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Disappearing Christians

1.

Taybeh is a small Palestinian village in the West Bank, ten miles northwest of Jerusalem. The farmhouses that you pass on the road there, the domes of the abandoned caravanserai, the minarets of Ottoman mosques—all are built of honey-colored limestone which changes tone according to the color of the sky. Shepherd boys lead their flocks down steep olive slopes into the strip fields of the valleys; it could almost be Tuscany. Only the concrete phalanx of fast-expanding Israeli settlements on the hilltops reminds you where you are, and brings you back to the tensions and violence that are inescapable here. With their towering cranes and half-built apartment blocks and long lines of solar panels glinting on their roofs, the settlements are surrounded by swarms of yellow bulldozers ripping through the ancient landscape. At the settlement gates sit nests of razor wire, the fortified emplacements of the Israeli army.

The first thing that you notice about Taybeh as you drive in is that the village is full of churches: it is in fact one of the last villages around here still dominated by Palestinian Christians. The second thing you see is that Taybeh has a new brewery, and that the brewery produces (as its signboard proudly proclaims) the only organic beer in the Middle East.

The brewery is the brainchild of Nadim Khoury, a small middle-aged man with an appropriately beery paunch, tight shorts, and dazzlingly white socks tucked into his Nikes. He has a Boston accent and a baseball hat, both dating from the years he spent in the States, first at high school on the East Coast, then learning the business of brewing in California. He made the decision to return home to Palestine in 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed, to start what he hoped would be Palestine’s answer to Sam Adams. The Israeli military authorities who had governed the West Bank had always blocked his application to open a brewery, but the Palestinian Authority gave him a license within a month. By 1995 the brewery was in business.

For the Christian Palestinian diaspora it was a good time to return. On the wave of optimism that followed Oslo, tens of thousands of middle-class West Bank exiles—many of them from the Palestinian Christian business elite—sold their property in the West and returned home to invest their life savings in the new Palestine. They ranged from recent university graduates to Palestinian multimillionaires who had built up fortunes in the Gulf. There are no exact figures for the amount of private money that flowed back into the West Bank and Gaza during the Nineties but it amounted to several billion dollars, with at least $300 million a year coming in throughout the decade.

Overnight, the landscape changed. Bethlehem, Nablus, and Ramallah are all towns which contain the sprawling refugee camps we know from the news reports, places whose hopelessness breeds the young men and women willing to become Hamas suicide bombers. But side by side with these places, featured far less frequently in the press and television, are new well-to-do middle-class suburbs, where highly educated US and Gulf returnees have settled down in what was, at least until the outbreak of the second intifada, considerable comfort. Even now as you drive through the streets, beside pockets of desperate poverty around the camps, you still pass gleaming CD shops and art galleries, fitness clubs and cappuccino bars. You can even find a Mercedes sales office in Ramallah.

When we came back, we put in all the family savings,” I was told by Khoury as he showed me the sprawling villa he had just built beside the brewery. Over the door was a tympanum showing Saint George lancing the Dragon; to one side was a deep blue swimming pool: “We took the kids out of high school in Boston and made a nice house for them here. At first things went well,” he said. It was only later that they “didn’t work out like what we had expected.”

Khoury says he always knew that persuading Palestinians to stop drinking Israeli beer was going to be a struggle: “People had developed a taste for this mass-produced stuff. It was always going to take time to educate them about drinking local, naturally produced ale with no additives.” What he did not expect was the difficulties he would have from his more puritanically minded Islamist compatriots who blocked him from selling alcohol in Gaza. Thanks to pressure from Hamas, Gaza is now more or less free of alcohol, though the Palestine Authority has never officially declared that it should be.

But the problems he faced from other Palestinians were nothing like those he faced from the Israeli army once the second intifada broke out in 2000. His production had grown from 200 crates a week in 1995 to 1,200 crates by the end of the decade. Suddenly he found that he couldn’t get his beer out of the village. The Israel Defence Force (IDF) had blocked the roads and would not let his vans out of Taybeh. On the occasions they did, or if he managed to persuade Israeli haulers to distribute it instead, it would still not be allowed into Nablus, Bethlehem, or Ramallah, his three main markets: “The beer would sit at the checkpoints in the sun for days,” Khoury says. “If the IDF didn’t drink or steal it themselves, it would go off in the sun: it has no preservatives. We are now down to 10 percent of what we were producing in 1999. I’ve laid off all our staff and would be bankrupt now if I had borrowed money. We’re only here still because it was family money we used.”

Khoury gestures to his empty factory and the silent machinery: “But there is no question of going back to Boston,” he says. “You just have to hope. Every day I pray to Saint George. It’s too late to give up.”

Khoury’s dilemma is in some ways a parable of the problems that have always been faced by Palestinian Christians, stuck as they are between their Muslim compatriots—with whom they share many linguistic, cultural, and ethnic traditions—and their Israeli governors, who if they are aware of their existence at all, tend to treat them just as they do other Palestinians: as security hazards and as unwelcome neighbors, to be controlled, kept out, avoided, or ignored.

2.

The Christian community in Palestine is a very ancient one: like the Copts of Egypt, the Palestinian Christians of this area never converted to Islam at the time of the Arab conquest in the seventh century AD, though they did in time take on their conquerors’ language and learn, like their Muslim neighbors, to call their God Allah. Ethnically, they derive from the many different peoples—Canaanites, Jews, Philistines, Byzantines, Bedouin Arabs, Crusaders, European traders, and so on—who have passed through this region since prehistory. During the Byzantine period, when the region was almost entirely Christian, the hinterlands of Palestine were so densely filled with Christian monks and monasteries that, according to one chronicler, “the desert had become a city.” Even as late as the eleventh century, Christians probably still outnumbered Muslims in Palestine: it was the eruption of the Crusades, and the backlash that followed the eventual Muslim victory, that put an end to that.

By 1922, only twenty-six years before the founding of Israel, Christians still made up a full 10 percent of the population of British Mandate Palestine. They were better off and better educated than their Muslim counterparts; they owned almost all the newspapers and filled a disproportionate number of jobs in the Mandate Civil Service. While numerically they still dominated the Old City of Jerusalem, their leaders had already moved out from the narrow streets around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to build fine villas for themselves in the West Jerusalem suburbs that now house the richest Israeli businessmen. But today the Christians are in retreat, and Taybeh is one of the last major Christian centers left in Palestine. Many are finding that they have no choice except to leave.

This diaspora is part of a wider exodus of Christians from all over the Middle East. For several hundred years under the capricious thumb of the Ottoman sultan, the different faiths of the Ottoman Empire lived, if not in complete harmony, then at least in a kind of pluralist equilibrium. Islam has traditionally been tolerant of religious minorities, and the relatively benign treatment of Christians and Jews under Muslim rule contrasts with the fate of Christendom’s one distinct religious minority, the relentlessly ill-treated European Jews. As recently as the seventeenth century, Huguenot exiles escaping religious persecution in Europe wrote admiringly of the Ottoman policy of religious tolerance: as one of them put it, “There is no country on earth where the exercise of all religions is more free and less subject to being troubled, than in Turkey.” The same broad pluralism that gave refuge to the Jews expelled by the bigoted Catholic kings from Spain and Portugal protected the Eastern Christians in their ancient homelands. A century ago, a quarter of the population of the Levant was still Christian; in Istanbul, that proportion rose to almost half.

But with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century, its fringes—the Balkans, Cyprus, eastern Anatolia, the Levant—have suffered decades of bloodletting. Everywhere pluralism has been replaced with a savage polarization. Religious minorities have fled to places where they can be majorities, and others have abandoned the region altogether, seeking out places less heavy with history, such as America or Australia. In the Middle East today the Christians are a small minority of 12 million, struggling to keep afloat amid 180 million non-Christians, with their numbers shrinking annually. In the past twenty years, at least three million have left to make new lives for themselves in the West. According to the historian Professor Kamal Salibi, the Christians have simply had enough: “It’s a feeling,” he told me in Beirut, “that fourteen centuries of having all the time to be smart, to be ahead of the others, is long enough. The Arab Christians tend to be intelligent, well-qualified, highly educated people. Now they just want to go somewhere else.”

For the Palestinian Christians, their diaspora began in the Nakba—Catastrophe—of 1948. In the fighting that led to the creation of the State of Israel, 70 percent of the Palestinian Christians, along with around 700,000 of their Muslim compatriots, fled or were driven out of their ancestral homes into exile abroad. During the Six-Day War of 1967, a second exodus took place: a further 18,000 Christian men, women, and children fled. Since then the Christians of the Palestinian territories have continued to emigrate. In Ramallah 66 percent of the Christians have gone; in Bethlehem it’s just over 50 percent. Seventy-two Christian families—nearly three hundred people—emigrated from Bethlehem last year alone. Today Christian Palestinians make up less than 2 percent of the population of Israel-Palestine. Every year their proportion of the population decreases as the hemorrhage of Christians is matched by the influx of Israeli settlers. There are now said to be more Jerusalem-born Christians in Sydney than are left in Jerusalem. More Bethlehemites live in Chile than Bethlehem.

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