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 by Dr. Abe Ata, a senior fellow at Melbourne University.

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Like other American, English and Australian religious magazines, yours has tackled the Middle East from every viewpoint but one-that of the Palestinian Christians. Their plight is practically never discussed. At one time, one in five of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine was Christian; now it's about one in fifty. Once Bethlehem was 95% Christian; now Christians are a mere 15%. Why? What brought about this catastrophic decline? On the face of it, the answer is obvious. Christians are leaving Palestine for the same reason that any Palestinian leaves: they see no future. But this does not explain why they are more inclined to leave than their Muslim compatriots.

Part of the reason, it seems to us, is that Christian Palestinians are treated by the West as a non-people. Few outside the Middle East even know they exist. We are reminded of a story told about a group of Western missionaries who travelled to the Levant in the late nineteenth century. They were meeting the elders of a village. On being told that the village was Christian, and not a little dismayed that some other missionary must have got there first, they enquired who had converted them. At this, the elders, clearly bewildered, began to debate earnestly among themselves in Arabic. Finally the answer came back: "Jesus of Nazareth."

With variations, this little tableau is no doubt repeated daily among the thousands of visitors and pilgrims who visit the Holy Land today. It would be amusing if its consequences were not so tragic. More than anything else, it reminds Palestinian Christians that they have been forgotten.  It's hard to maintain your spirits when you are treated with indifference by the only people you can look to for support. Soon, there will be no Christians left, and their churches will become tourist museums sans worshippers.

So as Australians, we ask: Why aren't we doing anything? Why isn't the Christian Palestinian community in Australia speaking up? Why aren't Australian churches speaking up? Why don't other migrant churches voice solidarity as they do with Black South Africans, East Timorese and  oppressed communities in the Balkans? The fact is, the morale of Palestinian Christians is being eroded from all sides. In the West they are ignored. In the Arab world they are increasingly treated with suspicion. And in their ancestral home they are subject to the indignities heaped upon them as a subject population. No wonder they despair.

The fact is, the Levant has been home to many religions since time immemorial. Mostly they have lived side by side in relative harmony. The notion of the ethnically homogeneous nation state is a modern one. It is especially alien to the Middle East, and in our view should remain so. God is not some kind of cosmic real estate agent who grants title to first this religion and then that, just so the new lot can go and evict the old.

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Copyright © 2001 by the author
Originally written: 2001-DEC-
Latest update: 2001-DEC-30
Author: Dr. Abe Ata, a 12th generation Christian academic, who was born in Bethlehem.

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