Originally created 03/15/97

'Living Stones' of Christianity disappearing from Holy Land



BEIT SAHOUR, West Bank - For 2,000 years, her people have lived and worshiped in the land where Jesus was born. But Norma Budreh, one of the last of Christianity's "living stones," has come to a sad conclusion: The Holy Land no longer has a place for them.

"In the long run, you will not find any Christian in this country. All of us will leave," she says. "The Christ used to do miracles to help people. But we cannot do these miracles. We are suffering."

For Mrs. Budreh, troubles seem endless. She talks of her brother, tortured in a Jerusalem prison in 1979 for driving a Volkswagen that looked like one used by terrorists. Of her husband, Elias, his lumber business shut down by Israeli officials in the 1980s because he joined a tax revolt. Of her sons, unable to find work because recent border closings keep the family confined to a devastated area.

Mrs. Budreh pleads with a visitor for help in getting her sons to the United States. Already, her parents and five brothers have emigrated to Honduras.

Palestinian Christians are fleeing the Holy Land in such numbers that they may be an insignificant presence by the end of the millennium. Already, they have been reduced to a small minority in growing cities like Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where they were the majority earlier this century.

In 1948, Christians were 10 percent of the population of the Holy Land, according to Bethlehem University sociologist Bernard Sabella. He puts the number today at only 2 percent for the region stretching from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank to the Lebanon border. Massive emigration has kept the total number of Christians in the region at 150,000 to 180,000, about the same as it was in 1948, drowning them in a sea of exploding Palestinian Muslim and Jewish population growth.

Before the 1967 war, Dr. Sabella says, Christians were leaving at a yearly rate of 7.8 per thousand - already a high number. By 1988, he says, the rate had nearly tripled to 18.7 per thousand. The rate of emigration continues to rise, raising the likelihood of a decline not only in percentage but in total numbers.

Like the early Christians, who were persecuted by both Roman rulers and Jewish sects, the "living stones" are trapped between the hammer and anvil of two powerful forces.

The hammer is Israel, whose Palestinian policies do not distinguish between Muslim and Christian in limiting access to jobs, schools, places of worship and the right to travel. The anvil is Islam, and fears about how the Muslim majority will treat the Christian minority when Palestine gains self-rule.

So the Christians continue to leave: Already, more Bethlehem Christians live in North America than in Bethlehem. Those who remain feel abandoned by their Christian brethren in the West.

World Jewry is devoted to Israel. Arab countries take up the cause of Palestinian Muslims. But the plight of Palestinian Christians - the living descendants of Jesus and the apostles - goes largely unnoticed, even by Westerners who come by the hundreds of thousands to visit the birthplace of the faith.

"We feel we have been crucified in our situation, in our lives here," said the Rev. Zahi Nasser of Christ Church in Nazareth. "We are experiencing the pain and suffering of Jesus."

Brother Ronald Gallagher's office walls are pocked by bullets. For Brother Gallagher, being vice chancellor of this Catholic college means picking up tear gas canisters in the hallway, and escorting students through military checkpoints in the midst of riots.

Outside the university walls, Israeli taxi drivers ferrying tourists come and go at will. But the Palestinians of the West Bank, their cars branded with special blue license plates, cannot leave the occupied areas - not even to travel the few miles into Jerusalem.

Even} at Easter, Palestinian priests and ministers from the occupied territories are forbidden from traveling to Jerusalem to worship at the place where Jesus was crucified.

"People are losing hope," Brother Gallagher says. "Why should they raise their children here if they can't go to Jerusalem?"}Travel restrictions are an economic trap. Unemployment in the Palestinian section of Jerusalem is estimated at 30 percent, and on the West Bank, it is worse. Israel closed its borders to Palestinians in the West Bank in January 1995 after a suicide bombing by Islamic militants.

"We live in a prison here," said Farid Azizeh, a Christian storekeeper surveying a nearly empty Manger Square in Bethlehem. "There is no business here."

The economic forces especially drive up Christian emigration, since they are more likely than Palestinian Muslims to come from middle-class backgrounds, to have higher education and to have contacts in the West.

At home, daily life for Palestinian Christians is a series of indignities that Brother Gallagher compares to the life of the early Christians.

"When I read the Gospels, I can see he didn't make up those stories," Brother Gallagher says. "Things haven't changed that much."

Palestinian youths - even those who would be considered model teens by American standards - live in fear that they will be detained by soldiers or police.

"If a soldier sees a Jewish person walking, he wouldn't ask him for his ID card. But if he sees you, whether Christian or Muslim, he will ask you." said Simon Azazian, a 15-year-old camp counselor at the Jerusalem YMCA.

Once, he said, a soldier detained him on the street and frightened him for a half-hour by telling him his ID card was false before finally sending him on his way.

"It's humiliating," Simon said.

For Elias and Norma Budreh, it goes far beyond humiliation. In the late 1980s, Mr. Budreh got fed up with paying taxes to a government that provided him with neither services nor representation. So he joined the tax revolt by the Christian village of Beit Sahour. In response, the Israeli Army raided the village, emptied homes of furniture, and stripped businesses, including the Budreh's lumber company, of their equipment. Mr. Budreh has been unemployed ever since.

Christians want to stay in the Holy Land, Mrs. Budreh says, "But they want to eat. My son, my grandchildren are starving." Her voice cracks. "Our situation is very sad and you want to cry."

Israelis defend the intrusions, border closings and property seizures in the name of security. When terrorist acts are committed, Dr. Mor said, Palestinian Christians must be punished.

"They are part of the Palestinian nation and they are treated not as Christians, but as part of the Palestinian nation," he said. "They exploded buses. They are killing people in the midst of our cities. So they have to suffer."

Bring the terrorists to justice, say the Palestinian Christians, but do not punish the entire population. The acts of terrorism by Jewish extremists - the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, for example - do not result in punishments for all Israelis.

The Muslim anvil

It started as a minor traffic accident.

Mannal Bannoure's husband got out of his car to talk with the other driver. The Palestinian Muslims piled out of the other vehicle and beat him, almost to death.

The authorities did nothing. And the Palestinian way of resolving disputes - by talking to the parents of the assailants - accomplished nothing. As Christians, the Bannoures were simply dismissed as people with no standing in the community.

"It was more safe before the intifada," Mrs. Bannoure said. "I prefer the Israelis more than the Palestinians."

Tensions between Palestinian Christians and Muslims is not something people here like to talk about. Community leaders on both sides prefer to speak of a shared cultural heritage that transcends religious divisions.

"The Christians are part and parcel of the Palestinian people, indivisible," says Doris Saleh, executive director of the YWCA in Jerusalem.

In areas governed by the Palestinian Authority, efforts have been made to insure Christian representation. Christians have been given six seats on the authority's 88-member legislative council. Elias Freij, the mayor of Bethlehem is a Christian.

"We have one motto here," Mr. Freij said. "We say religion is for God, but we say the city is for all."

But in neighborhoods and city streets, tensions surface.

"In Jerusalem, Muslims treat us very bad. They hate us," said 20-year-old Niveen Saleh, sitting across from a Muslim friend in the pastoral courtyard at Bethlehem University. "If they saw us walking in the street, they start to tell us bad things about the cross."

Like Ms. Saleh and her Muslim friend, most Palestinian Christians and Muslims get along. But the situation is neither as good as officials would have everyone believe, nor as bad as many Christians fear, said the Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem.

"The one extreme I see is talking about a state of paradise between Muslims and Christians. And there is no paradise," the Rev. Raheb said. "And the other one ... is that we are living in hell. And we are not living in hell. We are living with human beings."

For Christians there are increasingly frequent reminders of their minority status. In Jericho, for example, Friday prayers once limited to the mosque are broadcast on loudspeakers all over town.

Ms. Budreh and Mrs. Bannoure no longer feel free to wear shorts or sleeveless dresses in the summer for fear of what their Muslim neighbors will think. What will happen, they wonder, as the power of conservative Islam continues to grow?

The last few stones

Christian leaders here are saddened and angered by Western tourists who kiss the stones Jesus trod on but ignore the plight of the living stones of the faith.

The living stones are more important than the dead stones, said Catholic Bishop Boulos Marcuzzo of Nazareth. They represent the continuity of the faith from Jesus' time to the present.

"The first Christians and the Christians of today, they are one," he said. "The community ... is the best link which unites us with Jesus Christ himself."

That's why the Rev. Faud Sakhnini, who runs a school and church in the center of Nazareth, is determined to stay, even though two of his sons, in search of better lives, have gone to America. He misses them. But he thanks God he can continue to walk in Jesus's footsteps.

"If I leave, if you leave, if that person leaves, who is going to witness?" he asks from inside the Near East Mission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"I always tell the Lord, `Lord, I am very unworthy to serve you in your hometown.' I feel this is a great honor and privilege."