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…


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