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“This is madness,” Munther Isaac, pastor of Bethlehem’s Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, told me. “This has become a genocide with 1.7 million people displaced.”
Isaac was part of a small delegation of Palestinian Christians who came to Washington this week to lobby the Biden administration, U.S. lawmakers and religious leaders to support calls for a full-scale cease-fire. A six-day pause in hostilities between Israel and militant group Hamas is set to elapse Thursday, though negotiations with Hamas involving U.S., Israeli and Arab officials are ongoing to potentially extend the current truce. Israeli officials have vowed to continue their campaign against Hamas after hostages are released, while the Biden administration appears to be trying to restrain whatever next phase of the war Israel chooses to launch.
On Tuesday afternoon, the delegation went to the White House and delivered a letter for President Biden signed by the leaders of the Christian community in Bethlehem, including Isaac’s Protestant denomination and his Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic counterparts. They also went to the Hill to meet staff in the Senate and House of Representatives.
“God has placed political leaders in a position of power so that they can bring justice, support those who suffer, and be instruments of God’s peace,” reads the letter, which I got to see in advance of its delivery. “We want a constant and comprehensive cease-fire. Enough death. Enough destruction. This is a moral obligation. There must be other ways. This is our call and prayer this Christmas.”
Palestinian Christians belong to the world’s oldest Christian communities, rooted in the historic cradle of Christianity. But they are diminished in number, at least in proportion to their neighbors of other faiths, and are represented in greater strength in the Palestinian diaspora around the world. Palestinian Christians comprise some 2 percent of the overall Palestinian population in the West Bank, concentrated mostly around Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and less than 1 percent of the population in Gaza.
The latter community, small but prominent, is in the midst of a potential extinction event. There are roughly fewer than 1,000 Christians in Gaza, who have lived there without much problem despite the de facto takeover of the territory in 2007 by Hamas. But Israeli airstrikes destroyed or damaged almost all the community’s homes in Gaza City while also hitting Gaza’s oldest active church, where some were sheltering. “The vast majority of the Christian community in Gaza are now homeless,” Isaac said.
That’s prompted perhaps as much as a fifth of Gaza’s Christians who also had foreign passports to abandon the territory altogether. The rest find themselves forsaken. “They are calling to us, saying, ‘Let us leave, we either die or we leave,’” said Tamar Haddad, a regional coordinator of the Lutheran World Federation who was also part of the visiting delegation.
Jack Sara, president of Bethlehem Bible College, pointed to how the plight of Palestinian Christians doesn’t seem to be heard by many U.S. evangelicals, who see in muscular Jewish supremacy over the Holy Land a pathway for their own messianic vision. Tennessee-based evangelical preacher Greg Locke, a vocal and oft-viral pro-Trump clergyman, called for Israel to reduce Gaza to a “parking lot” not long after the Oct. 7 attack. More than 13,000 Palestinians have been killed in the weeks since, including thousands of children.
The ideology of Christian Zionism animated the agenda of the Trump administration and influences a vast segment of Republican lawmakers, from former vice president Mike Pence to current Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.). Sara, a leading Palestinian evangelical theologian, told me that their creed “is not the evangelical theology and its message of love of all humans, regardless of their background and ethnicity” in which he believes and practices.
Away from Gaza, the members of the delegation described a growing climate of intimidation and hostility toward Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, fueled by the actions of Jewish extremists emboldened by Israel’s far-right government. “We feel Jewish extreme radicals want us out of Jerusalem and they’re working on it and they’re going unchecked,” Isaac said.
The delegation’s members condemned Hamas’s actions and deplored its killing of innocent civilians and abduction of hostages. But they questioned Israel’s declared intention to wipe out an organization that is part of the fabric of Palestinian society and seen as a standard-bearer of resistance to decades of Israeli military occupation and domination. “As horrifying as October 7 was, things did not start there,” Isaac said. “And you cannot just begin the story from there and as such, give a green light for Israel to do what it’s doing right now, which goes way beyond, which is a revenge campaign.”
Many leading foreign diplomats have stressed the underlying importance of reviving the long-stalled and moribund process of the two-state solution. Most Palestinians are cynical about this project, given the fecklessness of their own political leadership and the West’s inability to prevent Israel from further carving up the West Bank with settlements over the past two decades. Many Israeli politicians, including leading members of the current government, are also explicitly opposed to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
But any postwar dispensation will have to reckon with the ground realities in Israel and the occupied territories. “One thing is clear: all my interlocutors in the Arab world have accepted Israel’s existence and want to engage with it,” wrote top E.U. diplomat Josep Borrell in a Financial Times op-ed that followed a recent trip to the Middle East. “They recognize the immense opportunity that lies in a peaceful neighborhood, cross-border cooperation and Israel’s potential role as a regional economic driver. But all agree that Arab-Israeli cooperation hinges upon resolving the Palestinian question.”
In recent statements, President Biden has also invoked the need to forge a two-state solution as a priority for the region. But talk is cheap. “America needs to prove to the Palestinians that they are serious about the two state solution because any talk from the Americans about a two-state solution right now feels empty, given the lack of action,” Isaac said. “No one has held Israel accountable.”
In their letter to Biden, the Palestinian clergymen reiterated their appeal: “This land has been crying for peace and justice for 75 years. It is time justice is served. It is time everybody can live with dignity in this land. The Palestinian and Israeli children deserve to live, hope and dream.”
When Isaac returns to Bethlehem at the end of the week for the start of the Advent season, he and his colleagues intend to set up a small Nativity scene with rocks and debris piled atop it. “This is what Christmas now means to us that we see Jesus being born among those who have lost everything, who are under the rubble,” Isaac said.