For a shrinking group of Palestinians, Bethlehem is still a Promised Land
BETHLEHEM — Salwa Musallam gets to visit the site where Jesus was born nearly every day. As a tour guide with a local nonprofit, she ushers groups through the so-called Door of Humility, using her booming voice to implore visitors to bend at the waist in order to enter the sacred space within the Church of the Nativity. She knows every historic detail related to the church and doles out tidbits of information as her tours move through the multi-room compound. She even stops to explain that Jesus was born in a cave and not a stable, as is commonly thought.
“You are lucky to be going in the birthplace of Christ,” she declares, later adding that it’s important to keep quiet while at the church. It is a lesson she apparently has not learned. “I’m known here as a troublemaker. As soon as someone hears a group laugh, they know it’s me,” she tells her audience. “They’ll kick me out of the Church. One Greek priest, he can hear me even if I whisper,” she adds, jokingly.
With pitch-black hair, lined eyes, and sunglasses perched on top of her head, Musallam stands out from other guides. At 57 years old, her background reads like the passport stamps of a world traveler. She is Palestinian, Arab, Christian, North American and Latin American. She was born in Colombia and moved to Bethlehem when she was six years old. For a while, she and her husband and their four daughters lived in Michigan before deciding to move back to Bethlehem.
Musallam’s family story is very different than that of most Palestinian Christians. While many of them want desperately to leave places like Bethlehem, her family left several times but kept coming back to Palestine. Her story is a reminder that for many Palestinians, even those with options, Bethlehem continues to be a Promised Land, even if it comes with troubles.
The Holy Land’s Palestinian Christian population is a small minority in the region. Palestinian Christians comprise only a tiny fraction of the population but made up around 10 percent of the overall Palestinian population at the beginning of this century, according to Bishop Hanna Kildani, the Latin patriarch for Nazareth.
In fact, a new census estimate by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statics stated last month that out of more than 4.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, only around one percent are Christian. The main reason for the recent drop is attributed to foreign migration — many Palestinian Christians continue to emigrate out of the country.
“We have this problem of immigration. Many Christians and Muslims can’t find housing, work, business so we are moving out of the Holy Land,” said Kildani, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Christianity in Jordan and Palestine.
Top reasons for emigration among Palestinian Christians include economic and political difficulties, as well as social and religious reasons, according to a recent study by Dar al-Kalima University College in Bethlehem. The study also found that nearly a quarter of Palestinian Christians had family members who have emigrated in the past year and that more than 70 percent did so for economic reasons.
This migratory trend is not new. Financial ambitions and escaping poverty and malady were some of the reasons Palestinian Christians left the Ottoman empire at the turn of the 20th century, wrote Pastor Mitri Raheb, founder of Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem, in the recent report. Many settled in New York, while others continued on to places like Brazil and Chile.
Musallam’s father was among those who left. Around 1913, he moved to Barranquilla, Colombia, where some of his other family members were already residing, and took a job selling pants door-to-door.
He settled in Colombia and married Musallam’s mother, ultimately raising a family there. But his daughter retained her Palestinian heritage and married a man from Palestine. At first, she and her husband lived in Michigan but then moved to Bethlehem.
“There is a strong loyalty towards being Palestinian and the land their forefathers grew up in,” said Randa Kayyali, who has written a book on Arab-Americans and has done research on Palestinian Christians.
Today, Musallam’s job as a tour guide with the Holy Land Trust — where one of her daughters also works — keeps her in tune with the religious history of the land. In fact, it was her daughter who recommended her for the job due to her ability to speak many languages, including English, Spanish, French, Hebrew and, of course, Arabic.
But while Musallam came back, most Palestinians want to leave. They have many reasons. Constraints, arbitrary arrests, discriminatory policies and confiscation of land add to a sense of hopelessness and put Christian Palestinians in despairing situations “where they can no longer perceive a future for their offspring or for themselves,” stated the report by Dar al-Kalima. Many Palestinians Christians, therefore, set their sights to Europe, the U.S. and Canada to find refuge.
“Christians are being heavily impacted by the occupation and their livelihoods are being drastically reduced,” said Kayyali, the researcher. “So, if you had the opportunity to go somewhere else, maybe you would take it,” she said, adding that there are Christians in other areas of the world and many might feel that they won’t be persecuted in those places.
More people are leaving the country than are returning, said Marc Frings, head of the Ramallah office for Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German political foundation. “What I’m observing is that Christians here are becoming more aware of their minority status even though it’s not new. They’ve been a minority ever since Islam conquered the region. But now they don’t feel protected and are seriously afraid.”
Sami Awad, founder of the Holy Land Trust non-profit and Musallam’s employer, echoed that sentiment, arguing that many Palestinians feel a sense of resignation. “This feeling that Palestinians have is complete hopeless, apathy and that nothing works — diplomacy, violence and non-violence,” he said.
Though Western media rarely explores the plight of Palestinian Christians, Musallam’s situation is different — as a tour guide, she gets to recount her story to any willing listener during her daily tours of the church.
Musallam emigrated to the United States with her husband while he worked as a journalist in Ann Arbor. She still holds American citizenship. But she regrets moving back to Bethlehem. “I miss the States,” she said. “I cried when my husband wanted to come home. I said ‘you’ll regret it,’ and he did,” she added. “As a good wife, for the last 30 years, I’ve been telling him ‘I told you so,’” she said jokingly.
Many of Musallam’s relatives and friends didn’t understand her family’s decision to move back to Bethlehem. “They think me and my family are crazy first when we came back,” she said. “Life is good here, it’s not boring. But, it’s kind of hard.”
Awad, director of the Holy Land Trust, agreed that there are challenges to living in the region. “There are a lot of restrictions on Palestinians. For me, it’s the psychological aspects of daily restriction,” he said, describing the frustrations he feels due to a lack of movement imposed by Israel within the West Bank. “We don’t live like normal people everywhere.”
However, despite the reduced number of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land, many don’t see the population disappearing completely. “The level of Christian presence will be quite low but it will not disappear, this is clear,” said Frings. “If you ask me openly, I will say there will always be Christian life here because it’s the Holy Land and people are rooted here.”