Though not an overachiever like the seminary classmates who memorized the death dates of every important figure for the church history final, I did manage to commit the most important events to memory. And, as every student of church history knows, some of those events were the church councils–
325: Council of Nicea, Arian controversy.
381: Council of Constantinople, doctrine of the Trinity.
431: Council of Ephesus, Theotokos.
451: Council of Chalcedon, Monophysite controversy otherwise known as two natures, one person
553: Council of Constantinople, more Monophysite controversy
Though they seemed definitive, these councils were not the end of the story for everyone.
I was shocked to find out, as an attendee at a conference, “The Forgotten Faithful: A Window to the Life and Witness of Christians in the Holy Land,” that many of the indigenous Christians in the Holy Land refer to themselves as non-Chalcedonian. The conference, held in Jerusalem Nov. 2-9, was sponsored by Sabeel, an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians headquartered in Jerusalem.
Of course I remembered the East/West split in 1054, which lead to the Latin Church in the West and the Orthodox Church in the East, but here were Christians, right in front of me, who traced their denominational heritage back a full five hundred years before that.
They call themselves the forgotten faithful for just this reason, that their existence has been, in a word, ignored by the church in the West. Elisabeth Von der Decken recounts one such example in the words of Yussif, a Christian Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem: “Here in the Holy Land there are Christians coming from all over the world; they go to Bethlehem to see the Manger; they go to Nazareth to see where Jesus lived with his parents; they come to Jerusalem, they go to the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Jesus was buried and rose again. They visit, as my father always says, all the ‘dead stones.’ But us, the ‘living stones,’ the indigenous Arab Christians, they forget.”
Sabeel’s director, Naim Ateek, in explaining the reason for this year’s international conference focus on the Forgotten Faithful said, “We would like to re-introduce ourselves, through this conference, to our brothers and sisters in Christ in other areas of the world.” Ateek commented that “one of the most frequent statements that we hear is ‘I did not know there are Palestinian Christians!’ Christians everywhere,” he continued, “need to be aware of the predicament of this small and hurting member of Christ’s body that seeks justice and liberation.”
Conference organizers also hoped to dispel some of the myths about the Palestinian Christian community. One such myth they pointed to is the idea that Palestinian Christians were originally Muslim and then, by the wonderful evangelizing zeal of British, American, French, or German missionaries, they were converted to Christianity (a phrase taken from Sabeel’s Cornerstone Magazine).
Palestinian Christians in Palestine and Israel number approximately 162,000. Of that total, 120,000 are living within the boundary of Israel and the remaining 42,000 are living within the West Bank (40,000) and Gaza (2,000).
“The one factor that remains the most detrimental to the continued existence of the indigenous population (Palestinian Christians),” according to Romell Soudah, a lecturer at Bethlehem University who recently conducted a survey on the Christian presence in the Holy Land, “is the political situation manifested in the occupation and the loss of hope in a just peace.”
Author Maria C. Khoury admits that the daily struggle Palestinians face sometimes is cause for despair. “Palestinian Christians cannot help but feel forgotten in our desperate need to create bridges between our communities in the holy land and Christian communities across the globe.” The importance of this need for international Christian support cannot be overstated. “The connection with Christian communities can be our life-line not to be forgotten and to reinforce that we have a sacred mission to keep our Christian presence in the holy land,” says Khoury.
Munir Fasheh, director of the Arab Education Forum at Harvard University further refines the point made earlier by the words of Yussif, that Christians come to see the dead stones rather than to be in relationship with or learn from the living ones. “We are forgotten in the sense that Western Christians seem to be unable to see that we are worth learning from and entering into dialogue with,” says Fasheh. “Disvaluing our experiences and our ways of living is a loss for us, for them, and for the world,” he continues.
Even in the midst of this sense of being abandoned, Palestinian Christians believe that they are in a unique position. “Palestinian Christians form a very special Christian community in the world,” says Fasheh. “We are special not in the sense of having special privileges or a better understanding of Christianity, but in the sense of having a special responsibility for contributing to an authentic dialogue concerning Christianity and its role in the world today.”
Ateek expresses this sense of the uniqueness of the Palestinian Christian situation as well. “Very few people in the West understand Islam and Muslims,” reasons Ateek. “We have lived with Islam for 1400 years with ups and downs. We can help build relations with them and work together for peace.” The commitment to peacekeeping stems from their faith as Christians. “We can contribute to greater understanding and respect between Christianity and Islam,” says Ateek. “We can be a bridge between East and West. We have a role to play in bridging the gap between peoples of different religions.” In fact, as Ateek sees it, these beleaguered Palestinian Christians “have a rich experience of living together with other religions, and this is an important part of our calling.”