Today's Indigenous Christians

    When I was asked by a member of my congregation, “Are there Palestinian Christians?” I was surprised because the church had sent me on my Sabbatical Leave to learn about Christianity in the Christian Holy Land. I remembered my Palestinian Christian friend who had been born in Bethlehem in a cave only a few feet from where Jesus was born. He was a genuine Palestinian Christian but there are many other Palestinian Christians. 

    The Hebrew Bible tells of Israelites taking the land from the Canaanites and living there. They were exiled several times but returned to the land. Sometimes the land was occupied by outside empires and then set free again so it was a changing population. The name “Palestine” began to be used after 138 C.E. for this territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

    Ever since the Christian Church was founded, as recorded in Acts 2 of our New Testament, there have been Christians in that same land. The first Christians were local Jews converted to this new religion and Gentiles from other areas who were converted by missionaries like Paul. They all became “people of the land” and lived in the now Christian Holy Land. A few were converted to Islam but many simply remained the Christians they were before Islam came into being. Christian pilgrims came and went from a variety of countries, but some stayed.

    After the Crusaders (who were Christians from Europe) came and fought the Jews and Muslims, some stayed and joined the local Christians and inter-married. That is why you find some Palestinians with European sounding last names. But during all those years the Christian people of the land remained. The land was called Palestine during many centuries and people of all religions took on that ethnic identification. There were Palestinian Christians, Palestinian Jews, and Palestinian Muslims. I own a poster printed in 1936 by a Jewish company located in Palestine saying “Visit Palestine” so they must have recognized Palestine as a place.

    In the 20th century, as a response to the Holocaust, Jews were encouraged to immigrate to this place which held ancient memories for them. The British recognized a resolution called the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which welcomed all Jewish people to Palestine without consulting the people who already lived in Palestine. It did say that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the religious and civil rights of the existing non-Jewish communities.” Britain had been given temporary administration of Palestine and this document led to public support of Israel. But many of the Jews that founded the new country believed that only Jews should be allowed to live there.  They did not follow the statement which said that "nothing shall be done which may prejuduce the religious and civil rights of the existing non-Jewish communities."

    In the 1940s the United Nations recognized a new country called “Israel” in the land which for many centuries was called “Palestine.” But the Christians still remained in the country which they understood to be the Christian Holy Land because it was the place where Jesus lived his earthly life and where the Church was founded. Some have become citizens of Israel, for economic or political reasons, and others live in the West Bank as occupied people.

“Are there Palestinian Christians?” Palestine, whatever you want to call it today, is the homeland of Christianity. Christians visiting the Holy Land need to see these indigenous Christians as today’s descendants of our ancestors in the faith. They were there long before the world-wide diversity of Christian denominations developed.