Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land

December 17, 2012 IMEU
Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land


  • Today, there are roughly 200,000 Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land, descendants of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
  • The majority of Palestinian Christians are Greek Orthodox, with smaller numbers of Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Copts, Episcopalians, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Maronites, Syrian Orthodox, and several other Protestant denominations.
  • There are no official figures on the number of Palestinian Christians in the occupied territories, but according to the Lutheran ecumenical institution the Diyar Consortium there are 51,710 Christians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. They are concentrated mainly in East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus, and Bethlehem.
  • Christians comprise roughly 2% of the population of the West Bank, while Gaza's estimated 3,000 Christians account for less than 1% of the coastal enclave's population. While Gaza's Christian population has remained steady in recent years, the number of Christians in the West Bank has continued to dwindle as many emigrate as a result of the difficulties of living under Israeli military occupation. Lower birthrates for Christians have also contributed to their shrinking percentage of the population.
  • According to Israeli government figures, as of 2009 there were about 154,000 Christian citizens of Israel, or about 2.1% of the population. Of those, approximately 80% are Palestinian Arabs, including 44,000 Roman Catholics, while the rest are non-Arab immigrants, mostly spouses of Jews who came from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.



  • The number of violent attacks by Jewish settlers against Palestinians, including Christians, and their property has risen by about 150% each year since 2008, with 154 attacks in the first half of 2012, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • In recent years, settlers have begun so-called "price tag" attacks against Palestinians in response to Israeli government actions that displease them, such as the dismantling of settlement "outposts" (nascent settlements built without official approval from Israeli authorities). Often, such attacks take the form of vandalism and desecration of Muslim and Christian holy sites, including a string of arson attacks against mosques in the West Bank and Israel.
  • In December 2012, Jewish extremists vandalized the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem for the second time, painting "Death to Christianity," "Jesus, son of a whore," and "price tag" on its walls and slashing tires on cars in its parking lot.
  • In October 2012, the St. George Romanian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem was vandalized, its door damaged and garbage dumped in its entrance. It was at least the third act of vandalism against a Christian holy site in the previous five weeks. A week before the Romanian Church was attacked, vandals spray-painted "Jesus is a bastard" and "price tag" on the Franciscan convent on Mount Zion.
  • In September 2012, attackers set fire to the door of the Latrun Monastery in Jerusalem. Believed to be a "price tag" attack, the arson took place a week after the Israeli government evacuated settlers from the Migron settlement "outpost" in the West Bank.
  • In February 2012, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that over the previous two months, vandals had attacked two churches and a Christian cemetery on Mount Zion. In the attacks on the churches, the perpetrators spray-painted "Jesus is dead," "Death to Christianity," and "Mary was a prostitute" on the walls. One of the churches, the Narkis Street Baptist Congregation in Jerusalem, was previously the target of arson attacks in 2007 and 1982.
  • In November 2011, Haaretz reported that ultra-Orthodox Jews were cursing and spitting at Christian clergy in the streets of the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem "as a matter of routine." The chief secretary of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate stated: "It happens a lot. You walk down the street and suddenly they spit at you for no reason." A student at the city's Armenian Seminary complained that he was subjected to insults and spitting from ultra-Orthodox men on a daily basis, stating: "When I see an ultra-Orthodox man coming toward me in the street, I always ask myself if he will spit at me." According to a separate Haaretz article published in February 2012, spitting incidents were so prevalent that some priests had stopped visiting certain parts of the Old City.
  • In June 2012, Dan Halutz, former chief of staff of the Israeli army, which as an occupying military force is ultimately responsible for security in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, said that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasn't really interested in stopping the perpetrators of "price tag" attacks, stating: "If we wanted, we could catch them and when we want to, we will."
  • In March 2012, the Guardian newspaper reported that senior European Union officials had drafted a confidential report concluding that Jewish settlers are engaged in a systematic and growing campaign of violence against Palestinians and that "settler violence enjoys the tacit support of the state of Israel."



  • Christian Palestinians who are citizens of Israel suffer from the same widespread official and unofficial discrimination that other non-Jews do, in everything from land ownership and housing to employment and family reunification rights.
  • There are more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel, directly or indirectly, based solely on their ethnicity, rendering them second- or third-class citizens in their own homeland.
  • 93% of the land in Israel is owned either by the state or by quasi-governmental agencies, such as the Jewish National Fund, that discriminate against non-Jews. Palestinian citizens of Israel, including Christians, face significant legal obstacles in gaining access to this land for agriculture, residence, or commercial development.
  • In November 2010, the influential chief rabbi of the city of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, issued a ruling forbidding Jews from renting property to Gentiles. The following month, some 50 other municipal chief rabbis, also on the government payroll, signed a letter supporting Eliyahu and his decree. One of the signatories, Rabbi Yosef Scheinen, head of the Ashdod Yeshiva religious school, stated, "Racism originated in the Torah... The land of Israel is designated for the people of Israel."
  • In October 2010, the Knesset approved a bill allowing smaller Israeli towns to reject residents who do not suit "the community's fundamental outlook" based on sex, religion, and socioeconomic status. Human rights groupscriticized the move as an attempt to allow Jewish towns to keep Arabs and other non-Jews out.
  • The US State Department International Religious Freedom Report 2009 noted, "While well-known [religious] sites have de facto protection as a result of their international importance, many Muslim and Christian sites are neglected, inaccessible, or threatened by property developers and municipalities."
  • In the occupied territories, Palestinian Christians suffer from the same restrictions, including on movement, applied to all Palestinians living under Israel's 45-year-old military rule. These restrictions do not apply to the more than 500,000 Jewish settlers living in illegal settlements in the occupied territories.
  • According to the US State Department International Religious Freedom Report 2007: "The Israeli Government gives preferential treatment to Jewish residents of the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, when granting permits for home building and civic services."



  • Although Israeli officials frequently claim that Palestinian Christians and Muslims have free access to their holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem and other areas under Israeli control, in reality Israeli restrictions make it difficult or impossible for most Palestinians in the occupied territories to worship freely.
  • Since 1993, Palestinians living in the in the occupied West Bank and Gaza have been forbidden by Israel to enter occupied East Jerusalem without a difficult to obtain permit. As a result, millions of Palestinian Muslims and Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza are prevented from accessing their holy sites in Jerusalem's Old City.
  • In April 2011, 15,000 Christian Palestinians applied for a permit to enter occupied East Jerusalem to worship at Old City holy sites for Easter, but Israel only granted approximately 2,500 of them.
  • According to the US State Department 2011 Report on International Religious Freedom, published in July 2012:

    'Strict closures and curfews imposed by the Israeli government negatively affected residents' ability to practice their religion at holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, as well as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

    'Reports of Christian clergy, nuns, and other religious workers unable to secure residency or work permits increased during the year. Christian advocates claimed that the difficulty of obtaining permits gradually worsened in the last 10 years. Israeli authorities continued to limit visas for Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank or Jerusalem to single-entry visas, complicating clergy travel, particularly to areas under their pastoral authority outside the West Bank or Jerusalem. This disrupted their work and caused financial difficulties for their sponsoring religious organizations.

    'Separately Israel generally prohibited entry into Gaza by Arab Christian clergy, including bishops and other senior clergy to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority.

    'The separation barrier significantly impeded Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and made visits to Christian sites in Bethany and Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who live on the Jerusalem side of the barrier.'



  • There are currently 22 Israeli settlements built on land belonging to Bethlehem, the city where Christians believe Jesus was born, including Nokdim, where recently resigned Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lives. They surround the city and, along with Israel's wall, isolate it from Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.
  • In and around Bethlehem there are some 32 physical barriers to Palestinian movement erected by Israel, including checkpoints, roadblocks, dirt mounds, and gates. As with other Israeli restrictions on movement in the West Bank, Israeli Jews are allowed to bypass them freely.
  • Historically, Jerusalem has been the religious, economic, and cultural center of Palestinian life in the West Bank. Since occupying and illegally annexing the eastern half of the city in 1967, Israel has attempted to separate and isolate East Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied West Bank by building a ring of settlements around its outskirts. As in the case of Bethlehem, this ring of settlements has been reinforced by the wall Israel is constructing, which also separates Israeli settlements in and near East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.
  • According to the 2009 US State Department International Religious Freedom Report: "Many of the national and municipal policies in Jerusalem were designed to limit or diminish the non-Jewish population of Jerusalem."
  • According to Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem: "Since East Jerusalem was annexed in 1967, the government of Israel's primary goal in Jerusalem has been to create a demographic and geographic situation that will thwart any future attempt to challenge Israeli sovereignty over the city. To achieve this goal, the government has been taking actions to increase the number of Jews, and reduce the number of Palestinians, living in the city."
  • In December 2012, the Israeli government announced that it had advanced plans for settlement construction in the so-called E-1 corridor of East Jerusalem, prompting international condemnation, including from the United States, which has long-pressured Israel not to build in E-1. If completed, Israel's plans for E-1 would effectively sever East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and cement the division of the West Bank into separate cantons, making the creation of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories all but impossible.

(See here for a map of Israeli settlements around East Jerusalem and the E-1 plan. See here for a map of settlements surrounding Bethlehem.)