De palestinska kristna och NAKBA

Built in 1949, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Jabal Amman is the largest congregation in the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem. The date is not a coincidence: As Amman was flooded with Palestinian refugees due to the Nakba, several churches and church-related institutions were built in Jordan while others were being closed in Palestine, including the Episcopal churches of Jaffa and Akka (Acre). The Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, has been ongoing for millions of Palestinians whether in the homeland or in exile. Its impact on Palestinian Christians has been rarely pointed out.

It would be impossible to understand the reality of Palestinian Christians without understanding the consequences of the Nakba. In 1948 entire Christian communities disappeared, from Al Bassa and Safad in the northern borders to Beisan between Nazareth and the Jordan River. The Saint Paul Church, the well-known Arabic-speaking Episcopal Church built in Musrara, an area of Jerusalem occupied by Israel in 1948 was located nearby the Schneller School, a Lutheran mission known for educating generations of Palestinian children, among them prominent figures such as Bishop Elia Khoury. In the seventies Khoury became a member of the PLO Executive Committee after he was expelled from Palestine in 1969 by the Israeli occupation. Bishop Khoury, formerly in charge of the communities of Birzeit, Nablus, Jerusalem and Ramallah, ended up becoming the person in charge of the Church of the Redeemer in Amman in 1971.

From being about 10% of Palestine’s population in 1948, the  percentage of Palestinian Christians in the homeland today a very small  compared to what it was in 1948 and what it could have been  had there been no Nakba. The occupation of 1967 continued the process of forcible displacement through various covert and overt manners, clearly reflected for example in Jerusalem where Christians have gone down from over 30,000 in 1948 to around 10,000 today; communities such as Zababdeh, in the northern West Bank, lost their contacts with the Galilee, particularly Nazareth; Bethlehem has been separated from Jerusalem for the first time in history and dozens of communities have simply ceased to exist.

The mere existence of Palestinian Christians is a challenge to those who identify what is taking place in Palestine as a religious conflict rather than the Palestinian people as victims of a colonial-settlement enterprise. Palestinian Christians, who are an integral part of the indigenous Arab population of Palestine, have suffered from the same practices of expulsion as Muslim Palestinians. Both were expelled and their return was prevented by Israel because of their national identity, the same identity that paradoxically Israel refuses to recognize until today. It is perhaps as paradoxical as Israeli officials negating the Nakba while several Israeli politicians, including members of the current Israeli government, continue to threaten Palestinians with a “second Nakba”.

The reality is that the Nakba did not just exist as a historic event, it is an ongoing process as long as the Palestinian people are denied their fundamental right of living in freedom in their own homeland. For Palestinian Christians, the struggle sometimes has been even more difficult, including trying to understand how important a number of Western Christians saw their dispossession as a sort of “divinity”. How could oppression be justified using the Bible? In some cases Israeli officials have used the Bible to justify the occupation, with the vast majority of western Christian leaders remaining silent about it.

Walking in Talbiyeh, one of Jerusalem’s most prominent neighborhoods before 1948, one can see the opulent villas built by Palestinian businesspeople which, after they were looted and expropriated by Israel, are now occupied by Jewish Israelis. The majority of those homes were owned by Palestinian Christians, including the magnificent “Haroun Al Rashid Villa” of Hanna Bisharat, in which Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister who negated the existence of the Palestinian people later resided. Edward Said, the most prominent Palestinian intellectual in the XX Century, belonged to an Episcopal family and also lived in the same neighborhood.

It is through those villas that one can still spot names of prominent Palestinian Christian families and engraved Christian and Muslim signs as well as pieces of Armenian Ceramics. The Armenians of Palestine were among the most affected communities during the Nakba, including over 40 Armenians who were killed by Zionist bombardments of the Armenian Quarter during 1948. While Armenian civilians were victims of such attacks, the Armenian brigade composed of young members of their community to protect the Armenian Quarter and courageously fought against Zionist attacks on Jaffa Gate, in the context of a battle that prevented Zionist troops from invading the Old City of Jerusalem during the Nakba.

Such stories of pain and sacrifice yet always keeping a message of hope prompted me to write “Rooted in Palestine: Palestinian Christians and the Struggle for National Liberation 1917 – 2004”. One of the main goals I had writing the book was precisely to explain the magnitude of the catastrophe that the Nakba had on Palestinian Christians as well as the contradictions between several Western Christian leaders who mainly cared about access for pilgrimage while disregarding the rights of those who took care of the holy sites and kept Christian traditions alive for centuries before exile.

The right of return of the Palestine refugees, as per resolution 194, was one of the conditions that Israel accepted in order to become a full member of the UN through resolution 273 of May 11, 1949 (“noting furthermore the declaration by the State of Israel that it unreservedly accepts the obligations of the United Nations Charter and undertakes to honour them from the day when it becomes a member of the United Nations (…) recalling its resolutions of 29 November 1947 (Note: Resolution 181) and 11 December 1948 (Note: Resolution 194) and taking note of the declarations and explanations made by the representative of the Government of Israel before the ad hoc Political Committee in respect of the implementation of the said resolutions”). The reality, 74 years later, has not changed: Israel still refuses to fulfil its obligations under any UN resolution related to Palestine, including the very resolution that created the state of Israel.

The extent of loss that Palestinian Christians had during and after 1948 is invaluable. Their properties are well listed in the database of refugee property made by the Palestine Conciliation Commission (PCC), created under resolution 194 and composed of France, Turkey and the United States, back in the fifties. Although assessment of physical loss is important, yet the emotional costs of refugee-hood? The growing up nearby your homeland without even having prospects of returning are as important? How is it possible to keep hope alive?

Standing in Amman looking towards Jerusalem, or in Jerusalem looking towards Amman, you will see a route of almost 70 kilometers full of stories of exile and dispossession, but also of hope. No matter the injustices that have been inflicted upon the land and the people of Palestine, those who planned and executed the Nakba could have never thought that 75 years later the Palestinian people, including every new generation, would still crave  its homeland. The prayers of the Redeemer Church in Jabal Amman still resonate in Saint Paul’s Church of Musrara.

Xavier Abu Eid

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