When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed a decree Feb. 21 setting aside a minimum of seven legislative seats for Christians in the upcoming elections for the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council, he was following a tradition set by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He was also reflecting on the wide contribution of Palestinian Christians in the last century.
In the 1960s, Amin Majaj's research in the basement of the Augusta Victoria hospital involving malnourished Palestinian refugees helped show some of the benefits that Vitamin E can bring.
The leadership of the PLO founded in the late 1960s included George Habash of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Nayef Hawatmeh of the left-wing Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. PLO diplomats have included Naim Tarazi, Afif Safieh and Manuel Hassasian. Christian leaders were targets of assassination, including Kamel Naser, killed by Israeli forces in 1973 in Lebanon, and Naim Khader, killed in Brussels in 1981, apparently on order of Abu Nidal.
Christian Palestinians such as academic Hanan Ashrawi and nonviolence advocate Mubarak Awad left their marks during the first intifada. Artists such as Suleiman Mansour and Vera Tamari and filmmakers such as Elia Suleiman, AnnMarie Jacier, Michele Khleifi and Najwa Najjar made it to the biggest festivals and reaped international awards.
Businessmen such as Zahi Khoury, philanthropists such as Said and Suheil Khoury and others have left their mark in Palestine. The Palestinian government has seen ministers such as Bassem Khoury and Shukri Bishara. Palestinian citizens of Israel have also seen Christian leaders such as Emile Habibi, Tawfiq Toubi, Azmi Bishara and Aida Suleiman. Palestinian theologians and Christian leaders include Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabah, Lutheran Bishop Munib Yonan, Anglican Palestinian liberation theologist Naim Ateek and former pastor of the East Jerusalem Baptist Church Alex Awad.
Internationally, Palestinian thinkers, creative persons and politicians such as Edward Said, Raymonda Tawil, Kamal Saliba, Kamal Boulatta and John Sununu are all Palestinian Christians who left their mark.
Despite all these accomplished Palestinian Christians, the number of Christians still living in the occupied territories have gradually dwindled to around 1% of the population of the occupied territories and 2% among Palestinian citizens of Israel.
In 1996, when Palestinians held their first legislative elections, Christians were guaranteed six seats out of the 88-member council, nearly 7%. In 2006, when the council size was increased to 132, the quota for Christians didn’t change, bringing the percentage down to 4.5%. Abbas’ decision to raise the quota to seven means that Palestinian Christians will make up 5% of the council. To his credit, Abbas made the seven seats a minimum allowing lists to include more Christians in safe spots if they so choose.
Considering that Palestinian Christians once made up 20% to 35% of the population, some, such as Allam Al Ahmad, a lawyer representing the PLO in Jordan, say 5% is not enough. “It is a shame that the percentage allotted to Palestinian Christians is only 5% when they were 31% in 1947,” he told Al-Monitor.
Ashrawi, on the other hand, said she thinks there should not be a quota for Christians. “We need a system that protects people and provides for their rights. If we don’t want our churches to become museums, our country should ensure that it allows for a vibrantly rich and inclusive pluralistic society,” she told Religious News Network.
But former Economy Minister Bassem Khoury said that without the quota, Palestinian Christians would face the danger of being underrepresented, such as is the case of the 10 million Christian Copts in Egypt. “It is hard to win unless there is a serious effort by the factions to put a Christian Palestinian in a safe spot, and therefore the quota is important and necessary,” Khoury told the news service.
For secular Palestinians and those supporting the PLO, the religious connotation is not important. The growth of political Islam and especially the effects of the rise of Hamas as a competing ideology to the secular PLO has resulted in a new way of thinking about religion in terms of ensuring that Palestinian Christians are well represented in any and all political bodies. A former mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, told Arab News that diversity is very important in Palestine and must be reflected in leading organizations such as the Palestinian Legislative Council. “The upcoming elected council needs to reflect the widest national experience and representation of all of our society, including women and Palestinian Christians.”
Palestinian Christians have also played an important role as a bridge between east and west. The growth of Christian Zionism as a political force, especially in American politics, has also brought a major response from Palestinian Christians, who have the religious knowledge necessary to react and debunk the false biblical claims that attempt to justify Israeli occupation and the subjugation of Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians.
The upcoming May 22 elections that will bring about a new legislative council will surely insert new blood in Palestinian politics. Older Palestinian Christians such as Ashrawi have said they will not run, providing an opportunity for younger and energetic Palestinian Christians to carry on the mantle that has been kept alive for over a century.