In the news, we hear much about the tension between Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli conflict. But did you know that there has been a community of Christians in the Holy Land for centuries? The story of this ancient church is often overlooked.
Since the time of the New Testament, there has been a Christian presence in the Holy Land. Possession of the land has changed multiple times over two thousand years. Pagan Rome, Zoroastrian Persians, Byzantine Orthodox Christians, Muslim Arabs, European Crusaders, and Muslim Turks have all claimed title over Jerusalem. But miraculously, the Christian church in some form or another has survived all of these various conquests. Sadly, the Christian community in Palestine today is nearly threatened with extinction.
The Forgotten Christians of Palestine
Elias Chacour was a child in a Palestinian village in Galilee in the early 1940s. He grew up in a Christian family, living a rather simple life, until Israeli military forces entered his village during the first Israeli-Palestinian war and destroyed his village. The family orchards were then sold off to an Israeli investor, and some of Chacour’s family ironically ended up being workers in those same orchard fields that his family once owned. Chacour’s story is recounted in his book Blood Brothers.
As I was reading this book, I had a hard time trying to wrap my head around the idea why God would call His people, the Jews, back to their homeland, only to have some of them wipe out homes and villages belonging to Christian families, like the Chacours. Sadly, the story of Elias Chacour is not unique.
But the problem with Christians in the Holy Land is not just because of pressure from Israeli Jews. On the other side, there are Arab Muslims who do not trust the Arab Christians. Radical Islamic forces that oppose Israel put Christian communities in a real bind. As a result, the Palestinian Christian community has felt sandwiched in by both sides.1
Some estimates show that there were over 200,000 Christians living in Palestine by the time the nation of Israel was founded. During my visit to the Holy Land in 1994, that number had dwindled down to around 40,000. Over twenty years later, that number has kept decreasing.2 Mostly, it has been economic pressures that have forced so many Palestinian Christians to leave the Holy Land. How tragic would it be to lose a vital Christian presence, among a people that have been a witness to Jesus Christ faithfully for hundreds and hundreds of years, in the same generation when the Jewish people would finally have their national homecoming!3
Thankfully, there have been Christians, like Elias Chacour, who have worked hard at restoring peace between the parties involved, Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. Chacour believes that Israelis and Arabs both belong to the land. Therefore, they can share the land together. But the work of reconciliation has not been easy.4
Hearing People’s Stories, But Looking to the Bible for Answers
In previous blog posts in this series, we have examined historical issues surrounding Zionism. We have also explored some of the stories of people who take different views regarding Zionism:
- Ethnic Jews who have sought sanctuary from the horrors of antisemitism, as well as Arabs who have lived in the Middle Eastern lands for centuries.
- Jews who favor modern Zionism, and Jews who do not favor modern Zionism.
- Messianic Jews who look to Zionism as part of God’s plan to restore and redeem the Jewish people.
- And now, Christians who trace their spiritual heritage back to the earliest Christian communities in the land.
I could go on raising historical issues, and telling different stories of people. But where would this take us, eventually? Where would we look to find a solution to the complexities surrounding Zionism?
Ultimately, we need to look at God’s Word. Holy Scripture is our best resource for trying to work these things out, instead of relying on the perspective of fallen humanity. Maybe, it is time to take another, fresh look at what the Bible really teaches, to find the answers. That is where we will turn next in this series on Zionism.
1. A 2008 article by Steven Gertz in Christianity Today magazine strikes the right balance, noting the pressure from both the state of Israel and radical Islamists in Palestine.↩
2. I have read a number of conflicting statistics. This article by Anders Strindberg, in 2004, in the American Conservative, puts the 1948 figure of Palestinian Christians at 350,000. But the general trend in population decline among Christians in Palestine is clear.↩
3. Haaretz magazine reported that in 1920, Christians made up 10% of all of the people living in the Palestinian territories. In 2010, that percentage had dropped to 1% of the total Palestinian population. However, in fairness, a larger number of Palestinian Christians, perhaps over 150,000, have been incorporated into the modern nation-state of Israel, where they have greater religious freedoms than in the Palestinian territories. Nevertheless, a recent Pew Research report shows that most Christians in Israel do not share the pro-Zionist views common among American evangelicals, as reported by Christianity Today magazine.↩
4. Elias Chacour, who has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, is now a retired bishop from the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. His church has its roots in Eastern Orthodoxy, but established communion with the Roman Catholic Church in 1724. Chacour is widely respected among many Protestant evangelical Christians in the Holy Land. The following ten-minute video summarizes his story:↩