Some 2 percent of the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza are Christians. Not so long ago they were roughly 15 percent of the Arab population. The rest are Muslims, all Sunnis. What explains the decline? Birth rates, of course. Christians are better educated than Muslims (all over the Middle East), and they know that if you want to raise a productive, truly loving, and educated family, you'd be wise to raise fewer children and give them all more attention.
The other reason that so many Christians have gradually abandoned Palestine is that their living among Muslims was a frightful experience. (Christians began decades back in deserting Iraq, too--at least, those who were not slaughtered.) Now, many Christian clergy have lined up against Israel, because they know that the Jews will not harm them. Moreover, they don't want to and have no reason to. The Christian authorities in the territories (and in Jerusalem) try to pacify the Muslims by joining the ugly chorus against Israel. Although they have been playing this appeasement game for nearly a century, it has done them no good.
Arab nationalism in places like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon was at bottom a secular creation of Christians (and even Jews) as a tactic to ward off a politics of Muslim fanaticism. This started as far back as the middle of the nineteenth century. But, as we know from the history of these three countries, nationalism is no one's primary identification. Sectarian loyalty is. Nationalism came much later to Palestine, where the local Arabs were, in any case, politically backward. In any case, Palestine is a Christian idea. The first really important (also shoddy and romanticized) Palestinian book, The Arab Awakening, was written by an Anglican, George Antonius. Edward Said was an Anglican, and so were the heads of the ultra-Palestinian terrorist organizations. Yasir Arafat pretended to be a Palestinian nationalist. What he was truly was a militant Sunni in modern military garb. Certainly now, Palestinian nationalism, as you can tell just from reading the newspapers, is not exactly a healthy specimen. And its Muslim essence is apparent for all to see. That makes emerging Palestine more frightening to the Christians.
This week, two militant Muslim organizations in Gaza, the Huda Guidance Army and the Army of the Sword of the Right, threatened local Christians with mayhem. Seven churches have already been firebombed. All this in response to Pope Benedict. According to the Jerusalem Post, a group of Muslim clerics warned the Vicar of Christ that he'd have to convert to Islam if his life was to be spared. A leader of the 4,500 Christians in Gaza said that "many of them would like to leave the area out of fear for their lives." And then there would be none.
For all the violence against Christians in Palestine, the rage has been more extreme in other countries. (But this same Gazan clerical group has announced "a day of rage" for this coming Friday. Who knows what will occur then?) In any case, the controversy around the papal remarks will not be stilled quickly. Muslim countries are habituated to blaming the other for their degraded cultures. And now they have the world's most significant Christian in their sights. They won't let him go easily.
In a Los Angeles Times column yesterday, George Weigel added some understanding to the meaning of the controversy:
Can Islam be self-critical? Can its leaders condemn and marginalize its extremists, or are Muslims condemned to be held hostage to the passions of those who consider the murder of innocents to be pleasing to God? Can the West recover its commitment to reason and thus help support Islamic reformers? These are the large questions that Pope Benedict XVI has put on the world's agenda.
You can read the full article here.