WASHINGTON, Oct. 25 (RNS)--The stories of Middle East unrest and Palestinian-Israeli conflict sometimes seem synonymous with Jewish and Muslim tensions.Often forgotten in the equation are the Palestinian Christians, ahistorically significant group whose numbers have dwindled in the pasthalf-century.
Of the 4 million Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza,fewer than 200,000 are Christians. But those who remain are committed toboth their faith and their land and have made a significant impact onthe situation by fostering ties to Western churches.
"Many American church groups that go on a `Holy Land' tour start outvery pro-Israel," said Don Kruse, former U.S. consul in Jerusalem, whohas led many tours to the region since his retirement. "Once they seethe conditions of the Palestinians and come in contact with Palestinianchurch leaders, they often become much more sympathetic to thePalestinian position."
Kruse was one of the individuals honored last weekend at a nationalconference held in Washington and sponsored by the Holy LandChristian Ecumenical Foundation, a group dedicated to supportingChristians in the Holy Land. The conference brought together Lutherans,Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Melkites and otherdenominations to hear speakers and mobilize support.
Some speakers warned of possible extinction: In 1948 the Christianpopulation of the Holy Land was 18 percent, while today it is less than2 percent. The majority of the Arab population of Jerusalem was Christian in1922. Today it has dwindled to a small minority.
Without an active, ongoing Christian population, the organizationpredicts many of the holy sites will become "museums" instead of activeplaces of worship.
The situation has changed radically from the third century whenConstantine promoted Christianity in the region and Palestine was one ofthe most Christianized parts of the world. Many of the significant sitesof Jesus' birth, ministry and death were located and memorialized atthat time, and Christianity flourished until Muslim dominanceoccurred three centuries later.
Recalling both the history and the current plight, voices at theconference ranged from Donald Wagner, director of evangelicals forMiddle East Understanding, to Drew Christiansen, of the NationalConference of Catholic Bishops. Whatever theological differences mightdivide the groups at other times, they were unified in their concernabout the current situation.
Most were critical of the Israelis.
Said Clovis Maksoud, director of the Center for the Global South atAmerican University and former Arab League ambassador to the UnitedNations, "Being victims of one holocaust does not justify theperpetration of another."
Concern was also voiced about the perceived biased voice of theU.S. media and what was called more than once the "Zionist tendencies ofthe American church."
Cited were such statements as one Franklin Graham made to theAssociated Press in which he was quoted as saying: "The Arabs will notbe happy until every Jew is dead. They hate the state of Israel. Theyall hate the Jews. God gave that land to the Jews. The Arabs will neveraccept that. Why can't they live in peace?"
For the most part, though, the conference called for positivesupport of Palestinian Christians and a return to "values that bind Jew,Christian and Muslim together," according to Dr. Robert Younes, chair ofthe conference.
Craig Barnes, senior pastor of the National Presbyterian Church inWashington, put it this way: "If we do not share in the efforts to stemthe tide of emigration, soon there will be only two or three gathered inJesus' name in Jerusalem."
Noting the church in the West has always been passionate about theHoly Land, he said: "It was never just a tourist site we were trying tohold on to...If we turn from the historical presence of God inJerusalem, we turn from the spiritual presence with us as well...Everything we hold dear about Christianity is on the line."