The Holy Fire:
Why Palestinian Christians are dwindling in the Holy Land
JERUSALEM – On the Saturday before Easter, the Holy Fire comes at exactly 2 p.m.
In anticipation, worshipers pack the cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulcher, waiting for the light they believe is a miracle sent by the Holy Spirit. When the priest finally enters carrying the fire, it is passed from candle to candle so quickly it seems instantaneous. Soon the entire church is lit by a warm, orange glow—the candlelight bringing the worshipers’ faces into sharp relief.
Then the doors to the church are unlocked, and the fire is brought out into the streets of Jerusalem. Hundreds of onlookers, candles in hand, stand ready to pass the light. They have been waiting since early morning, and when the doors to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher open, there is a murmur and then a cheer. The Patriarch, the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, processes through the narrow streets of the Old City accompanied by a contingent of scouts, both boys and girls, playing drums and bagpipes. They are carrying the fire along the traditional route to Bethlehem, where runners will then carry it to Christian Palestinian villages around the West Bank and Israel.
As the scouts march, the bagpipes swell, and the pounding of the drums grows so loud it seems to be coming from the center of the earth. The procession squeezes past the throngs of onlookers dressed in their Easter best. This ceremony has likely been practiced this way for over 1,200 years, and it is deeply symbolic for local Christians. They believe they are spreading the light of the Spirit from Jerusalem to the rest of the world. Except much of the global Christian community doesn’t even know they exist.
This Easter, like every year, Christians around the world may hear a short news segment announcing that Jesus’ resurrection is being celebrated in Jerusalem. But few of them will have any image of what that celebration looks like. This disconnect is not surprising considering the deep splits Christianity has gone through over the centuries. But the divide is having a profound effect on Christian Palestinians, who are part of a 2,000-year continuum of the living presence of the faith in the Holy Land. Their numbers are dwindling, while the restrictions they face from living in an occupied land are growing steadily. Christians are now less than 1.3 percent of the Palestinian population living in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, according to numbers from the United Nations. This number is down from 15 percent in 1950.
“Our history is very rich … but the reality that we are living is that we are Christians divided,” said Iyad Twal, a Catholic priest and the director of the Latin Patriarchate schools in the Holy Land.
Over 3 million tourists visit Jerusalem every year, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. But those visitors often have very little contact with Palestinian Christians. A case in point was a recent tour group visiting the Holy Land from the U.S. The group was organized by the Dallas Theological Seminary, and made up of Protestant Christians from a variety of backgrounds.
The group has gathered in the expansive dining hall of the glossy Inbal Hotel, just outside of the Old City of Jerusalem and down the street from the iconic King David Hotel. From the outside, the Israeli-owned luxury hotel looks like a fortress with its imposing white limestone walls constructed at sharp angles.
Inside the hotel, the group is struggling to process the eight days of their journey. They are thoughtful about their experiences, turning them over and over in their minds. For most of them, faith is a deeply cherished part of their lives, and their trip to the Holy Land is a dream they have held onto for decades—the trip of a lifetime. But still many said they couldn’t connect with the holy sites they were visiting.
“It’s been really hard for me,” said Jeremy Allard. His wife bought him this trip as a gift to celebrate his graduation from seminary. But he said he hadn’t been able to engage with the Holy Land on more than just an intellectual level so far. Friendly and talkative, he has close-cropped blonde hair and a disarming smile. From the way he mingles easily with everyone in the group, it’s not surprising he’s a preacher.
Allard hopes this trip will help him visualize the stories of the Bible as they actually happened so he can better convey them to the members of his church. And he’s found the landscapes of the Holy Land deeply moving. But the holy sites themselves have been a little jarring.
“It’s so ornate and it’s become a shrine,” he said about the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. His father, Jim Allard, who was traveling with him, agreed.
“[The church] really has its place in history, but I’m glad Jesus lives in our hearts,” he said. “We don’t have to go someplace to connect.”
The group also had minimal interaction with the people living around the sites they were visiting. Although the company they were traveling with arranged for them to have a Palestinian Christian woman as their guide in the Church of the Nativity, their short encounter with her left little impression, and the only other interaction they had was the few words they exchanged while buying souvenirs on their way out of the city.
“I was in a tour bus in a mini America,” Jeremy Allard said, explaining that he didn’t get any feeling for the culture or the daily lives of the people around him.
For Palestinian Christians like Twal, groups like this one are a missed opportunity. When he was a parish priest, he took every opportunity to arrange trips for tourists to come and stay with local people and see a slice of their everyday life.
He said the landscape is only one part of the story of Christianity.
“We invite our brothers and sisters to come and visit and do pilgrimages to this land, and to visit the stones, but not to forget the living stones,” he said, referring to a passage from the Gospel of Peter. “So they should visit, for example, the Nativity Church in Bethlehem but also not to forget to meet the local Christians.”
Other Palestinian Christian leaders agree. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem wrote that the first time he met with a group of Christians from outside of Palestine they asked him when he converted. They had assumed that Christianity was brought to Palestine by European missionaries, forgetting that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
“I have often watched tourists flocking to the low gate that marks the entrance to the Church. Less than twenty minutes later, I see them coming out, running into the bus, and hurrying on to their next destination,” Raheb wrote in an article for a local magazine. “The Holy Land seems like a Christian Disneyland, with tourists standing in long lines to visit many sites and ancient churches, and pilgrims running where Jesus walked.”
Mitri calls for a more connected kind of pilgrimage that requires tourists to slow down and engage with the people who are living in the Holy Land today. While this sounds idealistic, the future of the Palestinian Christian community may actually depend on it. The tourism sector accounted for 15.2 percent of the Palestinian GDP in 2014, and Palestinians rely on this industry as one of the few sources of employment in the occupied Palestinian territories.
And while most tourists are well meaning but never get below the surface of the holy sites they visit, other groups are directly threatening the local Christian population. In 2010, the New York Times reported that, in the last decade, American non-profit groups have donated over $200 million in tax-deductible gifts to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under both Israeli and international law. Many of those groups are American Evangelical Christian groups.
This unlikely alliance is an attempt by Christian Zionists to show support for Israel, but many Palestinians feel it comes at the expense of the local population, including local Christians. The traditionally Christian town of Bethlehem is now almost completely surrounded by Jewish settlements and hemmed in by the Israeli military. It feels they are choking the lifeblood out of Bethlehem.
“One of the most important challenges before all those working in the tourism industry is to develop itineraries that acquaint tourists with the current realities on the ground as well as the original context of the Bible,” Raheb writes.
But meeting Palestinian Christians, does not only benefit local communities. It deepens the experience of pilgrims as well, easing the feeling of disconnect that some tourists describe when visiting the Holy Land.
“Both sides gain something,” Twal said. “It’s a very beautiful experience for both sides [when pilgrims] come and visit us and see how deep our witness is.”
Cate Malek is an Overseas Press Club Foundation reporting fellow working with The GroundTruth Project.