Bethlehem, Palestine—The third and fourth sessions of Day Two of the Al-Liqa’ 29th Annual International Conference focused on the reality of Christians in the Middle East.
The two-day conference of the Al-Liqa’ Center for Religious, Heritage and Cultural Studies in the Holy Land, which was co-sponsored by UPF, was titled “The Reality of the Church and Christians in the Middle East.” It was held in the Convention Palace in Bethlehem.
Approximately 60 people participated in person, and in addition, there were about 25 views online.
The final two sessions took place on November 26, 2022, the second day of the conference.
The moderator was Dr. Waleed Shomali, the chair of the International Conferences Committee of Bethlehem University.
Dr. Qustandi Shomali, a professor of Palestinian Literature, Journalism and Translation at Bethlehem University, Beit Sahour, spoke on “Christians in the East: Reality and Challenges.”
He remarked on the historical context and development of the Christian population in the Arabic region.
Although Syria later changed, it used to have many churches, Dr. Shomali said. A good portion of the population were Christians, many of whom worked in literature, made dictionaries, translations, worked in schools, and were prominent during the Arab Enlightenment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
At the time, many educated Christians were pioneers, in that they introduced secularism to Arab countries and presented the idea of “pan-Arabism.” They wanted the region to be unified not based on religion but on language and joint history.
In the past decade, there was a sharp decline of the Christian population in the region, due to migration. This has prompted the Church to take a more active role in facilitating job opportunities for young Christians in particular and the general public in general.
Funding for most churches comes from abroad, Dr. Shomali said. While this does support their functioning, in a way it also stifles the ability of the church to manage its own assets, which, if used properly, would be sufficient for the church to be independent of foreign aid.
Dr. Bernard Sabella, the director of the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees of the Middle East Council of Churches, Jerusalem, spoke on “Relation of the Political Regime with Christians in the East.”
The spread of terrorist organizations in the region has had a major role in the displacement of the Christian population in Syria, Iraq, and other nations, he said.
During the spread of the Islamic State (ISIS), in addition to the terror and violence that religious minorities suffered, their properties were stolen, Dr. Sabella said. Though a lot is being done to return these properties to their original owners, this is a slow process.
On the other hand, he said, the constitutions in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and other countries recognize the rights of Christians, including their right to practice their faith.
One good example of this is that under Yasser Arafat’s presidency of the Palestinian National Authority, a Christian became the mayor of Bethlehem, even though the majority of the population were Muslim.
In Iraq, the right to educate people in their own mother tongue is safeguarded.
Syria’s constitution says that although the president of the country should be Muslim and the laws should be based on Islam, the rights of people of other denominations should be respected as well. There are no differences under the law for any people. Just as Islamic courts exist, so do Christian courts.
The moderator was Ibtisam Muallem, chairperson of the Arab Association for Human Rights.
Ziad Shlewet, journalist, writer and editor of the Sunnara newspaper, Shefa-amr, spoke on “Identity and Ethnicity: Manifestations of Christian Fragmentation,” basing his report on a series of surveys he had conducted.
A major issue disrupting the cohesion of the Christian population is a fragmentation of the Church itself, he said, such as using different dates for holy events such as Jesus’ birth and crucifixion.
The first result of the survey was in regard to emigration, where currently 28 percent of youth want to emigrate, which is half as much as in the 1990s.
In Galilee, only 5 percent of Christians actually go to church, while most of the rest are Christians in name only.
Differently from the past, Palestinian Christians in Palestine identify as Christians first, before identifying as Palestinians or Arabs. In Israel, though, Palestinian Christians identify as Palestinians or Arabs first, then as Christians.
Further, Mr. Shlewet mentioned that there are some new denominations that are drawing people away from the traditional churches, such as Zionist Christians, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others.
Another issue that is impacting the Church is the fragmentation of the family, Mr. Shlewet said. The rising divorce rate affects not only children but also the isolation of family members from the Church.
Dr. Charlie Haddad, the director general of the Evangelical Lutheran Schools in Palestine, Jerusalem, spoke on “Changing the Christian Reality for the Better: Role of Educational Institutions.”
In his talk he focused on the Christian schools he directs and some of the main projects being implemented.
These schools have been operational for a century and a half, in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and other locations, with a variety of schools, starting from kindergarten.
The main focus of these schools is the improvement not only of the Christian population but also all of Palestinian society, he said.
They strive to do so with a holistic curriculum that focuses on more than academic education. A student may be skilled academically while lacking social skills, Dr. Haddad explained.
From 1st through 11th grades, pupils experience interfaith dialogue and coexistence, including joint Islamic/Christian classes.
The Evangelical Lutheran Schools, while building a unique curriculum, cooperate with other schools to share the learning of life values that are important in the Palestinian context.
Because pupils often are confused by the contradiction between what they learn at school and what they see at home, ideally there would be schools for families too, Dr. Haddad said. In the meantime, it is hoped that the children will discuss with their families what they learn at school.
Because most values taught by Islam and Christianity are very similar, if not the same, Dr. Haddad said he teaches these values as being necessary for Palestinians.
Lastly, Dr. Haddad noted that values are dependent on time, and flexibility is necessary. We can’t live in the past. To be successful in the future, he said, help from clerics of all religions is necessary.