Who are the Palestinian Christians?

By Father Panayiotis Papageorgiou, Ph.D.

palestinian christian

 Who are the Palestinians? Are they all Moslems? Are they all violent? Why do they all speak Arabic?  These are the questions I want to raise today as the news media are broadcasting the conflict, the violence and bloodshed taking place in the Holy Land. 

 As the violence between the Israelis and the Moslems of Gaza escalates once again, here are some thoughts about the forgotten Christians of the Holy Land sparked by “recent Pilgrimages and conversations”:

During the recent visit of Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch in the Holy Land, in a private conversation captured by the media, the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made a comment to the Pope that “Jesus also spoke Hebrew”. The Pope fired back “Aramaic”. Netanyahu responded: “Hebrew and Aramaic”. The political importance of this exchange lies in the effort of the Israelis to present themselves as the rightful owners of the Holy Land. Netanyahu wanted to emphasize that Hebrew was spoken there even by Jesus who was a Jew, therefore the Holy Land belongs to the Jews. The Jews, in other words, were here first before the others, hence the Holy Land belongs to them. There is a serious problem, however, with the Israeli claim, which has been ignored and never clearly articulated by the media (or even by contemporary historians), as they continue to refer to the inhabitants of the Holy Land as “Palestinians” with no distinction between Christians and Moslems, with no historical reference to the origins of these two groups.

In the news we constantly hear of the political and military clash between the Israelis and the Palestinian Moslem.  As a consequence, most Americans today correlate Palestinians with Moslems and terrorism as the conflict flares up from time to time. In this political and military clash between the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Moslems, the plight of the Palestinian Christians is completely lost. Furthermore, there is a serious flaw in labeling the Christians of the Holy Land (as well as those of Lebanon and Syria) as “Arab Christians”. Any serious historian can quickly affirm that the Arabs who conquered these lands in the seventh century did not embrace Christianity!

So, who are these Palestinian Arab-speaking Christians? Did they come to this land after the Arab conquest or were they perhaps already in the Holy Land when the Arabs came? Again, any serious student of history will be able to quickly tell you that these Arab-speaking Palestinian Christians not only are not Arabs, but they are the indigenous inhabitants of the Holy Land who have their roots in Judaism of the first century and the Early Church and were fully christianized in the centuries following the destruction of Jerusalem (and the final expulsion of the Jews from that area by the Romans in 135 AD), and most especially after the visit of St. Helena and the establishment of hundreds of churches and numerous monasteries in the fourth century. In other words, the people of Palestine were mostly Christian when the Arabs arrived in the seventh century.

It will be easy to also show that not only Aramaic (and Hebrew in the Liturgical setting among the Jews), but also Greek were spoken in most places of the Holy Land from the Hellenistic period until the Arab invasion. My point is that modern Jews may rightly claim the Holy Land as their ancestral home, but the indigenous Christians of the Holy Land have been there continually and uninterruptedly and have their roots deep in that land, at least as deep as anyone who claims to be a Jew today. We owe it to these million and a half forgotten Christians who held the Christian Faith through so much adversity to stand up for them, for they are the biggest victims of the unholy, bloody conflict between the Jews and Moslems in the Holy Land.

Photo courtesy Joe Catron / Flickr Creative Commons

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