In 1948, when the nation of Israel came into being, Palestinian Christians numbered about 110,000 in the West Bank and Gaza. Today, writes Newsweek Jerusalem bureau chief Joshua Hammer, the number is about 50,000. According to a recent Newsweek article, about 30,000 of those live in or near Bethlehem, a traditionally Christian city just six miles south of the Old City of Jerusalem. Therefore, as goes Bethlehem, so goes Palestinian Christianity.
These are not unfamiliar facts to CHRISTIANITY TODAY readers. CT has reported on the results of Palestinian Christian emigration under pressure for many years. For example, in a 1998 article, Bishara Awad, the president of Bethlehem Bible College, called the Christian presence "precarious" and wrote that the percentage of Palestinian Christians had dropped from 17% in 1900 to 2% of the Arab population in the Holy Land. Both the numbers and the percentages are alarming. But they do not tell a story. They leave us wondering what has happened and what is happening. If you want to know the story, read Joshua Hammer's new book A Season in Bethlehem, as well as his Newsweek article and Newsweek's online interview.
Here is the picture in broad strokes: For centuries, Bethlehem was a largely Christian city. Despite their minority status among Arabs in the Holy Land, Christians in Bethlehem and neighboring Christian enclaves have had a relatively cordial and calm existence vis-à-vis their Muslim neighbors. Indeed, from the arrival of the Muslim Caliph Umar in 637 until the persecution of Christians began under Caliph al-Hakim in 1009, relations between the Christian and Muslim populations were friendly. In more recent centuries, Bethlehem has been dominated by seven Christian tribes and one ...1