On travels to the Holy Land, Western Christians are sometimes surprised to meet Arabs who are not only Christian, but whose families have been so from the very first century.
In the Palestinian territories, thousands are Christians, the remnant of a minority that has remained faithful through 1,400 years of Islamic rule and 50 years of Israeli occupation. They have been protectors of the holy sites and contributors in highly significant ways in their communities and throughout the Palestinian diaspora.
Today they are struggling for survival - along with their Muslim brethren amid the intensified conflict of the past seven months, but also as a minority under strong pressures to emigrate.
The Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem, also directs a school and an international center aimed at building civil society and training community leaders. Concerned for Bethlehem's future - and that Americans have failed to realize the urgency of the situation - he came to the United States this week to encourage action.
"In the Bethlehem region, about 400 homes have been partly or fully destroyed by Israeli tanks and Apache helicopters," he says. "And the people - especially the children - are being traumatized."
It is particularly difficult for Bethlehemites, with a Christian community of more than 30,000, to grasp why there has been little outcry from Americans, whose tax monies buy Israeli weapons.
Seventy percent of the city population is now unemployed, he adds, with no social benefits. And in Beit Sahour, a nearby village which had a very low rate of emigration, 70 families have fled under pressures of the shelling.
While a century ago 15 percent of the Palestinian population was Christian, it is now down to about 2.4 percent within the West Bank and Gaza. Should the flight continue, Dr. Raheb has said, sites in the Holy Land will simply become ruins, turned into theme parks for tourists. One of the programs at the International Center of Bethlehem, which he runs, involves "authentic tourism," in which travelers experience local culture and become acquainted with the people and spiritual life of the region. After all, he says, it's the living witness that has the true value.
Another loss from the disappearance of Christians would be the heritage of joint Islamic-Christian coexistence, which Raheb sees as of great import for the future. The Christian community could play a crucial bridge-building role in carrying out any peace agreement, he believes. In his book "I Am a Palestinian Christian," Raheb explores the demand on religious leaders to articulate a theology that promotes peace and coexistence.
But they also need help from their Western friends. Last December, some US religious leaders did join in a candlelight march in Bethlehem that residents undertook to "reclaim our streets and fill them with light," in defiance of the fears caused by the nighttime shelling, Raheb says. More than 2,500 participated, and they are developing other mobilization efforts.
On this East Coast tour he is asking US Christians and others to organize to help "protect Bethlehem from destruction" and "to speak the truth to their congressmen and not be silent."
Many Palestinian churches are engaged in projects with traumatized children, with shoring up hospitals that are overwhelmed and schools that have been damaged. Americans could also support those efforts, he says.
As a pastor, one of his greatest challenges is helping his flock hold on to the "good news" amid such a constant barrage of bad news. He tells of a local contractor whose home was hit several times by shells. As he saw the tanks draw close one night, he became frightened for his family and went to look for his young daughters. He found them praying Psalm 91. "When I saw that, I got courage," the father said. Still, that family has since left for Canada, Raheb adds.
But others stay on and seek to build bridges despite the barriers. Raheb's school, Dar al-Kalima Academy, started a project with Jewish children from Jerusalem to make a film together, telling their stories. With the intifadah, the children could not come. "We're trying to continue through e-mail," he says. "Our kids are making a film and sending it to them, and they will do one and send it to us."
But such efforts will have little consequence unless the occupation ends. What Arab Christians find particularly difficult to understand is that the West with its values could tolerate the occupation of Palestinian territories, but not that of Kuwait.
"Palestine is merely holy," he muses in his book. "Kuwait, on the other hand, is oily."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor