Bethlehem Christians and ISIS - a harsh reality.

Our Lady who brings down walls, Bethlehem

Following yesterday's Holy Liturgy for the feast of the Transfiguration, I took a lift back to the centre of Bethlehem with one of the Greek Catholic priests from Beit Sahour. Over the course of the conversation the subject of ISIS came up, and he told me that the day before 5 families had left the village and emigrated to Sweden. They were frightened that ISIS would only too soon be here in Palestine.

Discussing this with one of my students later in the day, she told me that her sister, who lives in Ireland, was urging her family to go and join them, frantically worried about the situation in Palestine ( a Hamas rocket had landed in the village on Monday damaging a house), and again, of the threat posed to Christians by ISIS. That ISIS was reportedly active now in Lebanon, and rumours of some village near Hebron having aligned itself with the movement, people here are feeling deeply anxious.

At a recent conference on problems between Christians and Muslims in Bethlehem, held as part of the Bethlehem Live festival, the two speakers proudly declared there were no problems. The young Palestinian Christian next to me swore under his breath, incredulous. There are problems, but no one will speak up, especially before an international audience. Relationships between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land are generally OK. Generally. Whenever visitors arrive from abroad everyone says how everyone is friends and there are no problems. And of course they do have a united front in the face of the occupation. But there are tensions, they are real, and Christians feel uneasy.

For example, Christmas. Every Christmas Eve there is a celebration in Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity. Bands, musicians, singers provide free entertainment on the eve of Christmas. For many years it was a family event packed with Christians, but now Christians largely avoid it. Why? Because it attracts a number of young Muslim men from the surrounding villages. These are traditional societies where women are very much covered up and distant - visit a home to see some male friends and the women are either totally out of sight or just appear bringing refreshments. So, for them, Christian women showing their hair and dressed in some nice fashionable outfit is a real sight, but also one which they have been taught means that they are 'loose', just like the women from the Christian West they see in films. So they come to ogle  and to make offensive comments. Christian society here is quite conservative, so the men prefer their wives and daughters not to be exposed to such leering, so they stay away. It was the same with an attempt to run a cinema here. It closed because of the lewd comments made by the same crowd.

Compared to the ravages of ISIS its nothing, but it is harassment and it does materially disturb the freedom to have a social life, especially for Christian women. I mentioned this to a Muslim guy I know here at one of the restaurants, and he knew exactly what I was saying and was very unhappy about it, but was at a loss what to do. Here society is arranged around clans and families. These youths come from a certain sort of background, from families you don't want to antagonise. So, people try to avoid trouble and stay away, while all the time the community becomes more divided and the resentment becomes antagonistic. People feel uncomfortable, and such incidents make people feel the loss of their Christian culture acutely.

The exodus of Christians from Mosul gets the headlines, but the exodus in the Holy Land has been, if anything, more extensive, though more protracted and less dramatic. Until 1948 Bethlehem was a 90% Christian town, but now is anywhere between 10% and 30% (figures vary). A large influx of refugees after the establishment of Israel meant that this exclusively Christian culture became overwhelmed by the Muslim intake. Christians were happy to extend a helping hand to their brothers and sisters in a time of awful need, but as time has passed the Muslim community's birthrate has outstripped the Christian one, while a higher percentage of Christians have abandoned their homes here and looked for a better life elsewhere, one where they are free to move about, make business and build a good life for their children and occupied by a Jewish State that does not want them. They want to be in a society where they can freely be themselves, one where their way of life, from their feasts and fasts to the treatment of their women, is understood and respected. So, given the chance, many - fact the vast majority - have left. This exodus has left the Christian community in crisis.

The hard core that have remained, huddled together in certain villages, and the cities of Nazareth, Bethlehem and Ramallah, now face the spectre of ISIS, the worst nightmare of rape, pillage and a heady concoction of violent Islam which has haunted them from the times of the ethnic hatreds of Ottoman times. The outbreak of WWI marked not just the onset of hostilities across Europe, but the German Kaiser's Jihad across the Middle East. The Ottoman Caliph launched, at the Kaiser's request, an Islamic holy war against the British and French, in an attempt to bring about an uprising of Muslim subjects of the two empire's. However, having awoken the beast of Islamic jihadic fervour against the infidels, they turned on the local Christian population, which meant the Armenians and the Assyrians. Both of these communities faced horrific persecution, indeed genocide. Small numbers managed to flee, and came to Bethlehem and Jerusalem to try and build a new life.

In Bethlehem the Assyrians have their Syrian Orthodox church, a potent symbol of the new life which they managed to establish, and in Jerusalem there is of course the Armenian patriarchate. However, these are no hollow shells of what once were thriving communities, again because of the occupation they have largely too moved on. But those who remain keep alive a common memory of the horror which Islamic extremism can bring. ISIS, with the vivid video clips of beheadings, forced conversions, extortion and a mass exodus awakens these deep memories, and however unjustly, casts a dark shadow over all their Muslim neighbours. They don't feel safe. As one man explained to me, we don't know when they will change. Now, yes, they are our friends, but they change so quickly. Who can we trust? The recent viral video of 'hipsta jihadi' is a case in point. A gym going, university educated young guy from a wealthy Egyptian family without any hint of radicalism, is now a scimitar wielding murdering Islamic fanatic. This sort of thing is deeply unsettling, and makes people feel uneasy. Who can they trust? Who can they rely on? If ISIS really does come here, which Muslim neighbours will turn their back, who join in, and who would help? With memories on the Muslim side of how Christian militias in Lebanon collaborated with the Israeli army to massacred Palestinian refugees in Shatila, there is enough loose petrol in the collective memories of both sides to make a blaze should some clever maverick come along and exploit it.

That's why it is important that there is  fire brigade that is pro-active. Good-willed Christians and Muslims need to unite and get their act sorted out here before it is too late. Real anxieties need to be addressed while they are relatively small and easily solved. If this happens then Christians will see that they have reliable friends in the Muslim community, ones who are willing and able to understand them, who really respect them and their traditions, and willing to stand up and to take action to make sure their position here remains solid and on a good basis. It is time for platitudes to be put aside, real problems addressed, and solidarity made real. Simply saying there are no problems is not just untrue and absurd, it is also extremely dangerous, paving the way for a critical rise in anxiety among the last vestiges of the local Christian population, and for radicalised nut cases to ferment the sort of violence and intimidation which Christians elsewhere are facing alone and without help.

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