Cover Story

Voices of the voiceless

Issue: "Middle East: No easy answers," May 31, 2003

Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon, visiting the United States a week prior to the bombings, lobbied members of Congress and Christian leaders to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. He cites biblical sanction for his desire to have areas of the West Bank ceded to the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords to stay under Israeli control: "Secretary Powell needs to study the Bible and to understand the significance of the Jewish people returning to their land."

Alex Awad, pastor of the East Jerusalem Baptist Church, says that American evangelicals are being manipulated by the Israeli government. "The unconditional support by evangelical Christians in America has encouraged Israeli policy for the past 50 years. In the process, the church has supported oppression, occupation, demolition of houses, strangulation of the Palestinian economy, the denial of basic human rights."

What about other Palestinians? Like most of those WORLD interviewed, "John" asked that his full name not be used. His life is precarious enough, he explained, without calling attention to himself in the press. He does show up to open his store, and apologizes for being 30 minutes late. There aren't many customers pressing him to be on time these days.

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In a town with a nominal Christian population of about 30 percent, John counts himself among the growing number of evangelicals. For 30 years he attended a Baptist church in Jerusalem, where he eventually became a deacon. He hasn't set foot in the church for almost three years, however, nor has his Arabic pastor been allowed to visit him in Bethlehem. Israeli soldiers turn him back at the checkpoints every time, as ethnic origin trumps religious freedom. "I can't go to Jerusalem to worship," John says. "Now we are living in a cage, a prison. But in this prison we have to pay our own bills. If Israel put us into a real prison, at least they would have to feed us."

Stripped of his travel rights, John had to find a new church within the confines of his restricted world. As it turns out, that was no problem. He estimates there are some 40 Christian churches in Bethlehem; many are evangelical congregations that have sprung up in the years since the Oslo Peace Accords granted a measure of self-rule to the Palestinians.

The growth in evangelical numbers has reversed a long decline among the dominant Catholic and Orthodox churches. In 1948, when the State of Israel was established, one count showed 400,000 Christians living in then-Palestine. Today that number has shrunk to just 150,000, or about 2 percent of the population. (Among the Palestinians spread worldwide, that figure is closer to 8 percent.)

How to explain the recent surge in evangelical believers after decades of decline? John says it's because evangelicals in the West Bank have freedom to evangelize: "Our goal in life is to preach the gospel. Anywhere we can preach, it's a good place.

"Of course we want to live in a Palestinian state, because it would be our own," but "we want a modern, civilized, democratic state so Christians can continue to live in safety. For that, we will need pressure from the West to keep the extremists from gaining control."

A young Orthodox woman, sitting in her living room beneath a white porcelain figure of the Virgin Mary, is also concerned about Islamic extremists: "We don't want to cover our heads or dress in black from head to toe. Maybe we can't drive. Maybe we can't vote. We don't want to live like this. Islam is worse for the women than for the men." She pauses for a moment, uncertain if she really wants to express what's on her mind. "It's better with the Jews," she says at last, her voice low.

In the West Bank village of Beit Jala, Charles isn't sure where his loyalties-or even his home-should lie. With degrees from Paris and Amman, he once was part of the Palestinians' thriving professional class. But in the wake of the latest crackdown, his job was cut, and he now works in a hotel restaurant near the evangelical church he attends. His dream of an American education for his eldest son appears to be on hold.

Despite the hardships, Charles says he would rather have an Israeli passport than a Palestinian one. "When peace comes, many Palestinians will prefer to stay with Israel," he believes. Socially and economically, he simply sees a brighter future in Israel than in an independent Palestinian state.

Like many others, however, he is resigned to a future completely beyond his control. "We are now under control of Jewish government. Maybe one day we are under control of Muslims. What can we do?"

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