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Gone from the Galilee: The Christian residents of Igrit were ordered out of their homes in November 1948
For a few days this May, the little town of Bethlehem faced a publicity onslaught. Quiet alleyways and subdued streets became a bustle of activity. Seemingly every wall in the town centre was adorned with posters, signs and giant photographs, as pilgrims and press from all over the world flocked to the West Bank city to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis on his first official visit to the Holy Land. Itineraries were scrutinised for political bias, detailed discussions over the wearing of religious insignia were held, while religious tourists and curious onlookers cheered and posed for numerous selfies. Yet, among the Pope's core constituency, the local Christians, there   was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for the visit.

"The Pope is not coming for us, a shopkeeper tells me bitterly, dozens of strings of the rosary beads he sells jangling on his wrists. "He is coming for the Muslims. He gives them legitimacy, not us, by coming here. I'm going crazy here, I don't like it. Tell me, why doesn't the Pope give legitimacy to us?"

What possible legitimacy could be needed for the Christians who live in the town celebrated every Christmas by church congregations and choirs the world over?  The reality for Christians in the West Bank today is far removed from greetings card images. For one thing, they are disappearing.

While Bethlehem remains the most populous Christian city in the West Bank, its Christian population, as in the West Bank generally, is shrinking dramatically. Only 50 years ago, Christians constituted 70 per cent of Bethlehem's population. Today they make up just 15 per cent. Christians number approximately 38,000 people in the West Bank, representing 2 per cent of the population.

"We used to be many. Now there are so few of us left. Everyone is trying to leave," says Samir, another salesman in a neighbouring shop selling Orthodox icons. Worrying about the consequences of complaining about the situation, Samir declined to use his real name.

"My mother doesn't like to walk in the street at night because her hair is uncovered, and people come up behind her and make rude comments," he tells me. During Christmas celebrations last December, women in their twenties on a visit from London with their parents and siblings complained of being harassed by a gang of male youths as they stood watching a festive performance in Manger Square. The gang did not desist until some local women came to stand nearby and told the boys to stop.

Everyone agrees that economic hardship and the low birthrate of the Christian community are the primary causes for decline. Yet in recent years Christians in Bethlehem also complain of a growing climate of intimidation from Islamic extremists.

"We announce to the nation joyously that with the grace of God the ideology of global jihad has attained a foothold in the West Bank, after everyone had tried to abort every seed planted there," stated the message from the Mujahideen Shura Council, an al-Qaeda-linked group as it declared its presence in the West Bank last December. Three of its members were killed by the Israeli Shin Bet (security service) after they were suspected of planning a terror attack.

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Getovah Yusef
August 14th, 2014
1:08 AM
Every such description is similarly limited, 'European' for example. That doesnt mean it doesnt have perfectly sufficient validity for the purpose to which it is being put does it?! Notwithstanding heterogeneity within the Arab world there is also a significant amount of shared culture which the word 'Arab' signifies such peoples as sharing. Therefore if you dont want to use the word 'Arab' then youre going to just have to replace it with a new word arent you! Just because it is possible to misuse 'Arab' to mean something more than it can legitimately mean, doesnt mean that all uses are therefore mistaken or 'contentious'. If you think that this article misuses the word then didnt it occur to you to mention where and in what way? 'Arab' doesnt 'technically' mean someone who is from the Arabian peninsula or who is Bedouin, it can perfectly technically mean someone who is a member of the pan-ethnic group 'Arab'. How about Nasser, was he a Western imperialist?

July 16th, 2014
5:07 PM
The denomination Arab is highly contentious. Its use is western imperialist in origin and retains pejorative overtones. Few Arabic speakers use or even like the term. Technically an "Arab" comes from the Arabian peninsula or is Bedouin. Maronites, for example, are arabized Aramaeans and not ethnically Arab. In Egypt many dismiss the Arab label as ahistorical and inaccurate. The further west one goes calling people Arab becomes even more inappropriate as it can signify an ethnic supremacy. Arab as a signifier of bland homogeneity, forced Islamization and Arabization should be challenged. Father Nadaf is a brave man indeed but many in the so-called Dar-al-Islam share his worldview and risk their lives accordingly.

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