A grinch has stolen Christmas. Few Christians will be celebrating Christmas this year in Bethlehem. No, the grinch is not Israel. Laying the blame on Israel obscures the true culprit: The growing influence of religious radicalism in the Palestinian Authority.
The Christian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has plummeted in the past decades. Christians now make up less than two percent of the total Palestinian population.
In 1948, Christians made up eighty percent of the population in Bethlehem. Muslims now make up eighty-five percent of the population. The Palestinian Authority has been co-opted by radical Islamic fundamentalism. Today, Bethlehem is ruled by Hamas.
With the radical Islamic Hamas' ascent to power, their desire for a fundamentalist Muslim state ruled by Islamic law seems closer than ever to being realized. Christians under the PA are reduced to dhimmis, second class citizens. Muslim Palestinians threaten their Christian neighbors with violence on a daily basis because, as one Christian Palestinian noted, the Christians "want to live in peace."
Palestinian Christians don't live in peace. They live in fear, unable to practice their own religion. The Christians are pushed out of their homes due to the continual segregation and establishment of Muslim-only housing projects. Muslims boycott their Christian neighbors' shops and businesses.
Christians live in fear for their life. Under the Palestinian Authority, Christians have been forced to observe the strict restrictions of Ramadan and must observe Islamic sharia law. This past September, Muslims burnt down the YMCA in Qalqiliya,
warning Christian organizations to shut down or face more violence. Two weeks ago, Palestinian PM Ismail Haniyeh, at a Holocaust-denial conference in Iran, stated in the name of the Hamas-led government that "we are the trustful protectors of the Islamic land of Palestine."
Christians have been leaving the territories in droves; flocking to refuge in North America, Europe, and even Cuba … anywhere seems to be better than the despotic Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Ibrahim Shomali, a Christian restaurant owner in Bethlehem, is selling what he can before he leaves for Michigan with his family. "We Christians now feel like we are on the cross," he said.
Radical groups which claim to protect Palestinian Christians but defend their abusers, such as the Sabeel Liberation Theology Center, use the cover of Christianity to further Islamic fundamentalism and persecution against Palestine's Christian minority. These radical organizations often use the cover of support from mainstream churches in the United States and Europe to defend and justify violence.
This suicidal approach is dangerous to the precarious Christian minority. Despite their popularity abroad these organizations do not have the support of the indigenous Christian population. As one Bethlehem man noted, "Our leaders are liars: They tell the newspapers that everything is OK. But when Christians go to the market, they're afraid to wear crosses."
Despite the hardship, Christians from around the world plan on converging onto Bethlehem this Christmas. If the world stands by idly or misdirects the blame unto Israel, while Christians are being persecuted in the Palestinian Authority, than the grinch may soon get his way and steal Christmas. Justus Weiner, a human rights lawyer in Jerusalem, noted that in another 15 years, Bethlehem runs the risk "of becoming a Christian theme park for tourists" with no native Christians.
I live in Jerusalem, near a street that leads to Bethlehem. Looking out over the Old City of Jerusalem and its many thriving holy sites, I look forward to watching my Christian neighbors celebrate Christmas.
I wish that Palestinian Muslims could experience the same co-existence with their Christian neighbors that prevails among Israeli Jews. I look forward to the time in which Israeli Christians and Palestinian Christians can meet together in the biblical town of Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas in peace and harmony.
Avi Hein is a Legacy Heritage Fellow at StandWithUs Israel and Europe. He lives in Jerusalem