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'Jerusalem has to be shared': Palestinian Christians decry Trump's decision Open in fullscreen

Charlie Hoyle

'Jerusalem has to be shared': Palestinian Christians decry Trump's decision

East Jerusalem is considered occupied Palestinian territory under international law. [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 December, 2017

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Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital has left Palestinian Christians dismayed, with communities worried about their future in the city following the historic shift in US foreign policy.
President Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital has left Palestinian Christians concerned about their future in the city following the historic shift in US foreign policy.

The future of Jerusalem - home to some of the holiest sites in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism - is one of the most critical final status issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump's announcement on Wednesday that the US embassy would be moved to the contested city effectively takes Jerusalem off the negotiating table in any future talks between Palestinians and Israelis.

Since the 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Israeli policy in East Jerusalem has sought to engineer a Jewish majority through land expropriation, building restrictions on Palestinians, and settlement expansion.

Designated as permanent residents instead of national citizens, Palestinians in Jerusalem - around 40 percent of the population - face a precarious future.

But for the small yet vibrant Palestinian Christian community - estimated at 60,000 in the entire occupied Palestinian territories - political upheaval is an existential threat.

Evangelical base

The dramatic shift in US policy fulfilled a campaign promise which had largely been directed at Trump's Evangelical Christian base, which has been a powerful force in American politics since the 1980s and is staunchly pro-Israel.

Around 81 percent of Evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 election.

Vice-President Mike Pence's rise to the second most important position in US politics has given greater influence to the Christian religious right - or Christian Zionists, as they are also called - and he is thought to have played an active role in Trump's Jerusalem decision.

The dramatic shift in US policy fulfilled a campaign promise which had largely been directed at Trump's Evangelical Christian base, a powerful force in American politics.

The vice-president stood behind Trump as he announced the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and has an upcoming visit to the region which the White House initially framed as a show of support for Christians in the Middle East.

They, however, have strongly rebuffed the trip, again showing the chasm in ideology and practice between the Western political Christian right and Arab Christians.

'The first church'

Egypt's Coptic Church head Pope Tawadros II - leader of the largest Christian community in the Arab world - said he would not meet Pence following Trump's Jerusalem decision, while Palestinian officials have pressured church leaders to follow suit.

Palestinians protested the move by turning off the lights of the Christmas tree outside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity - the traditional birthplace of Jesus - while the city's mayor said there were no plans to welcome him if he did visit.

Yusef Daher, head of the Jerusalem Inter Church Center said the Palestinian Christian community was saddened by Trump's decision, especially the justification used by Christian Zionists who believe Jews must return to Israel in order to fulfil biblical prophecy.

"It's like reading a different Bible", Daher told The New Arab. "We have to remind Mike Pence and others that Palestinians were the first church and the first followers of Jesus Christ."

There is also ongoing concern that the decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital could further entrench the suppression of Palestinian religious and cultural identities, contributing to the flight of Christians from Palestine.

Over recent decades Christians have left Bethlehem and Jerusalem in their thousands.

"If Israel continues with its discriminatory policies in East Jerusalem it will limit the ability of Christians to remain viable," Daher said. "It will lead to more immigration out of city."

An inclusive Jerusalem

Ahead of Trump's announcement, the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem issued a joint letter to the US president decrying his decision.

"Our solemn advice and plea is for the United States to continue recognising the present international status of Jerusalem," the letter read.

"As the Christian leaders of Jerusalem, we invite you to walk with us in hope as we build a just, inclusive peace for all the peoples of this unique and Holy City."

Nora Karmi, co-ordinator for Kairos Palestine, said that whether justified politically or religiously, the US administration's decision has left Palestinians angry.

"As a Palestinian I think it's the biggest mistake that any US president has done. I don't think he has read any international law - he doesn't know the history of this area," she told The New Arab.

"As a Christian, I cannot take certain verses of the bible literally to give rights to a people which are not the only one that has been in this country for so many years."

Until Trump's declaration, no other country had ever recognised Jerusalem as Israel's "eternal capital" since Israel's first premier Ben Gurion moved government offices to the city 68-years-ago.

Despite the system of segregation in the city between Palestinians and Israelis, Jerusalem's importance to three faiths means its future must be inclusive.

"Jerusalem has to be shared," Karmi said.

"We have said that for over 70 years but nobody wants to listen to us."

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