Two rabbis are working hard to help the Christian Arabs of Bethlehem, the oldest Christian community in the world. Their efforts are based on the Torah imperative “to help the stranger in your midst,” or, as one rabbi puts it, “Covenant land requires covenantal responsibility.”
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki and David Nekrutman of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) launched Blessing Bethlehem in 2016 to help the persecuted Christians living in the city of Bethlehem and its surrounding areas. As part of their work, they distribute food and food vouchers to 120 Christian families in Bethlehem. Christian Arabs transport the parcels to a central location in Bethlehem and directly to the elderly. Much of their work must remain secret in order to protect the recipients.
The problem is acute as Arab Christians are an oppressed minority in Muslim controlled areas of the region. Christians make up about two percent of Israel’s population. Approximately half of Israel’s 120,000 Christian Arabs are part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Before Hamas took over Gaza, approximately 5,000 Christians lived in Gaza. Under Hamas rule, that number has dwindled to fewer than 1,000. Living under radical Islamist rule, the remaining Christians are sorely oppressed. In Judea and Samaria, about 70,000 Christians live under Palestinian Authority rule. Both Bethlehem and Nazareth – key New Testament towns – which were once overwhelmingly Christian, now have Muslim majorities.
When Israel was founded in 1948, about 80 percent of the population of Bethlehem was Christian. Today, approximately 12 percent, or 15,000 Christians, live in the area of Bethlehem. Though Christian families are the largest landowners in Bethlehem, their property has often been subject to theft.
In 2012, Pastor Steven Khoury was interviewed by the Christian Broadcasting Network, (CBN). Pastor Khoury refuted claims that the exodus of Christians from Bethlehem was due to pressure from Israel. He claimed that the Arabs who claimed their ancestors were among the first followers of Jesus were leaving his birthplace due to systematic discrimination and persecution at the hands of the predominantly Muslim population and Palestinian government aimed at driving their population out of their homeland.
“Bethlehem is controlled by the Palestinian Authority but it is still in the Holy Land, making it part of the covenant. Covenant land comes with covenantal responsibility,” Nekrutman told Breaking Israel News. “God said that as a Jew living in Israel, I have the requirement to love the non-Jew living in the land with me. And that means to make sure he is not religiously oppressed.”
Much of the harassment is informal. Several months ago, a priest was stabbed while trying to protect a young woman from sexual harassment at the hands of Palestinian youths. Palestinians, Christian and Muslim, who advocate co-existence with Israelis are frequently attacked in what is termed the ‘Anti-Normalization Movement.’ This is openly encouraged by Palestinian Authority officials.
“The PA claims there is religious freedom under their rule but the reality is that there isn’t, at least not in the way we understand freedom of religion” Nekrutman said. “The Muslims can’t be blatantly anti-Christian in Bethlehem since Christian tourism is a major source of income. But unemployment is much higher among Christians than Muslims. They are forced out of their houses and the demographic statistics reflect this.”
Nekrutman explained that the role of the Christian Arabs in the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel is complicated.
“Christian Arabs are frequently caught in an identity crisis that pits ethnicity against religion,” Nekrutman explained. “In Judea and Jerusalem, Christian Arabs generally live in the Palestinian areas.They are generally tolerated under Palestinian rule so long as they don’t flaunt their Christianity. As Arabs, they ethnically associate with the Palestinians. In the north of Israel, in areas like Haifa, you have Jews, Christians, and Muslims living side-by-side.”
“Their identity as Christian Arabs separates them ethnically from the Jews and religiously from the Muslim Arabs. This makes the Christian Arabs the clearest minority in the region and they are caught in the middle of the regional conflict. Because of their identifying with Arabs, they rarely experience love from Israelis.”
This is a clear case of returning a favor, or, in Biblical terms, of those who bless Israel being blessed.
“This is a community who are Evangelical Arab Christians, which is a rarity in Israel,” Rabbi Wolicki said to Breaking Israel News. “This is important to Israel since even the Christian Arabs who live in Israel do not have a favorable perception of Israel. The Evangelical Arabs are beginning to change that.”
Rabbi Wolicki explained that even though this persecution is aimed at Evangelicals, Jews should treat it as if it was being directed at Judaism.
“They are being persecuted but if the Jews were standing right where they are, we would be persecuted just as well,” the rabbi said. “These people are suffering because they are our friends. This makes it a Jewish problem.”
The Blessing Bethlehem project has opened doors, allowing Christian Arabs a rare experience of Jewish love for the stranger among them. Rabbi Wolicki related a powerful example of this. As part of his project, the rabbi decided to visit the recipients at a Christmas gathering. Since the 1995 Oslo Accords, Bethlehem has been administered by the Palestinian Authority and it is forbidden for Israelis to enter. Rabbi Wolicki decided to visit nonetheless. An Arab friend drove him into the city and to a venue.
“There were 600 people in the room that even though they were born and raised in Bethlehem they had never connected with Jewish Israelis before. I could tell by the looks on their faces that they had never seen a rabbi before,” Rabbi Wolicki said. “Several told me that until that Christmas Eve, their only experience with Israelis was facing IDF soldiers at security checkpoints.”
The initiative also collected money from Orthodox Jews to help Pastor Khoury purchase land for a church in East Jerusalem. His ministry, Holy Land Missions, preaches the gospel to Muslims but not to Jews. Pastor Khoury’s ministry was evicted three times from rental properties in east Jerusalem. Blessing Bethlehem stepped in. In 2016, they raised money from Orthodox Jews for Pastor Khoury to purchase a property.
The project was unsuccessful because pressure from the Palestinian community dissuaded prospective sellers. As an Evangelical, Pastor Khoury also encountered resistance from the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches who see him as attracting their congregants.
“Since my imperative is Biblical, we have also tried to work with Catholics and Greek Orthodox,” Nekrutman explained. “They refuse to accept any aid from us because of the political implications of dealing with Jews in Judea.”
“Pastor Khoury preaches from the Old Testament, which the other Christian Arabs view as a Jewish book. They aso reject replacement theology, which gets them in trouble with the Catholic and Eastern Churches as well as the Palestinian Authority.”
“The people suffer discrimination in their lives but this is focused on the religious aspect,” Rabbi Wolicki said. “People have rocks thrown at them on their way to church. Their church in Bethlehem has been firebombed 14 times. Pastor Khoury has been shot four times and his brother was murdered.
Rabbi Wolicki explained that Blessing Bethlehem perfectly fulfills the requirements for a charity.
“It checks all the boxes. It increases love between Jews and Christians, it supports Israel, it supports the downtrodden, and it is giving sustenance to the poor,” Rabbi Wolicki said. “When presented with such an amazing opportunity for charity, I couldn’t resist.”