Why Are the Christians Leaving the Holy Land?

Catholics in the United States have been slow to grasp the problems facing Christians living in the Holy Land. Many Catholics don’t even know they are there, or that they are Arab Christians. Most Americans equate Arabs with Muslims, in spite of the fact that Arabs were Christians long before they were Muslims.

Arab Christian communities have existed in the Middle East since the second century a.d. and perhaps earlier. These were Christians whose language was Arabic and who would leave a vast and rich literature of Christian thought and spirituality in their native language. Before the rise of Mohammed in the seventh century, Arab Christians constituted 95 percent of the population in West Asia and Egypt, numbering more than 15 million (9.1 million in Iraq, 4 million in Syria, and 2.5 million in Egypt).
But in Palestine today, the Arab Christian communities are slowly dwindling. The land of Jesus Christ and His first Church are in danger of becoming merely a tourist attraction for visiting Christians from other parts of the world.
According to Bernard Sabella, former professor of sociology at Bethlehem University, there are about 38,000 Christians remaining in the West Bank and Gaza. “The official number,” he told me in an interview, “always stays at 50,000, but there are nowhere near that many today.”
Sabella, who was born in Bethlehem in 1945, is an elected member of the Palestinian legislature. Six seats in the legislature, he explained, are set aside for Christians to represent the Christian population of Palestine. These seats are apportioned according to the percentage of the Christian population, which is actually much lower (1.2 percent) than the number of seats allotted. “This is another reason to keep the number artificially high,” Sabella said.
I asked Sabella if Muslim extremism is the reason for the decline in Christian presence. “No,” he told me, “Christians and Muslims have gotten along very well in the region until recent years.” I challenged him with the widely reported story of the Christian book seller, Rami Ayyad, slain in Gaza last October by Muslim extremists.
“Christians and Muslims have maintained good relations because we have an understanding not to proselytize each other. Ayyad had been kidnapped and warned not to proselytize, but he was part of an evangelical group from Bethlehem taking aid to Gaza and talking about Jesus Christ. It was too much, especially for the new extremists.”
When I pointed out that this story does provide evidence for a growing Muslim threat, Sabella agreed, but insisted it’s a recent phenomenon. “To understand the problem you have to go back to 1948, to the creation of Israel. Out of the 726,000 Palestinian refugees there were nearly 60,000 Christians, or 35 percent of all the Christians in Palestine.”
Everything that has happened to Christians in the Holy Land must be understood, Sabella argued, as the response of Christian communities to the creation of Israel and the series of wars following, especially the 1967 war ending in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. That occupation just passed its 40th anniversary, the longest in modern history. The description of an “Israeli occupation” is strongly disputed. During his January 2008 trip to Israel and the West Bank, however, President Bush called for an end to “the occupation that began in 1967.”
The reasons for the ongoing departure of Christians from the Holy Land are summarized by Sabella:
1) lack of an economic and cultural future under Israeli occupation; 2) increased security measures since the 2nd Intifada starting in 2000 — the security wall, more Jewish settlements and Israeli-citizen-only roads in the West Bank; and 3) the lure of joining already-departed family members in other countries such as Brazil, Canada, and the United States.
In fact, on my last trip to the Holy Land in March 2004, nearly every family I met had sent their children to colleges in the United States. I was told that most of them, upon graduating, never return home. When I asked the parents if they wanted their children to come back, they would shake their heads and say, “There is nothing for them here.”
The story told by Sabella has been chronicled before, most notably in The Body and the Blood: The Holy Land at the Turn of the Millennium — A Reporter’s Journey by Charles M. Sennott. Sennott was the Middle East bureau chief for the Boston Globe from 1997 to 2001. He witnessed both the Muslim terrorism and the reaction from Israelis that increased the burden on Christians in the West Bank and Gaza already struggling to stay on their ancestral land.
Sennott described Christians as caught in a “cultural no-man’s land” where “the voices of Muslim and Jewish extremism were drowning them out, squeezing them out of the public space.”
Sabella has seen a significant increase in concern expressed about “religious extremism” in his studies of why Palestinians consider emigrating. But, in spite of the rise of “Islamic political ideology, there are still many associations between Muslims and Christians.” These relationships, no doubt, are one of the key factors slowing the growth of extremism among Palestinians.
“Until there is a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Christian presence will continue to weaken,” he said. It’s obvious that the most likely solution — the two-state solution — remains a distant possibility in spite of recent efforts by Sec. Condoleezza Rice and President Bush to encourage further negotiations.
In the meantime, it is hoped that the United States, working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, can find ways to ease the burden on the remaining Christian communities. Catholics can pray for their Christian brethren in the Holy Land; they can send them support in the form of alms; but there is nothing better than spending some time among them, visiting their restaurants, shops, and homes, hearing their stories, and assuring them you know they are there.
[For those readers interested in visiting the Holy Land, I will be leading a pilgrimage, along with Rev. Paul Tartaglia of Albany, New York, between December 1-12, with three nights in Rome and eight in the Holy Land. Call World Pilgrim Tours, Inc., Suwanee, GA, 800-438-8281 for more information.]

Deal W. Hudson


Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of "Church and Culture," a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ Formerly publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine for ten years, his articles and comments have been published widely in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, and U.S. News and World Report. He has also appeared on TV and radio news shows such as the O'Reilly Factor, Hannity & Colmes, NBC News, and All Things Considered on National Public Radio. Hudson worked with Karl Rove in coordinating then-Gov. George W. Bush's outreach to Catholic voters in 2000 and 2004. In October 2003, President Bush appointed him a member of the official delegation from the United States to attend the 25th anniversary celebration of John Paul II's papacy. Hudson, a former professor of philosophy for 15 years, is the editor and author of eight books. He tells the story of his conversion from Southern Baptist to Catholic in An American Conversion (Crossroad, 2003), and his latest, Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States, was published in March 2008. He is married to Theresa Carver Hudson, also a Baptist convert, and they have two children, Hannah and Cyprian who was adopted from Romania in 2001.

  • Kevin Gregorek

    Thank you for writing such a fascinating piece, Mr. Hudson!

    It seems so difficult to find objective reporting of these issues in the Holy Land nowadays. I would like to know if any journalists (or any writers, really) have studied in depth and objectively the situation of Christians in the Holy Land. The relationships among the Arab Christians and Arab Muslims are obviously extremely important to that story, but we don’t often hear about the relationships between Arab Christians and Jews, whether in Jerusalem or in Palestine/Gaza.

    I was blessed to be able to visit the Holy Land during Holy Week in 2000, just months before the 2nd Intifada began. My aunt, a Pentecostal, was volunteering as a missionary teacher at a school in Bethlehem. Many Arab Christians worked there, and I was taken aback by their strong feelings of camaraderie towards the Arab Muslim community at that time. While I didn’t hear much anti-Israel talk then, I would imagine much has changed now since the 2nd Intifada took place.

    One of my many fond memories of Holy Week in the Holy Land was celebrating my aunt’s 52nd birthday with her fellow teachers from that school in Bethlehem. Before the renewed violence, there was actually a Checker’s American-style burger restaurant among the tourist shops on Manger Square, and we celebrated there in a very “American fashion”. We were just steps away from where Christ had been born, and we experienced a singular joy and peace that day that will be with me forever. It saddens me deeply to know that so much violence and fighting has racked the Holy Land over the past few years, and that the Manger Square I once experienced so joyfully is now little more than a shell of its former, peaceful (even if a bit kitschy) state.

  • Peter

    Quote: “Christians and Muslims have maintained good relations because we have an understanding not to proselytize each other.”
    I had the occasion, a few times, of realizing that there is this kind of unwritten policy between christians and muslims in some parts of the Middle East of not trying to convert each other [and this should be kept in mind as a “premise” every time you hear Iraqi bishops, for example, saying we’ve always had good relations with muslims], but I wonder: how does this “sake of peace” conciliate with the duty of christians & muslims to spread their message?
    Once, for example, I arranged a meeting at my home between 3 arabic speaking friends of mine: one was a catholic seminarian from the Holy Land (of melkite rite from Nazareth), one was a syrian student (catholic of syro-catholic rite from Damascus) and the other one was an algerian that converted from islam to christianism (and consequently had to emigrate from Algeria). I thought they would be happy to meet each other because I immagined their being arabic and christian was somehow enough for becoming friends…
    First of all I was surprised to note that the Syrian and the Israili (“israili” not in the ethnical sense, but in the sense of belonging to the Israeli state) friends were somewhat cold and suspicious about the Algerian christian-convert. They (christians!) did not like very much the idea of a muslim converting to christianism. I asked them about this and they told me that no one in their countries changes religion; that they don’t want troubles between the different religious comunities there. It seemed so strange to me… I asked them what about the mission gave by Christ to “make disciples in all the nations”, but they preferred maintaining this sort of status quo (in the name of peace) rather than think at the mission written in the DNA of the faith in Christ. Maybe this compromise is because of the fear they might loose even what they hold now… Human compromise for the sake of [fragile] peace and less fidelity to Christ’s [and Mohamed’s, if we want to be honest] mandate. The case of the killing of Rami Ayyad from Gaza stands there as an example for those (christians)who try to break this status quo… No christian killed a muslim because he tried to convert his fellows to islam; the same thing cannot be said about muslims. So christians there (in Palestinian territories, not in Israel) know they have to accept this status quo if they want to live there. Even if there is no open persecution of christian by muslims there, I know christians feel unsecure; being ruled by muslims raises many difficulties for christians, even if, for now, Palestinian authorities have to think to other problems (with Israel). But when a true Palestinian state will be created, I doubt christian will fit well in it. The truth is that the right to religious freedom there has not been accepted in its entirety, especially the right of changing religion and of doing missionary work. From this point of view life in Israel it’s somewhat better than under Palestinian rule.
    [continues on next post]

  • Peter

    Another thing: Christians, muslims and hebrews tend to live there as if they were on small islands, with well traced borders… I think this is the result of different ways of conceiving social relations (each religion generated a different way of living; for example christians, druse, are considerated by the authorities as if they were an ethnic group and not Arabs of christian or druse religion!) and also because of centuries of domination of different powers so that almost each village had to do by it’s own. The “balance” is difficult to maintain so minorities are all afraid of any change.
    I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land two times: in 2000 and 2007. I noted a deterioration of the christians condition in Bethlehem and neighbouring villages (Beit Sahour & Beit Jalla). Since the 2nd intifada and the security measures (the big wall surrounding many Palestinian territories with the consequent impossibility to work “on the other side” of the wall and big limitation of moving) taken by Israel in response to the palestinian attacks many christians (from the West Bank) emigrated to the US & Europe, because of the lack of any perspective for the future. So their place is taken more and more by muslims; Bethlehem is turning more and more muslim and less christian. Walking on the streets of Bethlehem I felt less secure (for example there were many posters in arabic with the terrorist Lebanese Hezbollah leader; not a good sign at all!), as if it were some kind of “non man’s land”… In the Bethlehem area the local authorities are still in christians’ hands but when muslims will be a majority what will happen? Will it be the same peacefull place? Some priests I talked to were definitely pro-palestinian and anti-israelian, and I can understand their frustration even if I don’t agree with some of their reasons (for example they don’t assume the good intentions of israilis that try to stop terrorism & defend themselves; they had a complotistic way of seeing things).
    So, christians that live on territories under the Palestinian “authority” (if one can call this “authority”) live in a bad condition due to the hostilities between israelis and palestinians (although generally christians are very peaceful, Israel does not make any distinction between them and muslims; so they are considered by Israel just “palestinians” and treated as all other palestinians as a possible threat); they are seeking a future outside or striving to survive as they can (mainly working handicrafts for pilgrims).
    This is not the situation of the christians that live on Israeli territory; (almost

  • Deal Hudson

    Peter, very interesting post, which tracks for the most part, my experiences in the Holy Land on three trips over the past four years. You anticipate the next article in what will be a series on this topic: “Christian Growth Inside the Nation of Israel.” This will an interesting and surprising report to many readers.

  • fr. Peter Damian

    Deal Hudson wrote: Peter, very interesting post, which tracks for the most part, my experiences in the Holy Land on three trips over the past four years. You anticipate the next article in what will be a series on this topic: “Christian Growth Inside the Nation of Israel.” This will an interesting and surprising report to many readers.

    Mr. Hudson, thank you very much for your appreciation. In answering the question you put as title of this article I forgot to thank you for treating this important theme. I often read (and appreciate) your articles since I came to know “Crisis Magazine” 3 years ago. I’m a young Romanian priest living in Italy; since I came to know arab christians I’ve been interested much in their living amidst so many hardships. My two pilgrimages to Israel made my interest & prayer for these christians increase… Yesterday I met an Iraqi chaldean (catholic) bishop at the end of the Ordination Mass that took place at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome [I had the grace of concelebrating with the Holy Father!] and I just went straight to him, took his hand and said to him in English: “Your excellence, I want to tell you that I often pray for you, christians from Iraq! You are in my prayers, many other christians around the world know what’s happening! Don’t be afraid, the Church is with you!” You know, he was so moved… I could see this on his face, in his eyes. With a big smile he thanked, he said that they really need our prayer; he added that he himself had been kidnapped once, before Mons. Rahho’s kidnapping (and death).
    I experienced the same gratitude from christians from the Holy Land [be it Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria] when they saw that they are not forgotten by their christian fellows around the world who live in much better conditions. It’s so little for us, but for them this means a lot!
    Waiting for your next article!

    God bless!
    fr. Peter Damian

  • William

    My wife and I lived in the Holy Land as a Protestant dispensationalist missionaries for two years (We are now Catholics.) What you say here is absolutely true. Your article on “the wall” a couple of years ago was also right on the mark. The root cause of Christians leaving the Holy Land is the unjust Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

  • Deal Hudson

    Fr. Peter, it was about seven years ago that my wife, Theresa, and I, along with our daughter, Hannah, traveled to Romania to meet our adopted four-year old son, Ciprian (Chippy). The day after we met him for the first time and took him back to the hotel, we received an invitation from the archbishop of Bucharest, Most Rev. Ioan Robu, for dinner at the rectory. He greeted us warmly, fed us well, and afterward took Chippy aside, gave him a rosary, and prayed his first “Hail Mary,” in Romanian. Needless to say, I delighted to hear from you, and your greeting to the Chaldean bishop.

  • Sam

    So what you are saying is that its all the Jews fault, and if only Israel didn’t exist, everything in the mid east would be a big ol’ love fest.

    Pardon me while I unsubscribe…

  • Juan Pablo

    Dear Mr. Hudson:

    Thank you for your article. I am a catholic from Mexico and I have been living in Jerusalem since almost two years now.

    The reason I moved to the Holy Land (with my wife and two infant children) was to work on projects that will provide new job opportunities to the Christian community here and encourage the regeneration of the economic “fiber” that lets them aspire to a better future in the land that Christ chose to live among us.

    I think that the best way to support our christian brothers who live here (beside our prayers…) is to come and visit the Holy Sites and stay at christian guesthouses, eat at christian restaurants and buy at christian souvenir shops and MOST IMPORTANTLY make sure that their tour guide is a CHRISTIAN. Who knows, they might even get a spiritually enriching experience as a bonus…

    I think every catholic should plan to come here at least once in a lifetime for two reasons: to strengthen their own faith and to support the Christian community of the Holy Land.

  • Derek

    Thanks. Fantastic article. So much damage has done since Israel declared itself a state. Its really heart wrenching to think of our presence in the Holy Land will vanish soon as our governments continue to support this pariah & have not helped the indigenous Christians at all. They were also ethnically cleansed away & are being oppressed up till the present day too.