Dr Anthony McRoy
1. Origins of the Palestinian Christians
The Palestinians are the descendants of everyone who ever lived in the land, just as modern Britons are descendants of ancient Celts, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Huguenots, Jews and recent migrants from the Caribbean and south Asia. Indeed, Palestinians are largely of Israelite stock – they are simply culturally Arabised. This is demonstrably true by observing the existence of Palestinian Christians and Samaritans, who clearly did not derive from the Hejaz or Najd. As Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, Director, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Jerusalem, has stated:
The Palestinian Christians of today are the descendants of [the] early Christians... Palestinian Christians of today are the present generation of that great cloud of witnesses to Jesus who came before them and who will, God willing, come after them until Christ comes again. They and their ancestors have maintained a living witness to Jesus and his Resurrection from the beginning of the Church, and they should see themselves dynamically continuing such a witness in the land, witnesses to the Resurrection.
This needs to be asserted over against deceitful ‘Christian Zionist’ propaganda. For example, an extremist body, ‘Christian Friends of Israel’, has repeated the Zionist lie that the Palestinians are the result of ‘large scale immigration of Arabs into Palestine from the surrounding countries that has occurred in modern times.’ Their main source for this dishonest claim is Joan Peters’ volume From Time Immemorial. CFI nowhere acknowledge that the book has been roundly denounced by historians such as Albert Hourani as a ‘ludicrous and worthless book’, and the devastating work of Dr Norman Finklestein, The Protocols of Joan Peters. CFI quote the Hope-Simpson Report in evidence of their position, clearly second-hand from Peters’ work, whereas as Finklestein observes, her references to it are ‘falsified’. Had CFI read Finklestein’s critique, they might have noticed that she regards the term ‘Christian-Arab’ as a contradiction, an ‘Arab propaganda claim’ (p. 250). The Israeli historian Tom Segev notes the origin of this lie: ‘The Zionist Organization also initiated research projects designed to prove that many of the Arabs had arrived in Palestine only recently’. However, Ben-Gurion and other Zionists originally claimed – accurately – that the Palestinians were actually descendants of the ancient Jews. The very fact that there are Palestinian Christians undermines the assertions of CFI, since they are largely not Copts, not Maronites, and obviously not Muslims!
Whereas in 1922 Christians made up 52% of the population of Jerusalem, they now represent just 2.5% of Jerusalemites. More Palestinian Christians born in Jerusalem now live in Sydney, Australia than there are remain in Jerusalem. In all of modern Palestine at the beginning of this century, Christians composed over 20 percent of the population. Today they amount to less than two per cent. Christians constitute about 500,000 of the Palestinians around the globe, there being about 5 million Palestinians. Over 50,000 Christians live in the West Bank and Gaza. There are around 115,000 Israeli Arab Christians. The biggest group is the Greek Catholic Uniates, then the Greek Orthodox, other Uniates including the Latins and Maronites (the latter mainly in the north). There are Episcopalians (Anglicans), an ancient Armenian community that was reinforced by refugees from the 1915 genocide, and there are also Assyrians, Copts, and Protestant groups such as Baptists and Pentecostals.
2. Palestinian Christian History
Palestinian Christians played a great role in Church History. The great Christian Apologist Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), who endeavoured to both bridge the gap between Greek philosophy and Christianity and also to dialogue with Jews was a native of Neapolis, modern Nablus. Assyrian Christians trace their conversion to Addai, who was a Palestinian. The world’s first monastery was founded in 190 in Gaza by Helarion. Caesarea in Palestine was the venue for an important theological study centre, a catechetical school. Amongst those who graced it were the famous theologian of the early church Origen and Jerome, the great translator of the Bible. Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339) wrote the first major history of the Church, The Ecclesiastical History. Palestine has a long history of providing martyrs as demonstrated by Eusebius’ history of the events of the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Diocletian entitled The Martyrs of Palestine.
Palestinian Christians suffered persecution and the destruction of churches again in 614-628 when the Persians captured Palestine from the Byzantine Empire. The Persians set up an self-governing Jewish polity which helped implement this policy. The Byzantine conquest was short-lived, for the Arab Muslims captured Jerusalem in 637. Sophronius, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, handed the keys of the city to Caliph Umar. The Caliph promised religious liberty, security and access to the holy places. Christians were exempted from paying taxes. The Palestinians were gradually culturally Arabised, but Islam did not become the majority religion until the 13th century. During the Crusades, Palestinian Christians fought against the invaders alongside the Muslims and Jews. Salah ad-Din recaptured Jerusalem in 1187, and restored the Greek Orthodox churches to their original owners from the Frankish Catholics.
To this we may add a modern Palestinian Christian martyr - Alex Odeh. Odeh, 41, who migrated to America in 1972, receiving citizenship in 1977, was Southern California Regional Director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). On October 11, 1985, a powerful pipe-bomb trip-wired to office door, killed him and injured seven others. According to press reports, FBI investigators identified three members of the US Jewish Defense League - Robert Manning, Keith Fuchs, and Andy Green - as the chief suspects in Odeh’s killing. They fled America to the extremist West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba near Hebron. Manning was later extradited on a separate charge, the extradition-terms believed to prevent his prosecution on the Odeh case. The others are currently Israeli army reservists. ADC has repeatedly met with top FBI officials during the past years: ‘We have been assured that the case has been given “top priority” and that leads … are still being actively pursued. Yet, not one arrest has been made and no one has been brought to justice.’ The National Association of British Arabs regretted that America has not pursued ‘its avowed policy of justice with equal consistency for all its citizens by its refusal to seek the extradition of the murderers of Alex Odeh. This raises the obvious question of whether justice is dependent upon the ethnicity of both the victim and the perpetrators of this crime.’ In Santa Ana, a statue has been erected to Odeh, and ADC established a ‘Humanitarian Award’ in his honour.
The exodus of Palestinian Christians began with the withdrawal of the British mandate forces and the war of 1948. Around 55,000 or 60% of the Palestinian Christian community fled or were driven from their homes, along with 650,000 Muslim Palestinians. As Israel occupied West Jerusalem it was the Christian Palestinians who were disproportionately made refugees. Nonetheless, Christians have been in the forefront of the resistance to Zionist ethnic cleansing and Apartheid. The late George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was a member of the Greek Orthodox church. The academic and Arab league representative Hanan Ashrawi is an Episcopalian. The human rights activists Jonathan Kuttab is an evangelical Episcopalian. Perhaps the most famous Palestinian Christian is the Episcopalian academic, Edward Said.
The Christian villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour have been particularly targeted by the Israeli occupation forces. Churches have been desecrated, as happened recently at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, where in a demonstration of Christian-Muslim co-operation between Palestinians, the church gave sanctuary to Muslim mujahideen. Zionist attacks on Palestinian Christians is nothing new. There are two books published in recent years by the Palestinian Melkite priest Elias Chacour, who comes from Biram in Galilee, Blood Brothers (1984) and We belong to the Land (1990). He confirms a story not even the Israelis dispute, but which never gets mentioned by Christian Zionists. Biram and Ikrit were two Christian villages that submitted to Israeli rule in 1948. Israeli soldiers asked them to move out temporarily, but after the armistice refused to let them return. Despite receiving a Supreme Court decision allowing their return in 1952, the military obstructed this and dynamited the entire two villages, whose land was then handed to Jewish settlements. Golda Meir, whilst Premier, rejected their right of return, (even though the Supreme Court again found in their favour in 1972), on the grounds that ‘the villagers were gentiles - Maronite and Greek (Melkite) Catholics. Their lands were now occupied by Jewish immigrants. Allowing the original residents to return and rebuild, she noted, would therefore be an erosion of Zionist values.’ Thus ‘Zionist values’ involved dispossession and anti-Arab discrimination. A proper response for Britons is if their towns could be twinned with Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.
The greatest threat to a continued Christian presence has been the racist and sectarian policies of the Zionist regime which are resulting in increasing Christian emigration. Rev. Sizer has noted that the emigration rate of Palestinian Christians is twice that of Muslims, simply because they tend to be better educated, receive sympathetic treatment from Western governments or have relatives already living in the West. Muslim Palestinians are more likely to have family connections in other parts of the Middle East, whereas Christian Palestinians are encouraged by Israel to emigrate to America, Canada or Australia, where they have historically received a sympathetic reception. Consequently the new diaspora of Palestinian Christians who have integrated into Western society act as a magnet for others seeking a more secure future than possible under Israeli military occupation.
Ominously, he records a study undertaken recently by Bethlehem University revealed that a further 20% of Palestinian Christians plan to emigrate in the near future. He continues:
Emigration is, according to many, entirely a consequence of the antagonistic and repressive actions of the Israeli authorities. The bombing and then occupation of the Christian villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour have merely increased that flow. It is also the systematic policy of the Israeli government to remove the residence permits of Jerusalemite Palestinians when ever possible. It has become a one way revolving door that allows them out but denies them re-entry. Israel achieves this depopulation of East Jerusalem by denying or removing the residence permits of Palestinians forced to work in other parts of the West Bank or who leave temporarily to study, visit family members or marry abroad.
Should this trend continue, only the Christian buildings of Palestine will be left – provided the Zionist regime does not destroy them. The situation is not helped by Christian tourism, which bolsters the Israeli economy. This is especially unethical since the airport at which they land is Lod. Traditionally, the patron saint of Palestine, St. George, was martyred in Lydda. Lod airport is built on the site on the massacre and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Lydda and Ramleh. I have complained to London’s Christian radio station Premier about their organising such tours that land at this airport and thus desecrate the memory of the victims of this massacre, but to no avail. It is just like the Serbs establishing an airport on the graves of the victims of Srebrenice, or Al-Qaida doing likewise at New York’s Ground Zero. Conversely, a general boycott of the regime could encourage Palestinian Christians to stay and even return.
3. ‘Christian’ Zionism
It is frequently a focus of pro-Zionist propaganda to portray the Palestinian struggle against ethnic cleansing, Apartheid and for self-determination as an Islamic plot. So-called Christian Zionist propaganda is especially keen on this. Last year I received a letter from a Christian supporter of Zionism objecting to an article I wrote in a Christian magazine about the Intifada:
May I also suggest you read the Scriptures and take your stance from there and not from Islamic adherents who hate the Jewish nation. What makes you as a Christian want to spread Islamist propanganda [sic]about God’s people?
She sent me this piece from a leading Christian Zionist: ‘The PLO is an Islamic terrorist organization.’ Which must come as news to His Excellency Afif Safieh (a Catholic) or Hana Ashrawi (an Anglican). – ‘the PLO may be secular but they are profoundly influenced by Muslim incitement and Muslim doctrines.’ How are Palestinian Christians in the PLO ‘profoundly influenced by Muslim incitement and Muslim doctrines’? If it is simply fear of Islam that explains Zionist oppression, how come Palestinian Christians are treated equally badly? Similarly, the so-called ‘International Christian Embassy to Jerusalem’ states the following:
The Islamic claim to Jerusalem, including its exclusive claim to the Temple Mount, is in direct contradiction to the clear biblical and historical significance of the city and its holiest site, and this claim is of later religio-political origin rather than arising from any Qur’anic text or early Muslim tradition...
A newsletter published in 1987, for example, listed five ways in which the ICEJ supporters could ‘come against the spirit of Islam’. Patrick Goodenough, of the ICEJ’s Middle East Digest responded to a critical report published in the Church of England Newspaper, with the following,
Corley speaks of the local churchmen who are critical of the ICEJ’s ‘political interpretations of Scripture’. Point: many Palestinian clergy have long used the Scripture to back their pro-PLO positions. They have stood quietly by as Yasser Arafat labelled Jesus ‘the first Palestinian revolutionary’ and - as recently as March - while his followers erected three crosses at a protest site in Jerusalem. We hear no church voices decrying such blasphemous abuse of the symbols of our faith by the followers of another.
Neil Cohen, vicar of Christ Church, Jerusalem, said this in a recent public debate with Rev. Dr. Steve Sizer:
Partnership of Jew and Arab is untenable in Israel... we live in an age of political correctness which claims we live in a world where all people have equal rights. I don't agree with that because I don't think it squares with the biblical record... the search for peace in the Middle East, laudable though it is, is a wild goose chase.
In his book The Uniqueness of Israel Lance Lambert, one of the best known Christian Zionists, discusses the ethnic background of the Palestinians, and acknowledges that many of are Israelite descent. However, this is not good enough for him, because, he says, they have interbred with the ‘seed of Ishmael’. Let us be clear what he is saying. Because the Palestinians are of mixed ancestry, he feels they have no right to live in Palestine. The logic of his position is that their Israelite ancestors effectively ‘demoted’ themselves by engaging in an inter-ethnic marriage, even if those ancestors were Jewish Christians who married Gentile Christians.
Christian Zionists tend to ignore Palestinian Christians because it undermines their Islamophobic propaganda. They ignore that Arab nationalism was expressed in ‘Muslim-Christian Associations’, and a leading Arab Christian, Sakakini, ascended the al-Aqsa pulpit to protest a visit by Balfour. They also ignore that Zionism was also a sectarian ideology: ‘In another incident, the editor of Do ‘ar HaYom … was put on trial for slandering the Christian religion… Hans Herzl, the son of the founder of the Zionist movement, had converted to Christianity. Do’ar Ha Yom commented that, unlike Jesus of Nazareth, Herzl’s son was at least not a bastard’, (what do Christian Zionists make of that?).
Don Wagner, a leading US Evangelical critic of Christian Zionism, denounces ICEJ without reservation: ‘Thus the ICEJ is a pseudo-Christian movement that attempts to baptize a modern political ideology with some Scripture and revisionist Christian dispensational theology’. It is noteworthy that when the Palestinian human rights activist Elias Chacour met anti-Apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in 1986, the latter informed the former that the situation of Palestinians was worse than that of Black South Africans – something he would not have said lightly. Professor Yvonne Haddad observes that the Israeli state insists ‘on Jewish identity as a prerequisite for citizenship ….not only bans the return of Palestinian gentiles to their homeland, but also restricts its Christian and Muslim citizens to specified living areas and limits their access to resources which are monopolized and confiscated by the state (such as education, water, and land).’ Hence, the Law of Return applies only to Jews; a Jew from London can immediately migrate to Haifa or even the West Bank; an Israeli Arab, born in Haifa, if he emigrates, can never return, even if he served in the army and was decorated for bravery – even if he saved the life of the Prime Minister.
Sizer notes how the International Christian Embassy works closely with the Israeli government, even lobbying the US Government on the latter’s behalf. Essentially, the International Christian Embassy, and Christian Zionists in general, fulfil the same role the Dutch Reformed Church performed for South African Apartheid – providing a theological justification for state-instituted racial discrimination and dispossession. Christian Zionists are the Dutch Reformed Church of Israeli Apartheid. In the Old Testament, permanent resident aliens were equal citizens - Leviticus 19:10, Deuteronomy 21:10, N.B: 24:14 – God commanded one law for both, something clearly not practised by the Zionist regime. God condemns oppression of the alien - Jeremiah 7:6, Malachi 3:5. The Covenant was for all humanity - Genesis 12:3ff, 2 Samuel 7:19. All men are descended from Adam. In the New Testament, there is a higher resolution of this – there are no aliens; Ephesians 2:11-16 - Christ unites humanity - He reconciles Man to God and men to each other.
Theological Racism – such as Christian Zionism – is a denial of reconciling work of Christ. In Christ, all are one; racism seeks to divide Man, and because of this, and because of Peter’s revelation that God has no ethnic favourites, Acts 10:34, racism is both sin and ‘Christian’ racism is heresy. In the past ‘Christian’ racism employed Genesis 9:20-25 – the curse on Ham to justify anti-Black racism, and Mt. 27:25 to further anti-Jewish racism. Anti-Arabism is the last acceptable theological racism, specifically perpetrated by Christian Zionists. Biblical texts concerning Ishmael are wrenched out of context to excuse anti-Arab oppression. Where all forms of theological racism fall is that Man is made the image of God, Genesis 9:5-6. Since Man is the image of God, to attack Man on the basis of his humanity – as racism does - is to attack God, and is therefore sinful. Christian Zionism is guilty of this, by attacking Arabs for what they are, and thus is sinful and heretical.
4. Biblical perspective on the Land
On the question of land in theological terms, it was always the will of God to dwell among His people; the Covenant formula - ‘I will be their God, they will be My people, and I will dwell in their midst’ - demanded it, and it was the purpose of the Exodus - Exodus 29:46. This place was sanctified because of theophany - the manifestation of God; this is seen in the theophany to Moses, Exodus 3:5 and to Joshua, and in Joshua 5.15, where the ground is sanctified because of the Divine Presence. Likewise, the Land of Canaan was sanctified because it was elect of God and indwelt by Him. Zion was the Place from which He reigned, and in terms of His Elect, this reign demanded and exerted moral transformation - sanctification, the Life of God, the quality of life demanded by Him.
The Promise of the Land is an integral part of the Covenant-oath, and it plays an important role in prophecy, e.g. in Jeremiah 7:7, especially when subsumed under the Earth, Isaiah 66:22, etc. The message of the Prophets is that worship must be holy and this means it must be accompanied by ethical conformity to the Law of the King, which of course, is only to be accomplished through regeneration; life in the Holy Land - i.e. in the divine Presence, which is the Holy Spirit, is dependent on this quality of Life, and conversely, the Land is the key to covenant-life in God for the corporate Body of the Elect. Indeed, the Land of Promise is thus equated with Life and the Holy Spirit: the Promise of Land is the Promise of the Spirit is the Promise of Life. Hence, in the New Testament, references to the Spirit sometimes employ the terminology of Land - e.g. Ephesians 1:13-14 (promise, inheritance, possession), or Matthew 25:46 - the righteous enter into the renewed earth - the Place of eternal Life, and the Promise is equated with eternal life - 1 John 2:25. In the New Testament, the Land is expanded to include the entire globe, and heaven is also spoken of as our inheritance. Ultimately, all of this is subsumed under the New Heavens and New Earth, the dwelling-place of ‘righteousness’ - - dikaiosyne, Hebrew tsedeqa - not only forensic conformity to divine standards, but the ‘right order’ - the Reign of God. Thus the New Earth is the Holy Land in the Final State.
The touchstone of error is the person and work of Christ. In Christ, all promises are fulfilled - 2 Corinthians 1:20, Galatians 3:16. He is the substance of Old Testament rituals and the Old Testament is fulfilled in Him, Matthew 5:17. Essentially, human beings only inherit the promises to Abraham through their union with Christ, Galatians 3:26-29, which is through regeneration and the obedience of faith. All Old Testament prophecy and its promises pointed to Christ, and depended upon Him. He is the unique eschatological Seed of Abraham, - Galatians 3:16 makes it clear that the promises were made to the unique Seed, not to the multitudinous offspring. People become the heirs of Abraham through participation in His work, v29. Since Christian Zionism dilutes Christ’s unique position this by ascribing the promises to someone – or rather a number of people – other than Jesus alone, and does so on the basis of race rather than faith in Christ alone, it is guilty of heresy.