The ever-dwindling Christian communities living in Palestinian-run territories in the West Bank and Gaza are likely to dissipate completely within the next 15 years as a result of increasing Muslim persecution and maltreatment, an Israeli scholar said Monday.
"The systematic persecution of Christian Arabs living in Palestinian areas is being met with nearly total silence by the international community, human rights activists, the media and NGOs," said Justus Reid Weiner, an international human rights lawyer in an address at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, where he serves as a scholar in residence.
He cited Muslim harassment and persecution as the main cause of the "acute human rights crisis" facing Christian Arabs, and predicted that unless governments or institutions step in to remedy the situation - such as with job opportunities - there will be no more Christian communities living in the Palestinians territories within 15 years, with only a few Western Christians and top clergymen left in the area.
"Christian leaders are being forced to abandon their followers to the forces of radical Islam," Weiner said.
Facing a pernicious mixture of persecution and economic hardships as a result of years of Palestinian violence and Israeli counter-terrorism measures, tens of thousands of Christian Arabs have left the Palestinian territories for a better life in the West, in a continuing exodus which has led some Christian leaders to warn that the faith could be virtually extinct in its birthplace in a matter of decades.
The Palestinian Christian population has dipped to 1.5 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, down from at least 15% a half century ago, according to some estimates.
No one city in the Holy Land is more indicative of the great exodus of Christians than Bethlehem, which fell under full Palestinian control last decade as part of the Oslo Accords.
The town of 30,000 is now less than 20% Christian, after decades when Christians were the majority. Elsewhere in the Palestinian territories, only about 3,000 Christians, mostly Greek Orthodox, live in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, out of a strongly conservative Muslim population of 1.4 million.
"In a society where Arab Christians have no voice and no protection it is no surprise that they are leaving," he said.
In his address, Weiner pointedly downplayed the effects that Israeli security measures, such as the security barrier being built between Israel and the West Bank, have had on the Christian Arabs living in the West Bank.
The barrier, which is especially conspicuous at the entrance to Bethlehem where it is a concrete wall, is an issue which many Palestinian Christian clerics have pointed to, along with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as a central cause of Christian emigration.
Weiner argued there was a "180 degree difference" between the public statements coming out of the mainstream Christian leadership in the Holy Land - who "sing the PA's tune" and blame Israel for all the Christian Arabs' ills - and people's experience on the ground.
"The truth is beginning to come out," he said. "The question is what is being done with the truth."
His comments come just months [weeks actually] after a prominent Christian activist, Rami Khader Ayyad, 32, was killed in Gaza.
"For too long the plight of Christian Arabs has been put on the back-burner or ignored altogether," said Rev. Malcolm Hedding, executive director of the International Christian Embassy, a Jerusalem-based evangelical organization.
The Evangelical leader, who has drawn the wrath of Catholic leaders in the Holy Land for his strong support for Israel, said that "power politics" has prevented the major Christian leaders in the Holy Land from speaking out on this issue.
"There is a one-sided debate in which Israel is responsible for everything," he said. "The Christian world needs to stand up and speak out about this."