The Palestinian issue has figured prominently over the past week in stories with a religion angle. Pope Benedict’s visit to Israel, which ended on Friday, was the most prominent. While visiting Bethlehem, he called Israel’s barrier in the West Bank “one of the saddest sights” on his whole tour. Early this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time. Netanyahu said the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for peace talks while Obama said Jewish settlements in the West Bank “have to be stopped.” On Wednesday, United Nations human rights investigators said they hoped to visit Gaza in early June and hold public hearings on whether war crimes were committed there in Israel’s blockade of the area governed by the Islamist movement Hamas. (Photo: Palestinian protesters wave flags at the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem’s Old City, 21 May 2009/Amir Cohen)
In almost every speech he made, Pope Benedict pleaded for more interfaith contacts and cooperation as a way to move forward towards peace. With the Israeli-Palestinian issue so polarised, the question of promoting understanding among the people of the Holy Land often seems to be reduced mostly to a Jewish-Muslim issue. The tiny Christian minority in the local population often seems to be standing on the sidelines.
But within the occupied West Bank, there are numerous examples of religious coexistence between the Muslim and Christian populations. The West Bank village of Aboud, which I described in a feature you can read here, is a case in point. Father Firas Aridah, head of the local Catholic parish, points to the joint celebration by Muslims and Christians of their respective religious holidays. The Catholic school he operates with a majority of Muslim students doesn’t impose the church’s beliefs on the student body but teaches them their own faiths.
The village’s religious pluralism is under threat because its Christians are slowly leaving, changing the demographic dynamics with the Muslim majority. Nearly 900 of Aboud’s 2,200 residents are Christians. One reason for the exodus cited in the Israeli media is rising Islamist extremism. But Fr. Firas will have none of that. “Islamic fanaticism, and all this, is propaganda,” he said. “It is Israeli propaganda that distracts people’s understanding that [Israel] is occupying Palestine.” The reason 34 Christian families have left Aboud since 2000, he said, was the Israeli occupationand the security restrictions it imposes, stifling the economy and limiting opportunity. (Photo: Israeli wall at the Qalandiya checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah, 19 May 2009/Baz Ratner)
Husam al-Taweel, a Greek Orthodox member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from Gaza who was elected with support from the governing Islamist movement Hamas, told FaithWorld earlier this week: “I won’t say there are no problems and we are living in heaven. But there is no discrimination against Christians in particular. We don’t see ourselves as a minority, but as part of the Arab majority.” (Emigration) “is not a problem only for Christians. This is a problem for the Palestinian community in general. They’re all looking for a job, a better future.”