The hoarse whisper of Christianity

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For all those who feel an affinity for the Holy Land, this pilgrimage in the footsteps of Jesus offers a unique and challenging vantage point.

It delves beyond the tourist sites of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, and other biblical stops along the road into the lives of contemporary Christians who are the faith's "living stones" in those communities. Some are descendants of the early Christian church, the remnant of a minority that has maintained the faith through centuries of Islamic rule and decades of Israeli occupation.

Journalist Charles Sennott embarked on this journey after finding, during his reporting on the Middle East for the Boston Globe, that the region's Arab Christian communities were withering, and in fact, in danger of extinction.

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A century ago, some 20 percent of the population of what is now Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza was Christian; today, only 2 percent are. Sennott set out during 2000 to discover why the communities are disappearing and what it might mean "for living Christianity to be lost in the land of its birth."

"The Body and the Blood" is a powerful and moving narrative of family experiences amid the wrenching shifts of the past 50 years. Valuable and timely, it illumines the human struggles while providing the in-depth historical context essential to understanding today's conflicts - and the emigration that is decimating the community.

Americans know little of the Palestinian experience and even less about Palestinian Christians. This book helps remedy that. It explores the complexities of Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations in Israeli cities like Nazareth, and in the beleaguered Christian-majority towns surrounding Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories. But in tracing Jesus' path, it also ranges into villages in Egypt and Lebanon, offering vivid glimpses into the sources of Muslim-Christian turmoil.

Sennott terms himself "a lapsed Catholic" (his wife is Jewish), but he has come to believe that the Christian presence is important to the Holy Land's future. He sees Palestinian Christians as a buffer, a promoter of nonviolent action, and "probably [an] essential voice in the dialogue for peace, but ... a voice that has been reduced to a hoarse whisper."

One nonviolent action occurred in Beit Sahour, a village near Bethlehem. In 1988, middle-class Christian merchants initiated a nonviolent movement to withhold taxes - taxes illegal under international law but still collected and used by Israel to pay for the military occupation. When time in prison didn't stop the activists, Israel crushed the boycott by imposing heavy fines while seizing and disposing of the equipment, furnishings, and goods from local stores, factories, and even homes.

Sennott's concern for the Christian presence was dismissed by many from the three Abrahamic faiths. Jews and Muslims remain vividly conscious of their own troubled history, from the Crusades to the Holocaust. Even local Christians, while painfully concerned about their dwindling numbers, were reluctant to have the issue raised because it tends to separate them from their Palestinian brothers while they suffer together under occupation. At the same time, as their long nationalist struggle has turned more religious in nature, Christians are experiencing a new threat from Islamic militancy.

One of the particularly poignant aspects of the story is how most Christians from outside the region - except for churches giving aid - have paid scant attention to the presence or plight of their fellow believers. Western tourists, for example, tend to be ignorant of the history of Arab Christians and assume they were converted by Westerners.

Even Pope John II, during his visit in 2000, slighted local churches by canceling a Jerusalem meeting at the last moment. Palestinian youths who had traveled to the pope's talk on the mount of the Beatitudes felt lost in the orchestrated presence of Christian youths from around the world. Their experiences, Sennott suggests, are "an apt metaphor for the age-old experience of Arab Christians: being overlooked by the powers of Western Christendom, caught in a hinge of history between ... the ascendancy of the modern Jewish state and the contemporary rise of political Islam." Recently alerted to the seriousness of the community's decline, Western churches are now searching for ways to help.

"The Body and the Blood" convincingly explores the reasons for the dwindling population, from low birth rate to dire economic conditions and the dangers and humiliations associated with Israeli occupation, escalating violence, and Islamic militancy. What the decline portends for the future, Sennott found more elusive. Since Christians tend to be among the more educated and prosperous, their departure surely depresses local economic prospects.

One might readily conclude that the dragging out of the occupation and peace process has ensured that the eventual Palestinian state will be less oriented toward democratic values than it might have been had so many not been pushed to emigrate.

Certainly for Christendom, the disappearance of living witnesses in the Holy Land could be of great consequence, turning the sacred sites into mere ruins - or theme parks for tourists.

• Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.

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