Congress grossly misled about plight of Palestinian Christians

Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian man during a raid in the West Bank village of Artas near Bethlehem May 16, 2006. (MaanImages/Magnus Johansson

In a letter to the American Congress on 13 June, Open Bethlehem’s chief executive Leila Sansour, a Christian from Bethlehem, expressed her community’s shock at the gross misrepresentation of the threat facing the Christians of the Holy Land. She urged Congress to pay heed to the plight of the oldest Christian community in the world.

“We are disappointed by the resolution drafted by Congressman McCaul and Congressman Crowley purporting to act on our behalf. The resolution seriously misrepresents the situation facing Christians in the Holy Land”.

The ill-conceived resolution accuses the Palestinians of discrimination towards their own Christian community – and does so without consulting any local churches or Christian organizations. The drafters of the resolution ignored the calls from churches in Jerusalem, as well as the overwhelming body of reports from international organizations warning of the devastating effect of the Israel’s system of closures, collective punishment and the construction of the wall. In the Holy city of Bethlehem, the wall forcefully expropriates most of Bethlehem’s valuable land and historic landmarks depriving many Christian families from their homes, links to their community in Jerusalem and their income.

The Open Bethlehem campaign was created to address the state of emergency in Bethlehem with full support from the Patriarchs of Jerusalem and all Bethlehem Civil institutions. His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI received the first Open Bethlehem passport, lending his support to the campaign alongside international figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Jimmy Carter.

Open Bethlehem is deeply encouraged by churches and church leaders across the US and by the work of those US politicians who have joined Rep.Henry Hyde in bringing the plight of Christians in Palestine to Congress and the people of the US.

In a letter to the White House last Friday, Rep. Hyde stated that the Wall and expanding settlements are, “irreversibly damaging the dwindling Christian community.”

The report says that “the Bethlehem area is home to over 20 Israeli settlements and there are plans to build more. The settlements and the barrier completely encircle the Christian triangle of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour (Shepherd’s Field).” In addition to causing housing and land shortages, “this construction physically obstructs the Bethlehem community from its spiritual, cultural and economic lifeline in Jerusalem.”

Since 2000, approx. 3,000 Christians from Bethlehem have emigrated. The UN states that: “This economic emigration will have a long-term impact on the multi-cultural character that has defined the city of Bethlehem for centuries.”

Leila Sansour says: “ Palestinian Christians could very soon become unsustainable as a community. Their erosion will mean an end to sacred Christian traditions that go back to the time of Jesus and an end to the presence of Christianity in the Holy Land. At this critical time it is imperative that Christians around the world act and speak responsibly and it is equally imperative that those who want to see an open, democratic peaceful Middle East engage honestly with our plight.

Church leaders across all Christian denominations have criticised the resolution. In the letter to US congress. Open Bethlehem has urged the formation of a fact finding mission from congress that would help representatives be closely informed about the situation.

Open Bethlehem Letter to Congress

13 June 2006

Dear Representative,

I write to you as the Chief Executive Officer of Open Bethlehem, to say that we areencouraged by the latest interest of Congress in the plight of the world’s oldest Christian community. Open Bethlehem is an independent city project created to preserve theheritage of our ancient city. Our aim is to ensure that our community survives in the birthplace of Christianity, as part of a diverse, multi-faith society that will be an essential pillar of an open and democratic Middle East.

We are, however, disappointed by the latest resolution drafted by congressman McCaul and congressman Crowley purporting to act on our behalf. The resolution seriously misrepresents the situation facing Christians in the Holy Land. We have contacted the highest officials in the Catholic and Evangelical Churches in the US and in the Holy Land and they strongly oppose this resolution. We understand that the resolution was drafted without consulting Christians living in the region or local Christian organizations. The resolution grossly misleads the Congress as to the real threat that faces our community.

Between the years 2000 and 2004, 357 Christian families (10% of the Christian population) emigrated from Bethlehem alone. Indeed, this massive emigration threatens the existence of the indigenous Christian community, which has been safeguarding sacred Christian traditions since the time of Jesus. This flight is primarily a result of the fear generated by repeated Israeli military incursions, and has been exacerbated by the economic devastation of Bethlehem due to the Israeli closure imposed on the city.

Perhaps the Israeli barrier is most emblematic of the shared fate of both Muslim and Christian Palestinians. The Bethlehem barrier winding in and around our city consists mainly of 25-foot high slabs of concrete, sniper towers, and remote-controlled infantry positions. It is built on privately-owned Palestinian land, resulting in the loss of most of Bethlehem’s fertile and economically prosperous agriculture lands and many of our major landmarks. It has also severed our city from Jerusalem, a city with which we have historically enjoyed interdependent kinship, trade, and social relations. Equally, if not more important, the barrier fragments this single, indivisible Christian diocese, threatening the Christian communities of both cities.

We urge you not to sign the resolution and to engage directly with Palestinian Christians. We ask that you consider forming a fact-finding mission this August recess to Bethlehem, to learn first hand about the challenges that we face. We will facilitate your visit, as we believe that only close and transparent relations can help our communities build peaceful and prosperous futures. We also encourage you to meet with church leaders in the United States, in the belief that all Christians share a stake in the survival of Christian communities in the Holy Land.

We look forward to hearing from you and welcome any questions, requests or suggestions. You can contact me directly by email: or telephone: +44 (0) 7814 937743.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely,
Leila Sansour
Chief Executive

For more information, fact sheets and maps please see contacts below:

London Office
Charlotte Carson: – 020 7222 8443

Washington Office
Peter Bourne: 202 462 7266

Bethlehem Office
Carol Dabdoub: + (972) 2 274 1241 ext. 2470; M. (972) 545439841

Leila Sansour mobile: +447814937743

Open Bethlehem is a Bethlehem city initiative to preserve the historic character of our Holy city within an open, democratic and multi-faith Middle East. Open Bethlehem was launched on 9 November 2005, declaring Bethlehem an open city and announcing the issue of a Bethlehem passport, given to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. Open Bethlehem hosts tours, delegations, events promoters and investors on the basis that Bethlehem is a city of openness and diversity, with a centuries-old tradition of welcoming travellers, refugees and pilgrims from across the world.

Related Links

  • Open Bethlehem calls for an end to EU sanctions as Bethlehem faces disaster, Press Release, Open Bethlehem (23 May 2006)
  • Open Bethlehem