The invisibility of Palestinian Christians

In mid-May, Gaza received an unusual visitor, probably one of the most high-profile guests since the beginning of the current war. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierre-Batista Pizzaballa, spent four days in Gaza’s Holy Family Catholic parish, touring the destruction, meeting parish members, and holding mass twice.

The visit was reported by international Catholic outlets and local Palestinian media as “bringing a message of hope” to the population, devastated by Israeli bombings and a genocidal assault that has lasted for eight months.

Pizzaballa’s visit to Gaza could be interpreted as a form of damage control following a wave of discontent among Palestinian Christians at the passive position of church leaders towards the ongoing Israeli genocide. Palestinian Christians belong to thirteen different churches and denominations, but only the bishop of the Latin (Catholic) church has visited Gaza.

The current war has changed many things in Palestine. For Christians, it has been a moment of realization of what many of them describe as their own “invisibility” before the rest of the world. When a building adjacent to the Saint Porphyrios Orthodox church of Gaza was struck by Israeli warplanes shortly before Christmas, the Israeli deputy mayor of Jerusalem said that “there are no churches in Gaza” and “no Christians” when asked about the incident.

This incensed members of the Christian community, but it has also contributed to an overall crisis of representation among Palestinian Christians as a whole, especially when it comes to their representation as part of the Palestinian people and their struggle.

This feeling of invisibility was most keenly in the community back in December when Christmas celebrations were canceled in mourning over the martyrs of the Gaza genocide.

Holy Saturday celebration in Ramallah in Easter the year before, 2023. (Photo: Qassam Muaddi)

The airstrike on the Saint Porphyrios Orthodox church had killed 17 members of the congregation taking shelter inside the church, and later, an Israeli sniper killed another two Palestinian Christian women inside the holy family Catholic parish in Gaza City. 

Amid the shock, Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, posted the picture of his yearly Christmas meeting with the heads of Jerusalem’s churches on his X account. All 13 churches sent their bishops or representatives to Herzog’s office in an annual diplomatic custom that has not attracted much attention in the past. This year was different. It raised a wave of criticism and anger.

The Greek Catholic parish council of Ramallah was the first Christian body to condemn the visit in a statement. The union of Christian institutions and the Palestinian Authority’s official commission for churches’ affairs also condemned it. The outcry was echoed by Palestinians, Muslims and Christians alike, on social media.

‘A very old fight’

In early May, as Easter approached, Christian Palestinians attended the religious services of the holy week’s peak, starting on Good Thursday, with very little signs of celebration. At Ramallah’s Greek Catholic church, religious services started in the morning.

The small group of worshipers responded to their young priest’s melancholic capella singing of Eastern prayers at the lighting of the candles under the sight of the icons of saints. Outside the church, a few congregation members chattered in the parish school’s playground, surrounded by walls decorated with children’s murals, including one of a Palestinian flag.

“I like the Greek Catholic church, not only because I partially grew up in it, but also because it holds the legacy of Bishop Cappucci,” says Samira (not her real name), a 25-year-old law graduate who preferred to remain anonymous, explains to Mondoweiss in a nearby coffee shop after the service.

Bishop Hilarion Capucci of the Melkite Greek Catholic church was the Syrian-born archbishop of Jerusalem in the 1970s. In 1974, Israel arrested and sentenced him to 12 years in jail for helping the Palestinian resistance. Before his arrest, he regularly visited the Ramallah parish and personally took care of the needs of its families, and he was personally known by all of them.

“It has been long since we had a bishop that cares about how we, the regular parish members feel, especially as Palestinians under occupation,” Samira goes on.

“Misrepresentation has been a critical issue for us Palestinian Christians long before this war,” she says as she opens a volume of Biladuna Filastin (Palestine, Our Homeland), the seminal 1965 encyclopedic compendium of Palestinian towns and cities written by Palestinian scholar Mustafa Murad al-Dabbagh.

“Al-Dabbagh describes here the struggle of Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem in the early 20th century, demanding the Arabization of the Orthodox church, which has been hijacked by the foreign Greek clergy with the help of the Ottoman empire”, Samira explains enthusiastically. “This is a very old fight that we are engaged in.” 

The ‘minority card’

Palestinian Christians today represent 1.5% of all Palestinians in historical Palestine, and around 5% of Palestinians worldwide, most of them living in the diaspora.

“Church leaders usually like to use the minority card to paint us as a persecuted community, because this discourse pleases Western church hierarchies,” indicates Samira. “But if we say that we are persecuted as Palestinians, not as Christians, then we are asked to stay silent, or are simply ignored.”

“The problem is that this type of discourse is exactly what makes us a minority, not our numbers. The fact that we are a numerical minority doesn’t matter because we are Palestinians, but when we are represented as a community with no identity, separated from our country’s context, then we become a minority, socially and politically, and this really undermines our place in our society,” she adds.

At night, dozens of families gather at the Holy Family Roman Catholic church in Ramallah for the Good Thursday mass. Before the service begins, the congregation gives a moment to a symbolic gesture. A small group of parish scouts march through the church’s entrance to the front of the altar, holding their troop’s flag and a Palestinian national flag. The young uniformed scouts head to the Virgin’s side-altar and place the flags proudly beside each other.

Flag ceremony during the Good Thursday mass at the Holy Family Roman Catholic church in Ramallah, 2024. (Photo: Qassam Muaddi/Mondoweiss)

Following a reading of Jesus’s last supper and arrest from the gospel, a visiting priest gives a 20-minute-long sermon, without any mention of the current war or the situation in Gaza.

“He spoke about Jesus’s final commandment of love and charity as if it was some abstract concept,” Samira says at the end of the mass. 

“Not as if two million people were suffering just a few dozen kilometers away,” she exclaims angrily, as a young boy walks to the virgin’s altar, picks up the Palestinian flag and spreads it open, looking at it.

Good Thursday mass at the Holy Family Roman Catholic church in Ramallah, 2024. (Photo: Qassam Muaddi/Mondoweiss)

‘We have to figure out what being a Palestinian Christian means ourselves’

Next morning, 15 kilometers northeast of Ramallah, the small town of Taybeh prepares for Holy Friday, the climatic moment of the holy week. Tradition has it that Taybeh was the town mentioned in the gospel of John as “Ephraim,” where Jesus took refuge from authorities before his passion. It is also known to be the last all-Christian town in Palestine.

At her home, Mariam, 29, a local member of the Catholic parish who also preferred not to be quoted by her real name, describes the Easter atmosphere in the small town. “This year, nobody even feels any desire to celebrate. It is a sad moment,” she says. Mariam is an active member and former co-leader of Palestine’s Catholic Christian youth movement, the Jesus Homeland Youth, where she grew her consciousness as a Palestinian Christian.

“Starting in 2018, we began to introduce a Palestinian understanding of Christianity in our youth pastoral activities,” Mariam recalls, “We spoke about Jesus as a Palestinian who belonged to the same culture as our forefathers, and to the people under occupation in this land, studying his example in challenging traditional ideas and standing up for the oppressed.”

“Although all our activities were at the time checked and approved by our supervising priest, we began to receive messages from higher-ranking priests in the Latin Patriarchate, telling us to water down our message and to limit ourselves to strict religious themes,” she says. 

“That’s when I began to understand the gap between us and the institution of the church,” she stresses.

This awareness is not generalized, as Mariam explains. “Many young Christian Palestinians who didn’t live through the hard times of the Intifada have been conditioned to be isolated from the country’s context, living the faith without wondering what it means to be a Christian under occupation,” she says.

“This genocide made a lot of them wake up to the reality that life extends beyond the walls of our parishes, but we don’t find many answers in our church representatives. We have to figure it out ourselves. In my case, I found some help in the writings of Patriarch Michel Sabbah,” she says.

Michel Sabbah was the first Palestinian to be named by the pope as Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1987. All previous Roman Catholic bishops were Europeans. The same year, Palestinians in the occupied territory rose up in the First Intifada. Sabbah became one of the voices who advocated for Palestinian rights from a Christian perspective and became a leading example for later Palestinian theologians.

‘Trapped’ in Ottoman times

At night, the small parish in Taybeh gathers at the Christ Redeemer church to commemorate Jesus’s death. A statue of his laying body is carried into the church by a group of uniformed scouts amidst the beat of a funeral drum. Later, the scouts walk the statue around the church courtyard, followed by the congregation. A group of little girls act as the “wailing women,” dressed in traditional Palestinian peasant dresses.

At the service, besides the parish priest, stands a man in a regular, non-ceremonial priest tunic, sustaining himself with a cane; he is the former Catholic bishop of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah. The next day, at his part-time residency in Taybeh, Sabbah speaks to Mondoweis. Like other Christians, he, too, celebrates “the resurrection” of Christ this year in private.

Holy Friday mass in Taybeh, 2024. (Photo: Qassam Muaddi/Mondoweiss)

“I don’t think that any of the bishops expected the backlash that followed the meeting with Israel’s president at Christmas, which is worrying in itself,” admits Sabbah.

“The yearly meeting is purely diplomatic, and in my first years as patriarch I did not participate in it, because it is held in Jerusalem, which the Catholic church does not recognize as Israel’s capital,” Sabbah explains. “Then, following the Oslo Accords and the beginning of negotiations, I began to participate. It was the atmosphere at the time, but this year the atmosphere was very different because of the ongoing war.”

Holy Friday mass in Taybeh, 2024. (Photo: Qassam Muaddi/Mondoweiss)

“I believe that there is a lack of consciousness among the clergy in the Holy Land’s churches about the political context, due to historical factors,” says Sabbah, explaining the root causes of the Palestinian Christians’ feeling of misrepresentation.

“Palestine hasn’t had the chance of natural development as a country. The self-awareness of Palestinians as a people came amidst a violent conflict, and our church leadership hasn’t yet caught up with this historical, rapid development. In our seminaries, our priests don’t yet receive any training on how to act in such a context of conflict and war,” he points out.

“Our church continues to be trapped in the times of Ottoman rule, where religious communities were isolated entities, represented by religious leaders who even had civil powers, and their flocks had no participation in political life beyond their communities’ affairs,” details Sabbah.

“But this old mindset is not limited to the religious leaders. It manifests in some forms by regular Christians too. For example, regular Palestinian Christians expect the bishops to speak for them as Palestinians and as Christians at the same time, and rarely take the initiative to do just that themselves,” he remarks “We as church leaders can’t do it on our own, and we need secular Christians who engage in Palestinian politics to assert themselves as Christians. That would empower us as religious leaders to represent this sentiment more outspokenly.”

Sabbah also points to the fact that the “invisibility of Palestinian Christianity has allowed some trends of Western Christianity to misinterpret the Bible in service of supporting the occupation.” 

“Christian Zionism is a result, among other things, of the complete absence of Palestine’s Christians from the worldview of Christians in the West,” he adds.

Good Thursday mass at the Holy Family Roman Catholic church in Ramallah, 2024. (Photo: Qassam Muaddi/Mondoweiss)

This worldview is problematic for Mariam as well, who has encountered it directly during her participation in international gatherings of Christian youth. “When you present yourself as a Palestinian Christian, and Western Christians don’t believe you at first, then are astonished that there are even Christians in the homeland of Jesus, you know where Christian Zionism comes from, and you know that we need to be better represented.”

For Samira, the lack of acknowledgment of Palestinian Christians has an even more disturbing side. “Sometimes it feels as if some Western Christians don’t want to see us, or as if they want us to disappear, along with the rest of the Palestinian people, just so that they can reintroduce Christianity to ‘the Holy Land’ the way they like it. Without a native Palestinian identity.”

Qassam Muaddi
Qassam Muaddi is the Palestine Staff Writer for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter/X at @QassaMMuaddi.


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