Why are Christians leaving Palestinian territories?

Palestinian family in refugee camp Credit dominika zarzycka Shutterstock cna Palestinian family in refugee camp. | dominika zarzycka/Shutterstock

A new survey of Palestinian Christians reveals that many not only fear economic hardship and the annexation of their land, but are also concerned about the attitudes of their Muslim neighbors.

The survey, supported by the Philos Project, seeks to shed light on the daily challenges and difficulties of Palestinian Christians and delve more deeply into their concerns.

"That's one thing that the Christians in the West have to hear, is that try to go deeper when you come to the region, than just speaking to the clerics," Khalil Sayegh, a Palestinian Christian and advocacy fellow with the Philos Project, told CNA.

"Go to the actual folks, go to the actual people and talk to them," he added, "actual marginalized Christians who need to be heard."

The survey of 995 Christians was supported by the Philos Project, a group that advocates for Christians in the Near East as part of a broader goal of religious pluralism in the region and of educating Western Christians on their situation.

The group's executive director Robert Nicholson explained that emigration of Christians from Palestine had been a concern of his "for a long time."

The survey, he said, stemmed in part from a conversation with a senior official of the Palestinian Authority about the alarming trend of Christians leaving the region. Pollster Dr. Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) conducted the study.

Palestinian Christians are twice as likely as their Muslim neighbors to emigrate, the Philos Project says.

Christians as a share of the population in Palestine have dwindled in the last century, falling from nearly 10% in 1922 to 6% in 1967, to just 1% of the population in 2020. According to a 2017 Palestinian Authority survey, there are 46,850 Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While it is well-known that Christians are leaving the region, the survey aimed to figure out why, Sayegh said.

Unsurprisingly, many Christians feared economic distress and an ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nearly six-in-ten Palestinian Christians (59%) cited economic hardship as the main reason they have considered emigrating.

The vast majority (84%) fear the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands by the Israeli state; a similar share of Christians (83%) are concerned about both attacks by Jewish settlers and the denial of their civil rights by Israel.

Yet despite their overwhelming concern about possible abuses of power by the state of Israel, most Christians actually support a one-state solution in the region, Sayegh said.

The Vatican has long supported a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, and reaffirmed its support in the wake of the U.S. shifting its position on Israeli settlements in the West Bank back in November. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the settlements were "not per se inconsistent with international law."

Although they fear abuses by the Israeli state or by Jewish settlers, the vast majority of Palestinian Christians surveyed, 80%, also worry about corruption in the Palestinian government, and around 70% of them, Sayegh said, fear Hamas.

And some Christians report feeling threatened their Muslim neighbors. This, Sayegh said, is the "breaking point" for recognizing the differences in Christian and Muslim emigration from Palestine.

While both Christians and Muslims might leave Palestine for economic reasons, the new survey shows that Christians also feel unsafe or insecure not just by the threat of attacks by settlers, but from their neighbors.

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Nearly eight-in-ten Christians (77%) say they are worried about radical Salafist groups in Palestine. A large minority believe both that most Muslims do not want them in Palestine (43%) and that Christians are discriminated against when applying for jobs (44%).

Taken together, the reported lack of security and suspicion of corruption in the Palestinian government could help explain Christians' support for a one-state solution.

What Christians could be saying here, Sayegh said, is that in one bi-national state, "we are a minority, but we are not the only minority at least," and they would feel less safe in an Islamist or majority-Muslim state.

And many Palestinian Christians say they do not trust Church leaders. Nearly six-in-ten, 58%, express they have little or no trust in their Christian leaders, and almost half, 47%, feel the church is not meeting their needs. A majority, 56%, said the church should provide jobs for them.

This lack of trust, he said, "indicates a huge disconnect" between Christians and their leaders, which "speaks about something deeper."

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