Holy Land Christians: The next generation

  • June 14, 2014

BETHLEHEM - Regina Mousalam is adamant that Palestinians are not leaving and will not leave the country of their birth, the land of their ancestry and the culture that is their pride. Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and other Christian Palestinian towns and villages were built around their churches. The homes Palestinian Christians live in, the streets they walk and the extended families surrounding them keep Palestinians wedded to this hard, dry land.

“We are not 100-per-cent pessimistic. We may find a job,” Mousalam declares. “We need to look for a job, even if it takes more time. But we will not leave Palestine… We do what it takes. We’re stubborn.”

But it’s difficult to believe Mousalam. The numbers don’t back up her passion.

There are 50,000 Palestinian Christians living among nearly four million Muslims in the State of Palestine. Those 50,000 include a tiny number (perhaps 3,000) in Gaza and maybe as many as 15,000 in East Jerusalem — an area claimed by Israel as its undivided and eternal capital.

Within living memory Christians were the majority in the West Bank’s two major cities — Ramallah and Bethlehem. Before 1948 Bethlehem was 90-per-cent Christian. In the 1970s it was 60 per-cent Christian. Today it is less than 30 per cent.

Christians are leaving the Holy Land. There are close to half a million Palestinians in Chile and the majority are Christian families who fled after the 1948 partitioning of Palestine. Palestinian Christians are found in growing numbers in Toronto, Detroit, Chicago and all over California. The North American Palestinian population is growing and it’s disproportionately Christian.

Over the last decade patriarchs and bishops throughout the Middle East have raised the alarm over their diminishing flocks. None want to be bishops of a Christian Disneyland — a landscape of archeological digs, historic churches and gift shops lying in wait for pilgrims from Europe, North America and Asia.

The issue rose high enough on the Catholic agenda that Pope Benedict XVI convened a Synod on the Middle East in 2010 to address it. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of 65 per cent of Middle Eastern Christians, has pleaded with young people to stay. In 2012 in Lebanon, Pope Benedict warned young Christians not to “taste the bitter honey of emigration.” In November last year Pope Francis said, “We will not resign ourselves to imagining a Middle East without Christians.”

But it doesn’t require much imagination. In the convent-guest house where I stayed in Bethlehem I would wake at 4:30 a.m. to the amplified cry of the muezin, calling good Muslims to prayer. On the campus of Bethlehem University, the only Catholic university in Palestine or Israel, girls without a hijab covering their hair stand out. The student body is 70 per-cent female and 70-per-cent Muslim.

Forget the complicated politics and the contentious, delicate religious balance of the region. It’s that maleficent, invisible hand of economics that is pushing young Palestinians out the door. Palestine’s unemployment rate is 25.7 per cent.

Underemployment is not measured, but the remaining 74.3 per cent are not all pursuing meaningful, fulfilling and productive careers. Citizens of the most literate, best educated society in the Arab Middle East live in economic limbo. Mousalam and her friends in the Bethlehem University master’s program in international development are all back in school after their expensive and elite undergraduate degrees failed to result in a job. They are five young women sitting together on a bench after writing an exam — four Christians and one Muslim, young wives and mothers who carry the hopes of their parents, husbands and children. “We don’t think leaving the country is an appropriate solution,” said Mousalam’s friend and classmate Narmeen Soudah.

When the recorder turns off, however, and I’m packing away my camera, Mousalam reveals that her brother went off to the United States to finish his degree then land a job. Once he had U.S. citizenship he came back to Bethlehem with his international experience and perfect English. He spent six months in Palestine looking for work. Nothing. He’s back in the United States.

Mousalam has an aunt in Toronto as well. She’s visited and gained a sense of the possibilities of life without checkpoints and travel restrictions — the liberal West where women like her worry over their multiplicity of career choices. She’s a young mother and uprooting her family wouldn’t be easy. But neither is staying.

“The circumstances we’re living in are really hard. It’s not easy to live here,” said Issa Baa’besh, a fourth-year hotel management and business student at Bethlehem University.

And the difficulties go beyond trying to get by in an economy stunted by three or four generations of conflict with Israel. “We have some issues in the community that are not caused by the occupation. We have a problem that we always blame the occupation for everything,” said Baa’besh.

There’s corruption in the Palestinian Authority. There are distortions in the social fabric of society, including a serious problem with violence against women.

Freedom of expression is legally protected but hard to exercise in the pressure cooker of Palestinian society, he said.

“I have been called a traitor of my country just for doing the Harlem shake (a dance) on the university (campus),” Baa’besh said. “Here it’s not easy to live because the freedom to speak and express your thoughts is really limited. You can speak. Nobody will arrest you or anything… But most of the time you will be attacked in social media and different places — articles in newspapers.”

But none of these problems are in fact very far removed from Israel’s occupation, according to Baa’besh. The legal regime in Palestine is weak, a mixture of laws and regulations handed down from the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate and Israeli military rule. The Palestinian judiciary is underdeveloped and hardly trusted by the population. A truly democratic culture that values and respects free expression and minority opinion doesn’t easily develop in a society under siege, he said.

“We are living in a cage,” said third-year computer science and business student Mariana Nazi. “We are not open like the other countries. Living in this small area with this mentality — you can’t change it in just one day.”

Nazi admits to having thought about leaving. She has aunts, uncles, cousins all living in America.

“They all emigrated to the United States, especially California which is very nice,” she said.

She spent two months with her American cousins in California.

“I really love the way that they live, especially the girls,” she said. “They can do whatever they want. They have the whole freedom.”

When she compared life in California to the daily humiliations of her high-school years, running a gauntlet of security checkpoints and winding bus rides around the Israeli settlements, she couldn’t imagine why her father would want to stay.

“As a little girl I always wanted to go to the United States,” she said. Now Nazi believes she can be a part of the future of Palestine, and that the future need not be just more of the same.

“I saw that in small actions people can make change,” she said.

She and a group of friends, mostly female, have begun a running club. On Saturdays during the school year they jog through the streets of Bethlehem. Given the social conservatism of the Muslim majority, girls in athletic attire running past homes, businesses, churches and mosques amounts to a daring challenge to the status quo. But as the group continued its weekly runs, the city learned to accept it.

It isn’t just the dream of a new, more liberal and open Palestine that has caused Nazi to reconsider her American dream.

“Two of my aunts were here last month and they regretted leaving Palestine,” she said. “Especially Bethlehem. They are not happy in the United States. They are not happy actually. It’s hard to live there.”

Arab values that Nazi had always taken for granted in fact mean a great deal to her — particularly the sense of family and a deep commitment Palestinians have to their collective destiny.

“They (her aunts) saw how the people here all live together and we are one family, Muslims and Christians,” she said.

If there’s anything that mystifies young Palestinians it’s the notion put about by the Israeli government and conservative American Evangelicals that Palestinian Christians are being oppressed and attacked by the Muslim majority. That may be a reality in other Middle East nations, but not in Palestine, they say.

“We don’t have this way of thinking, that I’m a Christian and she’s a Muslim. There’s no difference,” said Narmeen Soudah. “It’s not Christians or Muslims, but Palestinians.”

Palestinians keep coming across stories in Israeli and American media about conflict between Muslims and Christians. The stories are bizarre and untrue, said Baa’besh.

In May a story hit the international wires about a Muslim gang stoning a church in the tiny village of El-Khader. The American Evangelical commentator Lela Gilbert presented the incident as an example of the Palestinian Authority failing to protect its Christian minority, which is under constant threat.

The incident was maliciously twisted, said Baa’besh. Gilbert and others were trying to make an international and interreligious issue out of an ordinary street fight that happened to break out near a church.

“It was simply a fight between two guys — two stupid guys having a fight,” Baa’besh said. “That’s not two religions fighting…. I don’t know why they keep blaming the Muslims. I blame the occupation more. Christians keep on emigrating because of the lack of opportunity to work. There are no jobs here.”

It angers Nazi that the outside world so easily conflates Palestine with Syria, Iraq, Egypt — places where Arabs have descended into ugly internecine wars fuelled by twisted, half-baked theology.

“No matter what the situation is here, it’s not going to be like Egypt or Syria. I don’t think so. It’s impossible,” she said.

The Christian minority is down to just 1.2 per cent of Palestine’s 4.5 million people. It’s not so much because the Christian population is shrinking. The Muslim population has grown quickly. Muslim families of eight to 10 children are common. Half Palestine’s population is under 18 and likely to grow as the young generation begins to marry. Urban and well educated, the Christians have for generations had smaller families than their Muslim neighbours.

The young Palestinian Christians aren’t selling some pollyanna, idealized picture of their corner of the Middle East. No one claims that a healthy, democratic sense of citizenship has overtaken entrenched loyalties to religion, clan, political faction and family.

“It’s a big lie that we’re all just a big happy family. It’s not like that. But there should be respect. And most of the time there is respect,” said Baa’besh.

Baa’besh claims he would remain in Palestine, working for a better and more democratic society, even if Hamas was elected in the West Bank. The conservative, Islamic, fundamentalist party in charge in Gaza, with its armed wing and terrorist-pariah status in Europe, Canada and the United States, wouldn’t make the young Christian happy. But Baa’besh reasons Palestine won’t ever become an open, liberal, secular democracy if all the educated, democratic citizens leave.

Students at Bethlehem University are very aware of their role as the future elite of the emerging State of Palestine.

“This is what Bethlehem University is trying to do,” said Baa’besh. “We try to improve a young generation that is capable of building a country. We need to work in our community to improve it — so we can build a strong country, so we can fix it from inside, so we can demand our rights from outside.”

Whenever I walk through the front gate of the campus I feel like I’ve entered a kind of alternate reality. There is a mixture of 19th century and more recent buildings. The Christian Brothers who run the institution laid on a tour that culminates in their lovely, Catholic-modernist chapel with unique stained glass windows and murals. Just inside the gates is a little tuck shop where students congregate for coffee and passionate gossip.

I studied at universities that were embedded in the downtown fabric of big cities — Toronto and New York. But this is that other kind of university — a refuge, a world apart, a separate reality. Away from the university on crowded market streets life is tense, exhausting and uncertain. There are empty lots full of garbage where the stray cats hunt. Cars fight their way through streets paved with stones cut centuries ago. I witness brief shoving matches and spitting among young men on the street. Groups of young men in tight shirts stare daggers at the people they pass as they walk.

People here carry a burden, they battle anxieties. And they don’t want to talk about it.

Bethlehem University students have a strong faith in the future — theirs and Palestine’s. But that doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the larger mass of young Palestinians who haven’t managed to make it into university.

Aladin Subeh runs a shop that targets tourists just off Manger Square. Bits of Palestinian crafts and needlework, colourful cloth, souvenir coffee cups surround him in a dim cave of a stall where he is quietly marking Nakba Day by reviewing 1948 black and white photos.

The May 15 Nakba Day is a national holiday in Palestine. A day to remember how Arabs were chased from their homes in West Jerusalem and villages throughout what was to became Israel. In Arabic “nakba” means catastrophe. On the other side of the security barrier, Israelis celebrate the same events as Independence Day.

Subeh thumbs through photos of refugees more than three times older than he is. Bethlehem is the sort of place where history matters, even among the young.

Subeh wants everybody to stop jabbering on about solving the problem in the Middle East. He accepts that this is how it is and how it always will be.

“They say two states and then they say one state,” Subeh said. “Two states will never happen. It cannot work.”

The Palestinian elite which is so committed to the idea Palestine can become a normal country is deluded, in Subeh’s opinion.

“You lie to yourself when you say Palestinians have a state. We don’t have an airport. We don’t have our border control. We don’t have permission to go to Jerusalem even. We don’t have nothing. We don’t have freedom. There are (Israeli) settlers all around this city. They make a siege around the city.”

Subeh’s not leaving or wishing he could leave. But he has no hope for a better future.

“I am like the fish. If you take me out of the water, I will die. If you take me out of Palestine, I will die.”

Talk of friction between Muslims and Christians in Palestine is a diversion, a scheme hatched by Israel to try to divide Palestinians, said Subeh.

“We are brothers here, more than brothers,” he said. “We celebrate everything together, Christian and Muslim. You know, I celebrate Christmas as well?”

The young Muslim is aware that before 1948 Bethlehem was as much as 90-per-cent Christian, while today they are less than 30 per cent of the population. But as a young Muslim who grew up in Bethlehem it doesn’t bother him that mayor Vera Baboun is Christian. That’s just politics and he doesn’t care about politics.

Twenty-two-year-old Saif Sobeh also works the tourists for a living, using his father’s car as a gypsy cab. He spent three months in jail in Israel. He claims it was because he hung a Palestinian flag in his window. He’s part of the Muslim majority, but can’t imagine Bethlehem without Christians.

“Here lives Palestinian people. No Christian, no Muslim. We are mostly the same. We are living the good idea here. We are living the best people,” he tells me.

Sobeh doesn’t vote in local Palestinian elections. He dismisses everything politicians say. He doesn’t believe the Israelis will ever withdraw their settlements. He doesn’t think there will ever be a two-state solution. He doesn’t want to talk about a one-state solution.

Rather than politics, Sobeh wants to talk about money. He’s looking out for number one. This is his life here and now. It’s a struggle to make money every day. Nothing’s given to him and nothing ever will be. Hope just gets in the way.

Back up the hill on the Bethlehem University campus first-year occupational therapy student Nicola Handal has hope. He’s offended by any suggestion he might doubt his future in Palestine.

“We hope for peace, of course,” he tells me. “One day, somehow. You never know when. You have to keep faith and hope. We belong to this country.”

Handal’s father is a teacher. He has two sisters at Bethlehem University studying for masters’ degrees. He hates politics and dismisses the Palestinian Authority as corrupt. But he believes in his country and its future.

“It’s hard to understand unless you live and are born here,” said the 18-year-old Christian. “Jesus Christ was born here. What can be greater than this?”

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