We Christians are vanishing from the Middle East – what will become of it without us?

Palestinian Orthodox Christian altar boys pray during mass at the St Porphyrios church, in Gaza City, on Sunday, Aug 10, 2014
Palestinian Orthodox Christian altar boys pray during mass at the St Porphyrios church, in Gaza City, on Sunday, Aug 10, 2014

People ask: what is the future of Christians in the Middle East?

In my opinion, this is the wrong question.

Yohanna Katanacho

Yohanna Katanacho

The right question should be: what is the future of the Middle East without Christians?

We need to highlight our mission. We are witnesses and agents of the Kingdom of Christ. This kingdom is the hope for the Middle East as well as the rest of the world.

Allow me to unpack my thoughts in the context of Israel-Palestine.

Many people lament the fact that our numbers are dwindling. There are only 35,000 Christians in the Palestinian territories (fewer than 2,000 in Gaza).

There are 163,000 Christians in Israel proper, of which 133,000 are Palestinian Christians who hold Israeli citizenship.

Israel proper has 8.4 million people, of which 1.8 million are Palestinian citizens of Israel. The followers of Christ in Israel proper are less than 2% of the population.

The Palestinian territories including the Gaza Strip have over 4.5 million people.

Put differently, from the river of Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, there are 13 million people, of which 200,000 people are Christians.

Other people lament the fact that our Christian presence is dwindling. We have established many schools, many hospitals, and many non-profit organizations that highlight the contribution of Christians to the Palestinian society.

This visibility of Christians is decreasing because many other groups are establishing their own schools and organizations. Thus Christian organizations will soon become invisible in many places.

The decrease of Christians is no doubt related to social, political, and religious factors. In Israel-Palestine, for example, every decade we have at least two to three wars. Thus we live in a context of hatred, enmity, segregation, and violence.

On the one hand, there is an oppressive Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories. On the other hand, there is a rise in radical Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism.

Christians are caught in between. The Christians in Gaza have to endure a strict Islamic context while the Christians in Israel are unwanted in a country that seeks to establish a Jewish State.

But the solution is not a self-pity party!

We, as Christians, are called to spread the name of Jesus as saviour, lover, and Lord. We live in a context of hatred and therefore we must advocate the love of God and neighbour.

We need to advocate the logic of love in politics, education, media, and many other circles in the public square.

We live in a context of exclusion and therefore we are required to demonstrate an inclusive love as Christ taught us.

Palestinian Christians are called to love both Palestinians and Jews. Loving the Jews does not mean hating Palestinians or vice versa.

On the contrary, love by its nature seeks to empower the object of our love to become like Christ. In short, we as Palestinian Christians call upon the whole church to take the whole gospel to all the nations in the Middle East.

We call upon you to visit the land of Christ and sing the gospel with its stones.

This gospel entails being an eye for the blind, legs for the crippled, a mother for the orphans, a home for the refugees, a voice for the mute, and a garment of mercy for the helpless.

It not only addresses individual sins but also systemic sins. It lifts up the name of Jesus as a lover, a peacemaker, and an agent of justice for both Palestinians and Jews without discrimination or inequality.

It empowers the church to become like Christ and to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

• Rev Yohanna Katanacho is a Palestinian Israeli evangelical (he holds Israeli citizenship and describes himself as culturally and linguistically Palestinian). He is academic dean at Nazareth Evangelical College, and also taught courses at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (USA), Bethlehem Bible College (Palestinian Territories), and the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (Egypt).

He was in Northern Ireland during November for a series of events with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.