The Trump administration has made a series of unilateral decisions, including recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital, to gain support from groups of evangelical Christians in the US. Support for these so-called "Christian Zionists" has become one of the pillars of Israeli relations with the US, particularly for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ironically, it is precisely this co-dependency that has promulgated a complete disregard for the interests and welfare of the original Christians – those from the Middle East.
This Easter weekend, thousands of Palestinian Christians will try to get close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. However, even those living in Jerusalem's Old City face numerous restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation. Israel grants a number of permits to visit Jerusalem but freedom of worship should not mean requiring a military permit to be able to pray in the same places that our ancestors prayed in for generations. In some cases, such as with Christians from Gaza, residents are not even eligible to obtain a permit under a regime denounced by Palestinian Christian organisations as discriminatory. Yet these kinds of controls are, for the Trump administration, an example of "coexistence".
It is estimated that about two-thirds of Palestinian Christians became refugees following the Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948. The majority of those that still live in the region are not even allowed to visit Jerusalem for holy celebrations. From Safad in Mandatory Palestine (where there were about 3,000 Christians a century ago); Al Bassa, close to the Lebanese border; to Iqrit, northeast of Acre; Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee; to Ein Karem, the birthplace of Saint John the baptist, one can find memories of ancient Palestinian Christian communities that were forcibly uprooted.
Since 1967, with Israel occupying the remaining 22 per cent of historic Palestine, the Israeli colonial settlement enterprise has focused most of its projects in and around occupied East Jerusalem, building settlements in every possible direction. This is not just a reminder of international law and UN Security Council resolutions (such as 2334, concerning the "flagrant violation" of illegal settlements), but a policy that heavily affects the prospects of a just and lasting peace and assaults the social fabric of Palestine.
The area in and around Jerusalem is the most important for the present and future of Palestinian Christians. But they are witnessing a changing landscape of their lands, to the detriment of descendants of its original people and entirely to the benefit of settlers. Some examples of the reality in the occupied West Bank, in addition to Jerusalem's Old City, include Aboud, an ancient village northwest of Ramallah that hosts the shrine of Saint Barbara, where Israeli settlements have encroached on nearly 30 per cent of the land; the pilgrimage site of the Mount of Olives, today divided by the wall; Beit Jala, reduced to one-third of its original size; and Beit Sahour, the site of the Biblical annunciation to the shepherds, where Mr Netanyahu built the settlement of Jabal Abu Ghneim to "stop Bethlehem from moving towards Jerusalem". This threat became reality, with Israel's colonial project strangling Bethlehem and separating it from Jerusalem for the first time in 2,000 years of Christian history.
In light of increasing threats from Mr Netanyahu about ramping up Israel's annexation of Palestinian territory, as he has been emboldened by the Trump administration’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, the fate of several locations of significance in the Bethlehem area hangs in the balance. They include the Unesco world heritage site of Battir in the West Bank (known as "Palestine: land of olives and vines") as well as Cremisan, a symbol of Christian tradition since a Byzantine monastery was built there. Additionally, Israel’s control over the Palestinian population registry and its systematic policy of revoking the residential status of Palestinians in Jerusalem have been some of the most common concerns that local churches have to deal with as families are divided and more people are pushed into exile.
When US Vice President Mike Pence addressed the Israeli parliament in January last year, his speech was littered with Biblical references to justify support for Israeli policies, angering Christians throughout the Arab world.
“As I stand in Abraham’s Promised Land, I believe that all who cherish freedom and seek a brighter future should cast their eyes here and marvel at what they behold," he intoned at the time. "The people of the US have always held a special affection and admiration for the People of the Book. In the story of the Jews, we’ve always seen the story of America."
The heads of churches in Jerusalem and Pope Tawadros II of Egypt, the head of the Coptic Church, refused to meet Mr Pence during his visit to the region, in protest against US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The conclusion we can draw is simple: this is not about religion but the use of religion for political purposes. Yet the US administration, in addition to a few other right-wing governments in the West, continues to encourage the Israeli government to persist in defying international law. This support was a decisive factor in the Israeli elections earlier this month.
The Holy See has taken a radically different approach. The five visits conducted by Pope Francis to the Arab world, including to the UAE in February, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, have opened a dialogue that does not only deal with commonalities and broader relations between Christianity and Islam but also reiterates the rights of all citizens, regardless of their religion. Along with regional leaders, the Holy See has also reaffirmed the importance of Jerusalem as a holy city that should be open to all, contrary to the Israeli narrative of exclusivity.
The international system is being challenged by those who believe there is a divine mandate to oppress other nations and deny them their sovereign and human rights. There is an urgency to reaffirm the fundamental principle that no holy book can or should be used to justify crimes. The centrality of Jerusalem for Palestine and the rest of the Arab world, Christians and Muslims alike, is unquestionable. The viability of living a robust Christian life in the Holy Land is in direct conflict with what the US administration has done. Ending the Israeli occupation and honouring the rights of everyone in accordance with international law is a basic requirement for prosperity and a lasting peace in the region.
As Michel Sabbah, the former Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, said: “The powerful people of this world, including Israel and the US, must realise that the big sums offered instead of the just solution do not wash away the bloodshed, nor can they replace justice.”
Xavier Abu Eid is an adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organisation's negotiations affairs department