22 OCTOBER 1994, Page 14


Cries for help from the Christians of the Holy Land have received scant acknowledgement from their western co-religionists, reports William Dalrymple ON MOUNT ATHOS earlier this summer I met a man who claimed to have been the last hermit in the Holy Land.

Fr Alexandros — a tall, rubicund figure with a faded serge cassock, a short Ortho- dox pigtail and a grey beard, matted and tangled like John the Baptist's on some early Byzantine icon — lived alone in a small wooden but in a clearing in the for- est, high above Karyes. It was an idyllic place: a bright and silent retreat, fringed with lilies and ilex, commanding an aston- ishing view down over the silver domes of the Russian Scete to the deep, fragmented blue of the Aegean far below. But this, the monk told me, was not his home, nor where he longed to be: he had moved to this Greek hilltop only a decade before, after being driven by terror from his her- mitage in the Holy Land.

For most of his adult life, explained Fr Alexandros, he had followed the ways of the desert fathers in the cave at Ein Fara on the West Bank. The cavern was the site of the very first monastery in Palestine: in the early 4th century, the great Byzantine hermit St Chariton had settled above the pool of pure springwater near the cave; there he gathered a community of like- minded ascetics around him, living a life of silence, self-abnegation and severe fasting, interspersed with long hours of prayer.

A millennium and a half later, Fr Alexandros was the last of the many monks to live this rule at the cave at Ein Fara. About ten years after the Israeli con- quest and occupation of the West Bank, Alexandros had begun to receive death threats from a group of extreme Israeli zealots who had established a settlement nearby. Then one day in the winter of 1979, his spiritual father and distant neigh- `My dad is a better mum than your dad.' bour, a Greek monk named Philloumenos, was hacked to death in his cell at Jacob's Well; a settler had poisoned his dogs, attacked him with an axe, then incinerated his remains with a grenade. Shortly after- wards, Fr Alexandros returned from a trip to Jerusalem to find his cave chapel dese- crated and his books and possessions scat- tered and burned. The pulpit in the chapel had been axed into a hundred pieces. The hermit fled, caught ship to Athens, and eventually found his way to Athos. The cave and spring have since been wired off and absorbed into a new settlement.

Like many hermits, Fr Alexandros was a, deeply eccentric man, a Holy Fool who talked to his pet owl, fed the lizards and claimed to receive irregular visits from angels. He was a man whose statements could not, perhaps, be taken entirely at face value. I was therefore a little surprised to discover, on a recent visit to Jerusalem, that all he had said had indeed been true: at the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in the Old City I was shown a file full of reports and correspondence about the desecration of the cave of St Chariton and the violent murder of Fr Philloumenos; I was even directed to the Martyrion at the Orthodox seminary on Mount Zion where Fr Philloumenos's shattered skull and axe- cleaved bones lay on permanent display awaiting potential canonisation.

The Greek monk who showed me the relics claimed that such incidents were far from unusual: in recent years their own seminary had been attacked on a number of occasions, once by an Israeli soldier who had fired off several rounds from his assault rifle at the iconostasis, before being wounded — so at any rate claimed the monk — by a miraculous ricochet from an icon of the Theotokos, the Holy Virgin.

Checking the incident in the more sober archives of the Jerusalem Post, I found that during the same period two Jerusalem churches and one Christian bookshop had been burned to the ground by ultra-ortho. dox Jewish fanatics, while students from 3 nearby yeshiva had committed serious van- dalism at the Dormition abbey. There had also been a series of unsuccessful arson attacks on the Anglican church in West Jerusalem, two churches in Acre (a Greek Orthodox church in the Old City and a Protestant chapel in New Acre) and one other Anglican church in Ramleh. On top of this, two Russian nuns had been killed by a zealot in a knife attack on their Ein Karem gunnery, while the Christian ceme; tery on Mount Zion — already damaged during the years of Jordanian rule — had been further desecrated no fewer than eight times. (I later visited it: the tomb- stones had almost all been shattered, metal crosses lay twisted in their sockets, and the sepulchres had been broken open; the one standing mausoleum was riddled with bul" let holes). 'Had we been Jews and our churches been synagogues, desecration like, this would have caused an international outcry,' said the monk at the Martyrion. `But because we are Christians no one seems to care.'

The Christians of the Holy Land, he explained, had been leaving en masse for decades now; like Fr Alexandros, they were fleeing outright violence and a hun- dred other of the more subtle forms of oppression suffered by all Palestinians under Israeli rule: forcible expropriation of vast tracts of church and private land, diversion of water from ancient Christian villages to new Jewish settlements, ruinous and entirely arbitrary tax demands, closure of schools and universities, imprisonment, torture and deportation. Indeed, according to a survey conducted by Dr Bernard Sabella of Bethlehem University, the great majority of Christian Palestinians have already left. Sabella's work shows that there are now only 170,000 Palestinian Christians left inside Israel and the West Bank, compared with the 400,000 living outside the Holy Land; astonishingly, there are apparently now more Jerusalem-born Christians living in Sydney than in Jerusalem. So far, the peace process has done little to stop the flood of emigrants. Most observers agree that if emigration continues as at present it is only a matter of time before Christianity becomes extinct in the land of its birth.

All this represents a dramatic reversal in the fortunes of the Arab Christians of the Holy Land. In 1922, only 26 years before the creation of the state of Israel, Chris- tians made up 10 per cent of the popula- tion of Mandate Palestine. They were wealthier and better educated than their Muslim counterparts, owned almost all the newspapers and filled a disproportionate number of senior jobs in the Mandate Civil Service. While numerically they dom- inated the Old City (in 1922, 52 per cent of the population of the Walled City was Christian), their leaders and merchants had already moved out from the narrow streets around the Holy Sepulchre and the Via Dolorosa to build fine villas for them- selves in the West Jerusalem suburbs of Talbieh, Kattamoun and Bak'a — now home to the better-off Knesset MPs and the swankier Israeli businessmen.

The exodus of the former inhabitants of these houses began in 1948, during the war which followed the withdrawal of British troops from Mandate Palestine. In the fighting, between 60 and 70 per cent of the Palestinian Christians fled or were driven out of their ancestral homes. After the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, a second exodus took place: around 40 per cent of the Christians in the Occu- pied Territories — some 18,000 men, women and children — left their homes between 1967 and 1992 to look for a better life elsewhere. According to Dr Sabella's survey, despite the recent peace accords a further 20 per cent have expressed their desire to emigrate in the near future. In Jerusalem their proportion of the popula- tion has now fallen from 52 per cent to 2.5 per cent. Every year that proportion con- tinues to decrease as the haemorrhage of Christians is matched by the influx of Israeli settlers drafted in by Ehud Olmert, the new hard-line Likud mayor. Jerusalem ceased to be a Christian-dominated city in the 1940s; now it looks likely soon to cease having a permanent Christian presence at all.

This matters. Christianity is not a west- ern religion. It was not founded in London (however much the Victorians liked to believe that God was an Englishman) nor in Rome, still less so in Brussels. It was born in Jerusalem and received its intellec- tual superstructure in Antioch (modern Antakya), Damascus, Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and Alexandria. Those eastern Christians who are now leaving the Holy Land — many of whom, like the Egyptian Copts, claim to be descended from those Byzantine inhabitants of the region who resisted conversion to Islam after the Arab influx of the 7th century preserve many of the most ancient litur- gies, superstitions and traditions which hold the key to understanding early Chris- tianity, and without which we can never really understand the roots of our own Christian-based culture. Without the local Christian population, the most important shrines in the Christian world will be left as museum pieces, preserved only for the curiosity of tourists. Christianity will no longer exist in the Holy Land as a living faith; a vast vacuum will exist in the very heart of Christendom.

The various Churches in Jerusalem are more than aware of the seriousness of their situation. Traditionally, the 47 differ- ent Christian denominations represented in the Holy City were famous for their pointless and petty squabbling: year after year newspapers across the globe would celebrate Easter with some light paschal story about the Greek Orthodox feuding with the Roman Catholics over the clean- ing of such-and-such a windowsill in the Holy Sepulchre. No longer. Since 1989 the patriarchs and archbishops of the major Churches have come together — possibly for the first time since the First Crusade in 1095 — to issue an annual joint statement to make known to the people of the world the conditions of life of our people here in the Holy Land who experience constant deprivation of their fundamental rights . . . [and to] express our deep concern and alarm for the growing feeling of insecurity and fear among our people and churches - • • [which constitutes] a serious threat to the future of Christianity and its rights in the Holy Land'. Of course it is not just from Israel and the West Bank that the eastern Christians are leaving: what is happening there is part of a much larger exodus taking place across the Middle East. Significant num- bers of Copts are fleeing the bombs and bullets of the fundamentalist Gemaat al- Islamiyya in Upper Egypt; there is still a steady trickle of Maronites out of the new, increasingly Muslim-dominated Lebanon. In eastern Turkey, the last Syriac Christian communities are deserting their 4th-centu- ry Byzantine monasteries as they find themselves caught in the crossfire of the dirty war between PICK Kurdish guerrillas and Turkish government forces. Out of the 180 million inhabitants of the Middle East there are now only 14 million Chris- tians, one-and-a-half million fewer than 20 years ago. Nevertheless, while the threat of Islamic fundamentalism has been well documented in the western press, the very different dangers facing the Christians of the Holy Land have been little reported, and their imminent demise and cries for help have received little acknowledgment from their nominal co-religionists in the West.

Before Israel conquered the West Bank, the largest Christian populations in the area could be found in Ramallah and Bethlehem, but in the last 27 years 66 per cent of the Christians in the former and 50 per cent in the latter have emigrated. So today if one wants to understand the pres- sures that are causing the Christians to leave the Holy Land, the best place to go is to Beit Sahour, a small Christian town lying between Bethlehem and the great desert monastery of Mar Theodosius.

The town rises from the pastures around the Byzantine basilica said to mark the site of the angels' appearance to the shepherds on the first Christmas night. In many ways Beit Sahour has a vaguely Umbrian air to it: the old honey-coloured stone houses with their tympanums carved with the Vir- gin and Child or George and the Dragon; the basilica; the vine trellising and olive terraces clustered around the lower slopes; further up, the cramped mediaeval chaos of the Old Town giving way to the new concrete villas of the modem middle class on the higher slopes. Where Beit Sahour differs dramatically from its Italian coun- terparts, however, is in the state of its pub- lic services: the roads are pitted with pot-holes, there are no phone boxes or street lamps, the rubbish lies uncollected at the bottom of every driveway. It was this neglect on the part of the Israeli military occupation authorities, combined with crippling taxation rates, two or three times the Israeli norms, that led the town into a non-violent tax revolt in April 1989. Rais- ing the Bostonian cry of 'No Taxation Without Representation', the people of Beit Sahour held a sit-in in the Greek Orthodox church, and announced that they were refusing to pay any further taxes until the authorities showed some sign of pro- viding services in return. The response was brutal.

Like many of the Christians in Beit Sahour, Nicola Ghattas is a small-scale craftsman producing religious trinkets for the tourist industry. Ghattas himself works in mother-of-pearl — a local speciality since at least the 4th century, when moth- er-of-pearl highlights were included in the great Byzantine mosaics commissioned by the Empress Helena in the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In April 1989, the Israeli army surrounded Beit Sahour, and declared a curfew. On the second day they came to Ghattas's house and asked him to pay a minimum of 1,000 shekels from his tax bill. When he refused, they removed everything he owned: his machinery from the workshop, his television, fridge, vacu- um cleaner, stove, washing machine, bed, tables, chairs and gold-plated icons. They left him with an empty house, with no source of income, and no food.

The curfew continued for week after week as the army went around each house in the village performing the same opera- tion. There were no breaks to allow peo- ple to stock up on food or water. If the people had fruit trees in their back garden, then they could eat. Otherwise, when their food stocks ran out, they went hungry. A delegation from the different Churches in Jerusalem which tried to bring food into the town was turned back with tear-gas. The Israelis were determined to starve Beit Sahour into submission. 'In many houses the people were crying with hunger,' Ghattas told me. 'The women were begging for milk for their babies but the authorities would not stop the curfew.'

Eventually, after 56 days, the town capitulated, but no one received their con- fiscated possessions back. 'Our family business supported 23 mouths,' said Ghat- tas. 'Now with our machinery gone, we couldn't find the price of a loaf of bread, we couldn't even afford an aspirin. In September we managed to get a loan from a bank in Bethlehem and begin work again. Until then, for five months our fam- ily ate only fruit and olives from the trees. Muslim neighbours from other villages would occasionally bring us bread. In those days my eldest son used to walk up to the butcher in Bethlehem just to look at the meat. When his younger sister asked for chicken, my wife had to tell her, "This year the chickens have all flown away from Belt Sahour."' Since 1989, in the course of the intifada, between a quarter and a half of the young men of Beit Sahour have been imprisoned without civil trial; many claim to have been beaten and tortured, Six Christian children in Beit Sahour have been shot dead and scores of others injured. I met the family of one of the dead children: Salaam Musleh, a 12-year-old, was shot dead in front of his parents, brothers and sisters as they were all eating supper. A passing settler whose Land Cruiser had been stoned unleashed a clip of bullets, randomly, all around him; one happened `I'll keep my shades on — I don't want anyone thinking I'm not famous enough to want to remain anonymous.' to pass through the Muslehs' kitchen win- dow and hit Salaam in the back of his head. The settler was never punished. 'The shoot- ing of Salaam, the confiscation of all the equipment in my carpentry shop during the tax strike — it all has the same purpose,' Salaam's uncle told me. The Israelis want to exert pressure on us to leave the coun- try. In one way or another they want this land without its people.'

Faced with such dangers and the sheer frustration of life under occupation — the schoolteacher with whom I stayed in Beit Sahour was still waiting for a telephone 17 years after first applying for it — it is easy to see why so many Christians opt to emi- grate. They tend to be well-qualified, mid- dle-class and entrepreneurial; they usually speak several languages; as Christians, many western countries give them prefer- ential treatment over Muslims if they apply for residence permits.

Palestinian self-rule in some form now looks certain to spread out from the Jeri- cho enclave to the rest of the West Bank taxation, tourism and education have recently been handed into Palestinian hands — and in the long run that should slow down the Christians' exodus. But, for the present, land expropriation and settle- ment-building continue: only this spring the Jebel Abu-Ghneim, a wooded hillside facing Beit Sahour, was confiscated, and soon work will begin on the construction of a settlement of 8,000 housing units for which no Christian or Muslim may apply. Moreover, few Christians say that they are very optimistic about their long-term future under Palestinian rule: so far the phenome- nal growth of the Hamas movement has lit- tle affected them, Hanan Ashrawi, a practising member of the Greek Orthodox Church, is still a shining symbol of their participation in the struggle against Israeli rule, and they are quick to point out that Yasser Arafat chose a Christian bride. Yet for all this, while most expect things to get much better when the Israelis leave, the experience of Christians elsewhere in the Middle East does not encourage them to expect full equality with the Muslims if a Palestinian state does become a reality. Moreover, whatever happens in the West Bank, the future of the Christians of Jerusalem still remains extremely uncer- tain. Now that many Israelis — even in the Likud — effectively regard the Occupied Territories as 'lost', Jewish settlers have increasingly begun to focus their energies on the Holy City. Rings of new settlements are springing up all around East Jerusalem, while within the Old City radical settler groups such as the Ateret Cohanim contin- ue to try and buy up land within the Mus- lim, Christian and Armenian quarters of the Old City. Equally assertive is the Mus- lim claim to Al-Quds (the Holy), as King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat com- pete for the right to protect the Muslim holy places, and Arafat continues to pro- claim his intention to turn East Jerusalem into the Palestinian capital. Amid these two competing interests, the Christians' stake in Jerusalem seems almost irrele- vant: as one commentator recently pointed out, there are now so few Christians in the Old City that they could all be removed in four jumbo jets. Yet despite the apparent hopelessness of the Christian position, the leaders of the Eastern Churches remain surprisingly defi- ant. On my last week in the Holy City I finally managed to get an audience with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodorus I. A great bear of a man with a long Father Christmas beard tumbling down his black patriarchal robes, he refused to admit that the end of Chris- tian presence in Jerusalem appeared to be imminent. 'In Byzantine times, when we Greeks ruled the Holy Land, this city was entirely Christian,' he said. 'Of course you cannot compare the present situation with then: our numbers are now very few. But then you do not judge a light by the size of its container.'

The Patriarch rearranged himself on his throne and clutched a miniature icon in a gold setting, suspended on a chain around his neck. 'Even a small oil lamp,' he said, can give light to a big room.'

William Dalrymple won the 1994 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for his study of Delhi, The City of Djinns.