Last month, a very important conference took place in Bethlehem. It was organized by the Diyar consortium, and the topic was: "The Christian presence in Palestine and the Diaspora: Statistics, Challenges, and Opportunities". This is of course a very important issue, and Diyar Rev. Mitri are to be thanked for addressing this subject.
The strength of the conference is that it covered the whole of the Palestinian Christian community, including Christians in Gaza, Israel, and Diaspora. The conference concluded with a very helpful statement that summarized the findings of the study and the main discussions that took place. Many things caught my attention. (A pdf version can be download here).
It was encouraging to read that the number of Christians in the West Bank stopped declining, and there is actually a small rise in our number. Of course Gaza is the exception, and it is disheartening to read that the number now is estimated to be 1250. The overall situation there is very alarming.
It was also encouraging to read about the discussion that took place in the conference about quality and quantity. The focus should be on our presence and influence, and not merely on our numbers. It is impressing that "in the West Bank the church is one of the largest providers of employment opportunities after the Palestinian Authority. 22,000 Christians and Muslims are employed by the churches and their Christian Institutions."
In addition, the conference came out with a list of strategic goals. The list is very helpful, and does cover various areas, like education, identity, constitution, and creating awareness. However, this is where I feel that the heart of the issue lies. We can work on changing the circumstance, but the real change that is needed is in the heart of people. I think that we Palestinian Christians should stop asking: "Why are Palestinian Christians leaving?" and instead ask: "Why are Palestinian Christians not staying?" Before telling our people to stay, we must convince them why it is important to stay to begin with!
It is easy to point out the reasons why people leave: Political, social, or religious. Yet what is needed is to empower Palestinian Christians, especially the young generation, to overcome these obstacles, and to decide to stay despite the circumstance. Palestinian Christians must revive a sense of calling and purpose. They must want to stay.
Throughout the years, a big void, I believe, was created (for many different reasons) between the leadership of the church and the people; a void that left us with a big number of Christians who are not practicing their Christianity. We should ask: how many Christians in Palestine know the basic teachings of Christianity? For example on issues like the Trinity and the identity of Jesus? How many know the teachings of Jesus? How many really understand the calling and purposes of the church? How many have experienced firsthand the liberating power of Jesus the Bethlehemite? How many have been touched and changed by his love and compassion?
Change starts in the pulpits. It starts when the church reclaims its calling to make disciples and teaching the words of Jesus (Matthew 28:18). This is the real work that needs to be done. It is the hard work, and it takes time and effort. But it must be done if we want a continual presence of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land.
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