palestinian state,” says Awad. Coming from a deeply committed Christian, that’s quite a statement and, to me, an appalling one.
But Awad, a genial and gracious man, tempered it. “The more Christians you have, the more blessings we can have on this land,” he says. “Once we have a Palestinian state, hopefully more Palestinian Christians will move back.” Maybe they will, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.