“Churches in Bethlehem will be empty this year,” writes Rabbi Leo Dee providing first-hand insights from on the ground in Israel which highlight the sad reality of religious persecution at a time when we should be seeking peace and goodwill.
The violent attack by Hamas on Israel, and their barrage of missiles, have caused most airlines to cancel flights since the October 7 massacre. Palestinian Christians have announced that there will be muted Christmas celebrations in the Church of the Nativity this December.
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
With the war raging between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, tourism for the last quarter of 2023 has taken a huge hit, as it did during the Covid pandemic. In the winter months, this particularly hurts the Christian communities in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Haifa and other Arab Israeli towns. In a regular year, over 50% of tourists visiting Israel are Christians coming to view their holy sites and boost the local economy.
The suffering of the Christian population of Bethlehem due to Arab aggression is not new. The Palestinian Authority has always shown contempt for Christian holy sites, violently evicting monks and nuns from the Holy Trinity Monastery in Hebron in 1997, and using Christian churches, schools and homes as military bases during the Intifada. In April 2002, PA forces took over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and held 40 Christian clergy and nuns as hostages for 39 days.
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting.” (Micah 5:2)
The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs reports that the Palestinian Authority has been Islamizing Bethlehem since they assumed control in 1995. The city’s municipal boundaries were changed to incorporate 30,000 Muslims from three neighboring refugee camps, severely tipping the demography. The city also added a few thousand Bedouins of the Ta’amra tribe, located east of Bethlehem, and encouraged Muslim immigration from Hebron to Bethlehem. As a result, the area’s 23,000 Christians were reduced from a 60 percent majority in 1990 to a 20% minority by 2001, when Yasser Arafat appointed a Muslim from Hebron, Muhammed Rashad A-Jabari, as governor of Bethlehem.
Similarly, since Hamas took over in Gaza, the Christian population has declined from 5,000 Christians in 2006 to 1,100 Christians today. Palestinian Christians have generally chosen to emigrate to Argentina, Chile, Australia, Canada and the USA.
Writing in Ma’ariv in 2001, journalist Hanan Shlein explained why Palestinian Christians do not speak out about their situation. “Out of fear for their safety, Christian spokesmen aren’t happy to be identified by name when they complain about the Muslims’ treatment of them…off the record they talk of harassment and terror tactics, mainly from the gangs of thugs who looted and plundered Christians and their property, under the protection of Palestinian security personnel.”
While Jesus’ homeland is under attack by Islamic terrorists, and the number of Palestinian Christians in Israel continues to decline, Israel is just a microcosm of a global trend of Muslim-Christian hatred.Rabbi Leo Dee
Christian Persecution in Bethlehem
Palestinian Muslim harassment of Palestinian Christians is just a microcosm of a wider phenomenon. An estimated 15% of the world’s Christian population lives in fear and suffers discrimination. In fact, according to the Christian organisation Open Doors, Christians are the most persecuted people on the planet, with over 360 million suffering persecution, mostly in Islamic countries. Open Doors reports that during 2022 alone, 5,621 Christians were murdered in these countries; 2,100 churches were attacked and 4,542 Christians were detained.
While the worldwide media condemns Israel daily for protecting its own borders, following the worst terror attack against a Western nation in recent history, most people in the world are unaware of the plight of Christians in Arab lands.
As the bells are muted in Bethlehem this year, Christians around the world should protest the persecution of their brothers and sisters in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. While Jesus’ homeland is under attack by Islamic terrorists, and the number of Palestinian Christians in Israel continues to decline, Israel is just a microcosm of a global trend of Muslim-Christian hatred. This year should be the year for Western Christians to demand that their co-religionists in Islamic countries must also have the right to celebrate a Merry Christmas.
Rabbi Leo Dee is a Jewish educator living in Efrat, near Bethlehem. His book “Transforming the World: The Jewish Impact on Modernity” has been republished in English and Hebrew in memory of his wife Lucy and daughters Maia and Rina, who were murdered by terrorists in April 2023.