In the last few years, I taught a course at Bethlehem Bible College on persecution. The church worldwide experiences persecution, the Middle East and the Holy Land among them. One of the source materials used was Standing in the Storm provided by Open Door Ministries. We defined persecution as any sort of discrimination due to one’s Christian identity. The sources of persecution evaluated are: social, economic, physical, religious leaders, government/authority, street gangs, and family. As part of the course, I asked my students to conduct a preliminary study on various types of perceived persecution Palestinian Christians experience and their subsequent response: prayer, meeting other Christians, violence, depression, isolation, and running/emigration. We evaluated the correlations according to gender, location and denomination.
Palestinian sociologist Bernard Sabella administered excellent surveys on this topic in the past 20 years, but for the most part, surveys on Palestinian persecution are conducted by various foreign or Israeli journalists. When journalists look into this issue, they often bring their political leanings and presuppositions to the table, and their ideology is reflected in their findings. This survey is different as it was conducted in Arabic by local students that studied persecution. When Palestinian students speak to their peers, the anonymous respondents are able to answer freely and honestly, without worrying what a foreign journalist or interviewer might want them to say.
We surveyed over 300 Palestinian Christians in various cities in the West Bank as well as East Jerusalem. While there are limitations to a survey of this number of people from a statistical point of view, 300 respondents can give a good indication of the trends and people’s reactions. Administering surveys in Nablus, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, we assessed perceived persecution on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 indicating no perceived persecution to 5 indicating a high level of perceived persecution.
Some of our findings were expected (see Table 1). Those who live in Christian cities or cities with a large Christian presence such as Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour experience low persecution from authorities and in the economic and social spheres whereas those without a large Christian minority or majority presence report higher persecution (namely in Nablus, Ramallah and Jerusalem). We found that, overall, Nablus has the greatest amount of economic persecution as well as persecution from authorities. It also rates quite high in social persecution, but Jerusalemites suffer the greatest social persecution, with high numbers from authorities as well. Ramallah residents face high economic persecution. In the towns and cities with greater Christian influence, the numbers are quite low indicating relatively little persecution, although the survey shows that when persecution is felt, it is from the social sphere, followed by religious leaders, then authorities. Nablus and Ramallah are predominantly Muslim, so it is expected that Christians feel more pressure in these areas, but our findings show a need for further research in these cities.
Table 1: Place and Type of Persecution
While there is not a big difference in perceived persecution in the West Bank and Jerusalem, it is alarming to see that Jerusalem under Israeli control ranks quite high in discrimination from social and authority spheres, much higher than we see from most respondents under the Palestinian Authority. Economic pressures are higher in the Palestinian Authority, but this has to do with the limitations imposed by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the ongoing conflict.
When we looked at the numbers by gender (Table 2), females experience the most social and then economic persecution, followed by authorities, religious leaders and family. Women’s highest response to persecution (Table 3) is prayer followed by meeting other Christians. Overall men experience the highest social persecution followed by economic, authorities, religious leaders and family. Their response mirrors that of the females, as they often turn to prayer and meeting with other Christians to cope with their difficult situations. Males experience more persecution than females, but the females more frequently respond through prayer and meeting other Christians. Males turn to emigration or violence much more frequently than females. Overall it is uncommon for Palestinian Christians to suffer physical persecution or street gangs, although when this does happen, it often happens to males.
Analysis of the denomination and the type of persecution suffered reveal some interesting results (Tables 4 and 5). Palestinian Christians from the Latin Church face the most economic persecution. Further research is necessary to understand the reasoning behind this. The way they deal with this situation is often through prayer, followed by meeting with other Christians. Evangelical Palestinians encounter the highest social persecution and family persecution. The way they cope is most often through meeting with other Christians, closely followed by prayer. For the Evangelical respondents, persecution from their family is often due to the fact that they leave the Catholic or Orthodox Church when they become Evangelical.
Overall, those who face the strongest economic persecution often respond with running/emigrating or violence. Those who encounter the highest social persecution often feel the need to run/emigrate or react violently. When faced with discrimination from authorities, respondents most often react with violence, followed by the need to run or emigrate. Those who face family persecution often feel very isolated.
There is a heated debate surrounding the causes of Palestinian emigration. Israelis and pro-Israeli Christian organizations often attribute emigration to radical Islam, yet in Palestinian circles, emigration is often viewed as a result of the occupation, and the lack of opportunities available to Christians in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. While this survey is not extensive, it identifies some sources of persecution, and it can help us address this debate. According to our survey results, Palestinian Christians run/emigrate due to economic and social pressures.
These findings are instructive and informative. Knowing the sources of perceived persecution and coping mechanisms of Palestinian Christians can help us understand how to meet their needs. This survey can help church leaders in their pastoral care and Christian institutions and organizations to understand and address the phenomenon. It is encouraging to note that isolation is not a chief response to persecution, and people are turning to prayer and meeting with others. At the same time, perceived persecution can influence Palestinian Christians’ relationship with Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims, and can have a negative impact on their ability and desire to be a witness in society. As Palestinian Christians suffer primarily from economic and social persecution, we need to think creatively about how to relieve some of these pressures, particularly in the cities and churches that are most affected.
By Salim J. Munayer
Edited by A. Ben-Shmuel
While this was our working definition in our religious context, persecution is more generally defined as “the illegitimate infliction of sufficiently severe harm.” See Rempell, Scott, Defining Persecution (October 8,2011). Utah Law Review, Vol. 2013, No. 1, 2013.
It is important to note that anytime persecution is mentioned throughout, it is perceived persecution. It is important to understand why individuals feel persecution, but measuring actual persecution requires further study and evaluation of the sources. That said, what these respondents perceive as discrimination does not diminish the importance and relevance of their answers.