Sabeel’s 6th International Conference


November 3, 2006


Naim Ateek




As we look at the last 2000 years of Palestinian Christianity, I would like to point out five major factors that affected the life of the Christian Community of the land.  It is very important to remember that we are dealing with the past, and some of the hard facts that I will mention must be understood in their own historical context and do not necessarily reflect our thinking today.  We must be true to the historical record.  I hope and pray that we can learn from it. 


This presentation is, therefore, a general introduction.  It is basically an outline, but it is intended to give you an overall picture of a 2000 year old movement of history that adversely affected the Christian Church and its presence in the Holy Land.  Once the picture is clear, some of the other lectures in this conference will become clearer and hopefully will make sense. 


In an outline spanning 2000 years, I am bound to make mistakes by choosing a word here and there that might offend someone.  Please forgive me.  This is not my intention.  I stand corrected.  I hope that this presentation will stimulate discussion among all of our participants.  In the second part of my presentation, I will consider the future of Palestinian Christianity in our land.  The first part deals with the past and the second part looks to the future. 




·        The Church was born in Palestine by the power of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.  

"When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability." (Acts 2:1-4)


·        The names of the countries and peoples mentioned in Acts 2 are a theological statement.  The writer Luke wanted to tell us in a symbolic way that on the Day of Pentecost the Gospel was preached to the known world at that time and representatives of all these nations heard it.

·        The book of Acts gives us another glimpse of the inclusiveness of the Gospel as it was preached in Palestine.  Besides it being preached in Jerusalem, it was preached in Nablus for the Samaritans (chapter 8), and it was preached in Caesarea for Cornilius (chapter 10).

·        The Christian community grew in number in Palestine. 

·        Scholars tell us that by the end of 4th century Palestine was a predominantly Christian country. 


Let us now look at the five major factors that adversely affected the life and presence of Palestinian Christians from the early centuries until the present.


First Factor:  Theological Controversies 


1.     The theological factor is more general and affected the life of all Christians in the Middle East including Palestine.

2.     Up to this point, although the church was taking roots in various countries among different races and cultures, it was still perceived as One.  People recognized their belongingness to the same One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.

3.     Soon, however, difficulties and misunderstandings began to emerge as a result of theological, political, cultural, and geographical differences.  Some Christians were living inside the Roman Empire, others were living outside it.  Some spoke Greek, others spoke Aramaic and other languages.  Some thought through Hellenistic thought patterns, others thought through Semitic thought patterns.  There were cultural and political differences.  Some were governed by the Roman Empire others were governed by the Persian Empire.     

4.     There were no printed Bibles for people to refer to.    

5.     The Church was caught up in bitter controversies.  The most excruciating issues related to the relationship between Jesus Christ and God.  The Church was determined to maintain the faith in the Oneness of God.  Therefore, a number of Church Councils were held that brought together hundreds of church leaders to agree on the basic principles of the Christian Faith. 

6.     Four major Councils were held during the 4th and 5th centuries:  Nicea in A.D. 325, Ephesus in 381, Constantinople in 431, and Chalcedon in 451.

7.     By the end of the 5th century most of the Christians in today’s Middle East, and as a result of the decisions of these Councils, found themselves outside the main body of the Christian Church.    They separated themselves. – The Assyrian Church of Iraq, the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Church of Ethiopia, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Orthodox Church. 

8.     This was the first schism within the church that contributed to the fragmentation of Christianity in the separation of most of the Eastern Christians.  Christians became alienated from each other.

9.     What was left in the East was the Byzantine (Eastern) Orthodox Church that remained together and was pejoratively referred to as Melkite in reference to its loyalty to the Melek, the king or emperor.  The Byzantine Orthodox and Catholic Churches remained united.      

10. By the middle of the 5th century, Palestine already had some Copts, Syrians, Armenians, and Ethiopians who were already living close to the Holy Places, and although they enjoyed good relations the fracture had already taken place within the one church. 

11. This was the first great rift and division within the Church.  It resulted in alienation, resentment, hostility, broken fellowship, rejection of the sacraments of the “other” and denunciation of the other.


 Second Factor: the coming of Islam


1.     The coming of Islam in the 7th century was welcomed by many Eastern Christians in order to get rid of the cruelty of the Byzantine Empire.  In fact, some Eastern Christians fought along side the Muslims against the Byzantines.

2.     Generally speaking the Arab Muslim rulers were more tolerant towards Christians and Jews.  Many Christians and Jews occupied prominent government positions within the Muslim state.

3.     With the passage of years, the non-Arab-Muslim rulers became less tolerant this resulted in greater hardships and persecution of Christians.

4.     Such a situation caused the movement of many Christians from the Arab peninsula towards what we know today as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine.

5.     Furthermore, to escape the payment of the special tax for non-Muslims (al-jizieh) and also to avoid persecution, many Christians became Muslim.  By and large, it was a conversion of convenience rather than conviction.

6.     One indication is the names of dozens of villages and towns throughout Palestine that begin with the word “Deir” which refers to a convent, monastery or church.  Most of these towns are totally Muslim but were at one point Christian.

7.     It is true that the coming of Islam lifted the yoke of the Byzantines off the shoulders of the indigenous Christians of the Middle East, but it weakened the Christian community through apostasy to Islam.


Third Factor:  The Crusades


1.     In 1054, forty five years before the first Crusade started, (1099) the break between the Byzantine Orthodox Church in the East and the Roman Catholic Church in the West took place.  This resulted in the second major division within the Christian Church.

2.      When the Crusaders came to Jerusalem they perceived not only the Muslims as their enemies but also the Jews as well as the indigenous Christians of the land who were largely Orthodox.

3.     The Orthodox Patriarch was removed and replaced by a Latin Patriarch.

4.     Beginning with the Crusades, every major Orthodox Church in the East split and a segment of the church went into union with Rome while retaining its eastern character and liturgy.  In historical order this is the picture that emerged:

5.     The establishment of a Latin church that eventually accepted members from various Orthodox churches.

1.     In 1180, the Maronite Church in its entirety went into union with Rome

6.     In 1672, the Chaldeans from the Assyrian Church followed suit

7.     In 1724, the Melkites (Greek Catholics) from the Greek Orthodox Church

8.     In 1742, the Armenian Catholics from the Armenian Orthodox Church

9.     In 1783, the Syrian Catholics from the Syrian Orthodox Church

10. In 1895, the Coptic Catholics from the Coptic Orthodox Church

12. These divisions left the Christians of the East weaker and fragmented with much bitterness and hostility towards each other.

13. The bitter legacy of the Crusades upset the lives of all the Christians of the East vis-à-vis their Muslim neighbors and created suspicions and, at times, accusations of collaboration with the West.  Today, every now and then, it still surfaces.  

14. This caused the third major division within Eastern Christianity.


Fourth Factor:  The Protestant Missionary Movement –

the rise of western powers and Colonialism   


1.     In the 16th century the Roman Catholic Church in Europe experienced divisions within its own ranks.  It started with what became known as the Protestant Reformation.  Many churches in Europe separated from Rome and formed their own national churches.  Further splits took place from within those national churches.  Eventually, many new denominations came into being.

2.     By the beginning of the 19th century, the great Protestant Missionary Movement started.  In some places it preceded the colonization of that country.  At times it followed it. 

3.     To Palestine, the missionaries came while the Ottoman Turks were still in power.  Colonialism followed after the end of the WWI.

4.     The American Presbyterians went to Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt.

5.     The Anglicans and the Lutherans came to Palestine. 

6.     This created the fourth division within the Christian churches.

7.     New Protestant and Evangelical churches began to be formed whose members were solicited from the Orthodox and Catholic churches of the land.  This created the 4th division within the church.


Fifth factor:  Zionism and the state of Israel


1.     The Zionist Movement did not differentiate between Palestinian Christians and Muslims.  They were both Palestinians and they needed to be eliminated for the success of the Zionist project. 

2.     Therefore, when the state of Israel came into being, 750,000 Palestinians – Muslims and Christians – where displaced. 

3.     The Jewish state was established on 78% of Palestine.

4.     Whereas up to this point the divisions among Christians were internal, with the establishment of Israel, the country itself was divided.  The Christians were split between those who stayed in Israel and those who were driven out or fled.

5.     Most Christians and their clergy became refugees and were not allowed by Israel to return to their homes in contravention of UN resolutions.

6.     The loss of Christian numbers weakened the church further.  It did not stop with that.  Later, many other Christians emigrated to the West largely to escape the discrimination of Israel against its Arab Palestinian minority.  Other refugees who could not return to their home inside Palestine were scattered in different parts of the world seeking refuge and a decent life for themselves and their families. 

7.     The same policies of discrimination have been used by Israel after it occupied the West Bank and Gaza.  Due to political instability, many Palestinian Christians have been emigrating on a steady basis.  Today more Palestinian Christians live outside Palestine than inside.




When one summarizes the last 2000 years of Palestinian Christianity, these five major factors are certainly obvious.  Every one of them affected the Christians in Palestine and left them weaker and more vulnerable than before.


It is possible to summarize this outline in the following way:


1.     Internal factors that weakened and divided the Christians, namely, the early theological controversies, the consequences of the coming of the Crusades (and the Catholic Church) and the coming of the Protestant Missions from the West.  Historically speaking, these factors divided the Church and weakened its witness and unity.  It is possible for some to emphasize the fragmented Body of Christ; while for others it is possible to see the beautiful mosaic and the rich heritage of the Christian presence in the land.  This is dependent on the different perspectives of the people.

2.     External political and religious factor with the coming of Islam.  It was not only a political conquest by the Muslims but the effect and ramification of a new religion that eventually led to the weakening of the Christian community through apostasy to Islam. 

3.     External political factor with the coming of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel that wanted the land without the people.  It was not a missionary religion of Judaism.  It coveted the country and created policies to reduce the number of Palestinians in the land including the number of Christians.


In light of this brief outline that spans 2000 years, we believe that in order to be faithful to God, we must address the following areas in our ministry at Sabeel:


1.     We must address the internal agenda within the Christian community; i.e. the divisions, separation, bitterness, and resentment that resulted from the divisions within the Christian community of the land.  We need to create a spirit of repentance, forgiveness, and love for each other.  All of us have sinned against God because we have failed to love.  We must work ecumenically to increase the love and to remove the walls of separation.  Although some of our people interpret history differently, we need to see the rich mosaic rather than the fragmentation.    

2.     We must address our relation to Islam genuinely and work for greater understanding. 

3.     We must address our relationship with Israel.  We must work for a peace based on justice that would lead to reconciliation among all the people of the Holy Land.


The past contains much pain and sorrow from the internal as well as external factors.  We still suffer as a result of the past.  Our historical memory in the Middle East is very vivid and sharp.  Historical events are not easily forgotten.  History moves slowly in this part of the world.  If we continue to live only in the past and to dwell only on the past, we can never move forward with God into the present and the future. 


As we look at the past, we realize that we have survived by the Grace of God.  Because we walk with God, we cannot lose hope.  Our hope is in God “who in Christ, [as Paul said], always leads us in triumphal procession and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him for we are the aroma of Christ…” (2Cor. 2:14-15)