Every year around Christmas and Easter, a kind of meta-ritual takes place in which American journalists describe how these holidays are celebrated in the “Holy Land.” It is a long-running story, never stripped of politics. In 1923, for example, the New York Times published a classically Orientalist opposition of here and there, us and them. Easter in Jerusalem was a “frenzy of devotion,” “an annual release of the entire community, such as you and I in New York know nothing of. Somewhere in the centuries during which our ancestors were moving westward from the Middle East we have lost the gift of it and we have never recaptured it.” [1]

In recent decades, the story has hewn closer to the workaday politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conict. At Christmas 1995, Bethlehem was for the first time under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The New York Times reported that Yasser Arafat was in attendance at the Christmas Eve mass to make a statement that pointed to Christianity’s importance in Palestinian culture. “We pray together and we work together for peace, which our prophet Jesus Christ worked and struggled for…. Tonight, Muslims, Christians and Jews will celebrate in the land of peace.” [2] A few years later, the story was that Arafat’s by-then annual pilgrimage had been curtailed. Perhaps foreshadowing the confinement in which the PA president would spend his last years, in 2001 Israeli authorities forbade Arafat from traveling from Ramallah to Bethlehem. They reportedly checked for his presence in both a bus full of Franciscan friars and the trunk of the car bearing Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah. [3]

Christmas narratives now highlight the massive concrete wall around much of the city of Bethlehem. In 2005, Joel Greenberg of the Chicago Tribune noted that the completion of one section of Israel’s separation barrier cut the city off from neighboring Jerusalem. “The Palestinian town revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus is preparing to celebrate Christmas behind a wall,” he wrote. [4] Articles often emphasize the commercial impact of the wall, which, along with other forms of Israeli-imposed closure, constricts the flow of tourists visiting the city and discourages them from staying there overnight. The mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh, declared to the Christian Science Monitor, “This is an economic war against the city.” [5] These articles also focus on the Palestinian Christian population writ large.

Christians of various denominations — Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant — make up less than 2 percent of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza, and about 8 percent of Palestinian citizens of Israel. All told, Christians comprise about 2 percent of the Israeli population. These numbers are declining rapidly, as Christian Palestinians emigrate under the extraordinary pressures of 46 years of life under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza and 65 years of political marginalization and discrimination in Israel. Because Christians have long-standing networks of kin in places like Chile and the United States, emigration is much easier for them than for Muslim Palestinians. For supporters of Palestinian rights, the departure of Christians is a poignant illustration of the overall Palestinian plight. So it can seem like an obvious positive when the story of Christian Palestinians is presented by US news outlets, as when CBS’s flagship newsmagazine “60 Minutes” aired “Christians of the Holy Land” during the Easter season of 2012. Juan Cole praised the report, writing that merely to reveal that “there are Palestinian Christians” is to scramble the assumptions that many in Israel would like Americans to make about Palestinians:

Right-wing Israelis have attempted to displace, expropriate and erase the Palestinian nation, and to convince Americans that Palestinians don’t exist or if they do are enemies of the US. When the foe of the US was the Soviet Union, they made the Palestinians Communists. When the foe became al-Qaeda, they made the Palestinians violent fundamentalists. But if some percentage of Palestinians is Christian, then that fact disrupts the propaganda. [6]

It is true that coverage like that by “60 Minutes” complicates the most racist suppositions about Palestinians. And yet representing Christian Palestinians is not a straightforward or simple matter.

O Little Town

Two long-form pieces that treat Christian Palestinians in depth — a National Geographic cover story by Michael Finkel entitled “Bethlehem 2007 AD” and the “60 Minutes” report — differ greatly in style but exhibit some intriguing similarities. One is a highly descriptive feature, accompanied by images that evoke themes of travel photography as well as photojournalism, [7] and the other is an investigative report built around interviews. But both pieces are motivated by a presumed special Christian or Judeo-Christian American interest in the experience of Christian Palestinians. The National Geographic article begins with a tagline that references a popular Christmas carol: “The little town where Jesus was born is now one of the most contentious places on earth.” Likewise, “60 Minutes” correspondent Bob Simon’s narration refers to Bethlehem as “the little town where Christ was born.” In the opening voiceover, too, he announces that the “Holy Land” is “sacred to half of humanity.”

The use of phrases like “little town” is familiarizing, and it refers to a sacred landscape at the heart of many people’s faith, but these phrases and the frames that go with them can also efface quite a bit of history. With about 70,000 residents in the metropolitan area, consisting of three adjacent towns and three refugee camps, Bethlehem is not a big city. The “little town” appellation, however, suggests that not much has changed in two millennia, a notion belied by the congested roads on weekend evenings, the five-star Intercontinental Hotel located a stone’s throw (literally) from a refugee camp, the traffic circle unofficially named for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. The National Geographic article acknowledges that the connection between Philistines and Palestinians is only etymological, not historical, but goes on to say, paragraphs later, “In the same region where Jews once battled Philistines, it was now Israelis against Palestinians. In 3,000 years, the only change, it appears, is a couple of syllables.” Similarly, Simon prefaces his report, “Christianity may have been born in the Middle East, but Arab Christians have never had it easy there,” papering over thousands of years and a multitude of empires and states. Even the omnipresent term “the Holy Land” sidesteps contemporary geopolitics, implying as it does that the significance of this territory is primarily religious. At least as important, the Christianity that frames these approaches is an Anglo-American Christianity. After all, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written by an Episcopalian priest in Philadelphia in the late 1800s.

Yet, in a trick familiar to the genre, the specific is made to seem universal. It is unstated but true that the reason that the “60 Minutes” audience presumably cares that the Holy Land is “sacred to half of humanity” is that so much of the audience is part of that half. Palestinian Christianity seen through the lens of American Christianity becomes something global. Some Palestinian Christian leaders are happy to participate in this framing of their community as being at the heart of something much larger. As Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran minister, told “60 Minutes,” “Christianity has actually on the back a stamp saying, ‘Made in Palestine.’” And there are grander claims still. The National Geographic article ends by quoting Batarseh, who proclaims, “It’s easy to think of Bethlehem as the center of the world. is can’t be a place where calm never exists. If the world is ever going to have peace, it has to start right here.”

While this language may have a poetic appeal, universalizing the story of Christian Palestinians can elide the specificity of local arguments for justice and can exclude many Palestinian experiences. There are other ways in which Christian Palestinians have voiced Christian values and told sacred stories that embrace a multiplicity of Palestinian experiences. The Palestinian Christian organization Sabeel, for example, organizes a tour that overlays the sacred geography of the Via Dolorosa — the 14 stations of the cross — with a contemporary geography of dispossession and violence. The tour and its companion worship booklet, according to Sabeel’s website, seek to link “the original events of Good Friday with the continuing suffering of the occupied people who live in that land today.” The gesture is toward universal principles of justice and inclusion, combining traditionally religious sites with secular ones in a way that is resonant and transformative for Christians of many backgrounds.

Outside Politics

Stories about Christian Palestinians are tangled up with another narrative that claims universality, that of the “war on terror.” It is the nature of a television program like “60 Minutes” to splice together interviews with several people, connecting them with voiceovers, as though bringing the sources into communication. In the passage below, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, appears to be conversing with Zahi Khouri, a Palestinian businessman, and Ari Shavit, a senior correspondent at the premier Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Oren starts with an explanation of why Israel built the wall, which extends far eastward from the “border terminal” on the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road to an army checkpoint on another north-south artery in the West Bank, creating a sense of encirclement:

Oren: We have to protect our — our — our country. But sometimes you have to do what you have to do in order to survive.

Simon (voiceover): For Palestinian Christians, the survival of their culture is in danger. In towns like Bethlehem, which used to be distinctively Christian, Muslims now are a clear and growing majority. The veil is replacing the cross. But inside Israel, in Christian towns like Nazareth, Arabs are Israeli citizens and, according to Ambassador Oren, they’re thriving. The reason Christians are leaving the West Bank, he says, is Islamic extremism.

Oren: I think that the major problem in the West Bank, as elsewhere in the Middle East, is that the Christian communities are living under duress.

Simon: And this duress is coming from Muslims, not from the Israel occupation?

Oren: I believe that the major duress is coming from that.

Khouri: Great selling point. Easy to sell to the American public.

Simon (voiceover): Zahi Khouri is a Palestinian businessman. He owns the West Bank Coca-Cola franchise.

Khouri: I’ll tell you I don’t know of anybody — and I probably have 12,000 customers here. I’ve never heard that — that someone is leaving because of Islamic persecution.

Simon (voiceover): Ari Shavit, one of Israel’s most respected columnists, believes Christians have become collateral damage.

Shavit: I think this is a land that has seen in the last century a terrible struggle between political Judaism and political Islam in different variations.

Simon: And the Christians are being squeezed in the middle between the Jews and the Muslims?

Shavit: Absolutely.

In this passage, Oren implicitly aligns the interests of Christian Palestinians and the Israeli state. Israel, he claims, faces an existential threat from Palestinian bombings, and thus Israel needs to build the wall. Christian Palestinians are likewise threatened by Muslims, and thus they need to emigrate. In these Zionist narratives, Palestinian violence is motivated not by nationalism or a will to resist colonization and military occupation, but by a cultural problem attributed to the Muslim religion or Muslim society. Simon does not comment on this contention himself, turning instead to a wealthy Palestinian Christian to dispute it. Khouri’s perspective is supported implicitly throughout the report, with its presentation of material about the wall, the closure regime and economic pressures on the West Bank. Simon then swiftly introduces Shavit. Shavit does not agree with Oren, but he does move the story of Palestinian Christians back into the frame of the war on terror with his suggestion that they are caught between “political Judaism” and “political Islam.” While, as Cole points out, comparing Zionism to movements in the Muslims world challenges “a key principle of Likud propaganda,” [8] this religious lens also obscures questions of nationalism and colonialism. Furthermore, it places Palestinian Christians outside politics. While Western Christians often see themselves as outside and above the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this logic in effect puts Palestinian Christians outside and below it, rather than recognizing that they are an integral part of Palestinian society, in terms of both individual political and cultural contributions and their place in Palestinian culture in a much deeper historical sense.

A related argument suggests that Christian Palestinians are a moderating force in Palestinian society. In supplemental material to the “60 Minutes” report, the producer, Harry Radcliffe, comments that Palestinian society will become “more harsh, more brutal than it already is” if Christians leave. According to the National Geographic article, some Christian Palestinian leaders “see themselves, alternately, as life-saving buffers or double-sided punching bags.” While many Palestinians celebrate diversity, widespread Orientalist and Islamophobic assumptions mean that many Americans would read the above statements as contrasting “moderate” Christianity with “extremist” Islam. In some cases, then, statements about Palestinian Christians feeling caught between two sides have dierent meanings in Palestinian society and in the United States. If, instead, the narratives articulated a multi-dimensional Palestinian appreciation of diversity — of religiosity as well as religion, of place of origin, of class — they might avoid that miscommunication.

After all, Christian Palestinians do not all think of themselves primarily in terms of religious identity, and when they do, their affiliation with the Coptic, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Quaker or another church might be as important as the fact that they are Christian. Moreover, for Palestinians as for Americans, religious affiliations cross-cut other ways of identifying, as Palestinians, Arabs or long-time inhabitants of Bethlehem, Ramallah or Nazareth; as Israeli citizens, PA passport holders or subjects of military occupation. This point comes through in some parts of these reports, as when they discuss how Christian Palestinians’ experience is similar to that of other Palestinians, but it is worth underscoring.

Crosses to Bear

Like other coverage of Christian Palestinians, both “Christians in the Holy Land” and “Bethlehem 2007 AD” cover the impact of the separation wall upon Bethlehem, as well as the larger problem of closure that affects all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The National Geographic article opens with a classic arrival story.

This is not how Mary and Joseph came into Bethlehem, but this is how you enter now. You wait at the wall. It’s a daunting concrete barricade, three stories high, thorned with razor wire. Standing beside it, you feel as if you’re at the base of a dam. Israeli soldiers armed with assault rifles examine your papers. They search your vehicle. No Israeli civilian, by military order, is allowed in. And few Bethlehem residents are permitted out — the reason the wall exists here, according to the Israeli government, is to keep terrorists away from Jerusalem.…

If you’re cleared to enter, a sliding steel door, like that on a boxcar, grinds open. The soldiers step aside, and you drive through the temporary gap in the wall. Then the door slides back, squealing on its track, booming shut. You’re in Bethlehem.

For visitors to Bethlehem — and this arrival, of course, is recorded from the perspective of a visitor rather than a local — passage through the “border terminal” is often the first and most powerful indication of the violence of military occupation. Similarly, the “60 Minutes” report notes, “for all Palestinians, just leaving Bethlehem is a struggle” because to head north they must obtain a permit from Israeli military authorities and, if they are fortunate enough to be granted one, pass through the terminal, “whether it’s to pray, go to a doctor, visit family members or work.” The report then zeroes in on the story of the Anastas family. Once, this Christian family owned a thriving souvenir shop on the busiest street in town. Today, their home is surrounded on three sides by the wall, and they strain to keep their store open. The children’s room looks out on an army watchtower a few yards away. Yet they are adamant that they do not want to leave. As Claire Anastas tells Bob Simon, “We need to stay and struggle and fight. is is our cross.”

What is gained or lost by telling these tales of the wall — a Westerner’s first-time encounter and the travails of a single Christian Palestinian small business? A few minutes’ walk from the Anastas home sits the Aida refugee camp, a community of over 4,600 people hemmed in on two sides by the separation wall. The camp, as it happens, is a station on Sabeel’s Contemporary Way of the Cross. Lately, residents have waged a campaign of popular resistance to the looming concrete structure. At one point, protesters managed to punch a hole big enough for a person to climb through. Quickly thereafter, the Israeli army filled the gap and launched an intensive wave of arrests that has left dozens in prison. During the protests, many were injured, some seriously, and one boy, Salih al-‘Amarin, 15, was killed. The story of Aida has rarely been told in mainstream media.

Both the Anastas family and the Aida camp offer important Palestinian narratives of struggle and suffering. One is a story of middle-class people who speak of having the option of leaving, and the other of a community beset with 43 percent unemployment, living with the nightly terror of Israeli raids and stuck with nowhere to go. Perhaps for American parents watching “60 Minutes” before putting their own children to bed the story of the Christian family is more “relatable.” A military watchtower outside a child’s bedroom window is sad and scary, but arrest campaigns and tear gas are almost unimaginably so.

Christian Palestinians and popular resistance are not mutually exclusive topics, and the latter figured prominently in the lengthy New York Times Magazine feature about the West Bank village of Nabi Salih. [9] A mid-May story in the Guardian about Christian Palestinians from Iqrit, a village in the northern Galilee of Israel, tells of how Israeli authorities depopulated the village in November 1948. Today, the original villagers and their descendants, who number about 1,500, are scattered throughout northern Israel while their village lands lay empty. The Guardian reports that activists from Iqrit have lately “moved back in an attempt to reclaim and rebuild the village.” [10] The story is unusual in that it notes that the activists are Christian Palestinians, but does not dwell on this fact. Instead, it quotes one activist calling the group “refugees in our own country,” referencing another important category of Palestinian identity. Moreover, the story is offbeat in that it treats a Christian community well outside of both the typical biblical geography of the Holy Land and the well-worn political geography of the Occupied Territories to make clear that both the Palestinian Christian community and the Palestinian case extend into Israel.

With important exceptions, American foreign correspondents tend to choose subjects that are already familiar and presumed to be important to American audiences. Can we imagine a different kind of news — domestic and international — that takes as its point of embarkation human rights precepts or that seeks to cover popular movements of various kinds? In Bethlehem in particular, a focus on the city’s Christian history and population has necessarily amplified some voices and quieted others. At times, this religious lens has shaped politics on the ground, promoting protests oriented around Christian symbols and making it easier for a crowd to rally for a Palm Sunday procession than against the wall in Aida. [11] What can we imagine about a peace that would begin in Aida refugee camp or in Iqrit?

The Religious Lens

While Palestinian Christian leaders are clear that emigration stems from the pressures of Israeli rule, these articles often include reflections on social and cultural tensions between Christians and Muslims, a real dynamic in Palestinian society, though a delicate one. As Michael Finkel writes in National Geographic, “Bethlehem’s Christians feel increasingly like outsiders in their own city. Many dress in current Western fashion — tight jeans, plunging necklines, flashy jewelry.” The article allows that “some Muslims dress in modern styles,” but nonetheless posits a fundamental dichotomy between Christians, aligned with the West and modernity, and Muslims. Dress of women is a concern in Palestinian society, but not the obsession that one might think from the disproportionate Western attention to the subject. This shorthand way of representing difference overlooks the ways in which inter-religious tensions are a local phenomenon with a local history. Christian-Muslim relations in Palestinian society are not a clash between the modern and the traditional. Widespread prohibitions on intermarriage, for example, are upheld at least as strongly in Christian families as in Muslim ones, and are not associated with Western modernity. Relations between Christians and Muslims also vary from town to town and village to village. In Bethlehem, for example, there are some tensions derived from the fact that the Christians are the long-term residents, while the Muslims are not only newcomers but also predominantly refugees. In the twin cities of Ramallah and al-Bira, which have always had populations of Christians and Muslims, relations are quite different. It is important as well to look not only at relations between Christians and Muslims but also at discussions between those who are more religious and those who are more secular within each religious community.

It is certainly true that Christian Palestinian identities are local. They are also transnational, due to such factors as emigrants abroad, Christian tourism to places like Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and many Christian Palestinians’ sense that they are “living stones,” a foundation of Christianity in the place where it began. Christian Palestinian identities are also shaped by the fact that the presence of Christians has long been central to Palestinian national identity. Not only have Palestinian leaders, especially Arafat, always emphasized the Christian Palestinian presence, but posters and other national iconography often include images of Jerusalem that feature both mosques and churches. Thus, the local, national and transnational dimensions of Palestinian Christian identities are inextricable from one another, just as religious, class, national and other political identities intersect.

When US narratives focus on Christian Palestinians primarily as Christians — even if implicitly through antiquarian fascination with or spiritual attachment to the Holy Land — they can give short shrift to these complexities. This lens is also not inviting to those Christian Palestinians who do not choose to speak or act as Christians. The sacred geography of Israel and the Occupied Territories — centering, as it does, on Jerusalem and Bethlehem, with Nazareth and the Galilee occupying a somewhat less important place — colludes with the politics of how mainstream news covers nation-states to marginalize the voices of Christian Palestinian citizens of Israel. But these problems of framing and identity are hardly specific to US coverage of Christian Palestinians. US news covers the rest of the world through the prism of what makes that part of the world interesting to Americans, following pre-existing narratives, [12] rather than, for example, using human rights law or humanitarian principles to guide an investigation into a topic. Still, the pervasive ways in which Israel precludes Palestinian self-determination and threatens lives and livelihoods mean that any honest and in-depth coverage of Palestinians — whatever their religious identity — is likely to shed light on the violence and injustice of Israeli rule.


[1] New York Times, April 1, 1923.
[2] New York Times, December 25, 1995.
[3] New York Times, December 25, 2001.
[4] Chicago Tribune, December 21, 2005.
[5] Christian Science Monitor, December 22, 2005.
[6] Juan Cole, “Top Ten Reasons Israel Tried to Censor Bob Simon’s Report on Palestinian
Christians,” Informed Comment, April 25, 2012, http://www.juancole.com///top-tenreasons-israel-tried-to-censor-bob-simons-report-on-palestinian-christians.html.
[7] Michael Finkel, “Bethlehem 2007 AD,” National Geographic (December 2007).
[8] Cole, op. cit.
[9] Ben Ehrenreich, “Is is Where the Third Intifada Will Start?” New York Times Magazine, March 15, 2013.
[10] Guardian, May 15, 2013.
[11] Amahl Bishara, Back Stories: US News Production and Palestinian Politics (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), pp. 167-196.
[12] See Ulf Hannerz, Foreign News: Exploring the World of Foreign Correspondents (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

How to cite this article:

Amahl Bishara "Covering the Christians of the Holy Land," Middle East Report 267 (Summer 2013).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This