Mary Mussalam is a Christian living in Bethlehem and from her stories of oppression, she lives between a rock and a hard place. On one side, the Israeli government. On the other side, the Palestinians.
“The city is made up of Muslims and Christians,” Mussalam said. “They (Christians) have diminished. According to the latest statistics, in 1947 they used to be around 40 percent of the population, but after 1947 and up to now, we are less than two percent.”
In 1948, prior to the first Arab-Israeli war and the establishment of Israel, there were 145,000 Christians in Palestine, which was made up of 1,908,724 inhabitants. Thirty-four thousand Christians remained in what became the state of Israel; 60,000 became refugees. Accordingly 51,063 Christians were residents in the West Bank and Gaza prior to the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The toll of the first war and the continuous conflict explains why a majority of two-thirds of Palestinian Christians are found at present outside their country.
“Quoting our patriarch in Jerusalem, ‘The ‘Holy Land’ risks becoming a spiritual Disneyland, full of glittering rides and attractions, but empty of its Christian population.’” Mussalam said. “The decline is part of the Christian exodus all across the Middle East and every one of us knows that the Christians are less and less every day.”
Mussalam said the mass exodus of Christians began with the Arab-Israeli conflict, followed by the lack of economic opportunity.
“That means if I am highly educated and want to work as a young woman or a young man, I cannot find work,” Mussalam said. “We have little opportunities, this is due to the closure to the world. Christians in the area tend to be more educated and they have the better chance of getting out.”
The Daily Times asked Mussalam if it is the goal of the Christian in that region to leave that region.
“It is not the goal. We are obliged to leave,” Mussalam said. “When you have a house and you have your land and you have your family, you don’t set a goal for yourself to leave, but you are going to search for a better opportunity and a peaceful place to live.” She said aggression and oppression are part of every day life in Bethlehem and most people in the west don’t know about what is going on there.
“We are living in a prison as Palestinian Christian Arabs,” Mussalam said. “The problem is in Europe and in the west they don’t realize we are Christians living in the Holy Land. They are not well informed about us.”
Mussalam, who was visiting Scott and Alice Kay Rawlings in Portsmouth this week, and scheduled to speak at the Kentucky Christian University, grew up in Bethlehem and says her family has been of Christian heritage for 400 years.
“We are born Christians,” Mussalam said. “Where we live, the Holy Land is the title of Christianity. This is where Christianity bloomed and we’re all over the world. The message of peace came in our land. The angels appeared in our land in the shepherd’s field. At the time the angels said, “Glory be in the highest, peace of earth.”
Mussalam has a degree in social science, a degree in English and her third degree is a Phd in education. She speaks English, French, Italian, Czech and Arabic and was awarded the Danish Peace Prize for her work with non-government organizations in the Palestinian community focusing on the empowerment and education of women.
“I’ve been a teacher for more than 25 years,” Mussalam said. “I taught in elementary and high school and I wrote a book about Palestinian embroidery and heritage. I taught in Bethlehem University and worked with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems to prepare for the first election since the Palestinian authority (Yassir Arafat) took over. After that, I worked as a consultant.”
Mussalam worked in other phases of government work including the National Security Force. She was also in charge of the first group of released prisoners after the Oslo Accords and was in charge of all the private schools for the orthodox community.
What can people in America do to help the Christians in Palestine?
“I think our Christian brothers and sisters are very important to us,” Mussalam said. “First of all they should get knowledge that they have brothers and sisters in the holy land. Second, to raise the awareness. We need them to visit the holy land, to make contacts within the local community. I want to be a citizen and not to be tolerated as a minority. I refuse that. As a minority I refuse that. As long as I am not breaking the law I have the right to raise my children in a peaceful environment. Our Christian brothers and sisters (in the west) have to know how we live and what our suffering is. Maybe if we only speak of our suffering it will make us feel better.”
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.