A cross atop a building in the Old City of Jerusalem. In the background are two domes, one a church with a cross and the other the Dome of the Rock with a crescent.


Joel Carillet, Getty Images


Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem Face Somber Christmas Season in Gaza’s Long, Dark Shadow


Five leading Palestinian Christian Jerusalemites discuss the danger of erasure of Christians from the Holy Land, the war on Gaza and its enormous risk to the tiny historic Christian population there, the importance of unity, the cancellation of Christmas this year, and other weighty issues of the moment.


The following is the text of a Jerusalem Story Roundtable discussion that took place over Zoom December 17, 2023, more than two months into Israel’s war on Gaza, which was triggered October 7, 2023, in response to Hamas’s Operation al-Aqsa Flood earlier that day. Participants are all Palestinian Christian Jerusalemites:

Graphic of Roundtable on Christians in Jerusalem


Jerusalem Story

Omar Haramy is an activist and director of the Sabeel, Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center.

Hani Boullata is the director of the Arab Orthodox Union Club in Jerusalem. The club, which was established in 1942, predates the State of Israel. 

Adele Zumot is the director and morning show anchor of the Yabous FM radio station

Reverend Jack Sara is the President of the Bethlehem Bible College and a former resident of the Old City.

Hagop Djernazian is an Armenian activist and co-initiator of the Save the Armenian Quarter movement (Save the ARQ). 


Daoud Kuttab: Welcome, everyone. I am Daoud Kuttab, the moderator of this Roundtable. Assisting me with logistics and administrative issues is Arda Aghazarian of Jerusalem Story. 

We will start our discussion with Gaza, especially in light of the killings yesterday (Saturday, December 16, 2023) of two Palestinian Christian women, Nahida Khalil Anton and her daughter, Samar, in the Holy Family Church in Gaza. I would like to ask for everyone’s reaction. What is the role of the Christians of Jerusalem? The Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem issued a statement just a few minutes ago calling for international protection of Palestinian Christians who have taken refuge in the churches of Gaza.  

Let us begin with Reverend Jack Sara. What do you think of what is happening—in Gaza generally and on Saturday to the two Christian women taking refuge in the church specifically? 

Rev. Jack Sara: The truth is that I was speaking with Shireen from the Shepard Society, and we were talking about how to get water and other needs for those taking refuge in the church. This case has shown clearly that no one is safe in Gaza, not in the church or in any other place. It was a surprise, because we have been in touch with the Vatican, and we know that daily the Pope is talking to the Latin priest in Gaza, and he is in touch with foreign ministers around the world, and they are sending strong messages and holding discussions with President Biden’s people and the Israelis. But it is clear that those people [Israelis] have no respect for anyone. They have given no place for anyone who has spiritual or political stature. This issue is of concern to us, because there is a threat to the Christian presence in Gaza. The threat to our presence is everywhere. Gaza is connected to the West Bank, which includes East Jerusalem. We have never said that Palestinian Christians’ lives are any different than any other members of our Palestinian people. But it is clear also that makes no difference. and it is heartbreaking that Israelis sniped those women in the church as if they were hunters stalking prey. No one was able to save them; the second woman was killed as she was trying to save her mother.

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“Israelis sniped those women in the church as if they were hunters stalking prey.”

Rev. Jack Sara, President, Bethlehem Bible College

Daoud Kuttab: The next question is to Hani [Boullata]. The Orthodox Patriarchate today issued a strong statement. They demanded international protection for the Christians taking refuge in the church. We have always asked for international protection, but those calls have never been responded to. I would like to know your thoughts about this. I personally was surprised that the statement came out only in the name of the Orthodox Patriarchate and not the heads of churches of Jerusalem. 

Hani Boullata: When the war started, and Omar [Haramy] is aware of this, we thought that as Palestinian Christian organizations in Jerusalem, we can help. But because of the bullying and intimidation that we faced, we were not able to even issue a statement. To be honest, we were afraid of the repercussions of even a statement—that they [the Israelis] would close our institutions.  

Daoud Kuttab: Are you saying that you were the subject of intellectual terrorism? 

Hani Boullata: Absolutely it was intellectual terrorism. As a result, we got together as institutions in Jerusalem and decided that we need to go to our church leaders. We wanted the church leaders to stand outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and read a statement. They did not respond quickly enough. Sure, they finally put out statements and they are OK, but I am ashamed of the response, in the same way that I am also ashamed of the Ramallah government [Palestinian Authority]. Even the statement of what happened that the Latin Patriarchate put out about the killing of the two women outside their church ended with the word “concern.” They are “concerned.” Also, the Pope is “concerned.” But the Pope is not here with us. We would hope that the heads of our churches would be representing us more. But they can do more. Sure, they believe in God, and we also believe in God, but what would happen if they took a stronger position? They need to tell truth to power. We asked them to give us and our institutions cover, so that our organizations would not be closed down by the Israelis. Our institutions are part of our existence.  

Maybe we should be happy that they are still issuing statements. We just want them to issue stronger, more effective statements.

“Absolutely it was intellectual terrorism.”

Hani Boullata

Daoud Kuttab: Adele, you raised your hand. Would you like to comment?

Adele Zumout: I wanted to assure you of some last-minute developments in Gaza. I have relatives from the Nasrawi family in the Latin Church, and I talk to them whenever possible, I mean whenever there is a connection to speak with them, because phone and internet connections are cut off as well in Gaza. They are also unable to charge their phones. We talked to our relatives late last night after the killing of the two women to check on them, and today we talked again, and they said that they were contacted by official sources who reassured them that the church will not be attacked again. They were also allowed to walk around in the church yard, but only until 4:00 p.m. What I learned is that they had not been allowed even to move from one room to another, so this is an improvement that they can move around within the church compound but only until 4:00 p.m. It is like the space where prisoners are given time to walk around a yard within the prison compound. They did say that snipers are all around the church building, but they were assured that nothing will happen to them from now on. Also, the Red Cross visited them, again after the two women were killed. They were told it was a fluke accident. But because no one had made any provocative move that would cause such a fatal act against them, it is clear to us that the killing was in fact deliberate.

Daoud Kuttab: Omar, would you like to comment on that incident in Gaza?

Omar Haramy: A number of things happened as a result of what happened in Gaza. Of course, there is this case in the church, but I want to consider the bigger context. A massacre occurred near the borders with Egypt, also there was the case at the Kamal Adwan Hospital and there have been attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank. If you put all these cases into context, the situation is really, really bad. What makes the case of the church different, and this might be a wrong assumption, is that people think that the church and Christians have more people interested in their well-being. This is unfortunate. Sure, churches, like hospitals or any other civilian place, should be untouchable during war. What happened yesterday in Gaza was a clear signal that there is no red line for the Israelis, and they are the ones in charge. We can complain; we can protest; we can beg for their mercy, but they [the Israelis] want everyone to know that they are the ultimate decision-makers. This is a big problem when people realize that there is no safe space. The feeling of security is more important than food or water.

“What happened yesterday in Gaza was a clear signal that there is no red line for the Israelis, and they are the ones in charge.”

Omar Haramy

The other problem is that of identity. There is no place in the world in which a citizen, say in the US when a person has a problem with another country, they do not go and ask for help from their priest or bishop. In any country—in the Philippines or any other country with such a problem—people contact their government. For us, we have become like an endangered species, looking to religious leaders who may know how to marry or baptize—but they are not superheroes, they are not the government, and they have no executive powers. What is happening is that we ourselves have started to think in terms of our religion or denomination, and we have started to think of ourselves as minorities and as an endangered species. The problem is not with us, but with how others see us. Our Muslim brothers think we are strong and that all we have to do is talk to the Pope or your local bishop and everything will be solved. People have created this high expectation of us, and at times we have become convinced of this expectation. Even this illusion—that the Pope can solve any problem—has been shattered yesterday.

The Armenian Quarter, Jerusalem

The Armenian Quarter, Old City of Jerusalem


Muath al-Khatib for Jerusalem Story

Daoud Kuttab: I did a calculation yesterday: the 21 Palestinian Christian deaths out of 1,000 (or less) is 0.02 percent proportionally, twice or more than the percentage of all Palestinians killed, which is 21,000 out of 2.2 million, which comes out to 0.01 percent. So those Palestinian Christians who are still in Gaza are gravely threatened. 

I want to ask Hagop a question. I know that for a while, your activity [related to the struggle for land in the Armenian Quarter—Ed.] was centered on secular activism, because the [Armenian] patriarch was not standing with you. But now he seems to be involved, and your group of activists are visiting all church leaders. The Patriarch is standing with you, and you paid him a visit yesterday. Do you have hope that the church leaders can help you with the case of the Armenian Quarter or any of the problems that Armenian Christians are facing in Jerusalem and Gaza?

Hagop Djernazian: Of course, but first of all, I would like to add something to what the others have said here: It shows that Christians in Gaza are also facing an existential threat. I mean, fewer than 1,000 Christians live in Gaza today, and 21 of the 1,000 have already lost their lives in this war. This shows that not only in Jerusalem are Christians in danger, but also in Gaza. And the churches in Gaza are also targeted. It is very difficult for us as Christians to witness when the entire Christian world is not standing firmly with the Christians in the Holy Land. It is devastating and frustrating.

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“It is very difficult for us as Christians to witness when the entire Christian world is not standing firmly with the Christians in the Holy Land.”

Hagop Djernazian, Save the ARQ

Regarding the issue of the Armenian Quarter, I personally believe that Christian unity should be not only within the communities. The Armenian community, in the past year, established very good and healthy relations with all the Christian communities in Jerusalem. Armenians in Jerusalem were unfortunately for years separated from the entire Jerusalem Christian community, and it was a shame. And the new generation decided to change that so-called old mentality of “keeping you away from the entire Christian community.” And by establishing relations within the communities, we succeeded to not bring only the Christian community around the Armenian community and support us, but also the heads of churches. Our visits to the cardinal, to the Greek [Orthodox] Patriarch yesterday, and the visit by our own patriarch are all very positive steps towards preserving the Christian presence in Jerusalem. Because without cooperation between the communities and heads of churches, we will not succeed to protect the Christian presence in Jerusalem, let alone the Christian presence in Gaza or elsewhere.

So yes, I do think that cooperation and meetings with the heads of churches is important and should happen on a monthly basis. For example, yesterday the Greek [Orthodox] Patriarch asked us that we, the Armenians, network with all Christian communities and create a youth committee to strengthen the relations among all the Christian youths in Jerusalem. And we will do it. We are working with all the scouts, and we will continue to cooperate as scouts, but we also have to cooperate as the new generation who will be the leaders of these communities. And it is very important that it comes from the heads of churches. I mean, we heard so many things about our own heads of churches, but now when they also feel the danger and the time has come, they will join forces to face this existential threat. 

“Without cooperation between the communities and heads of churches, we will not succeed to protect the Christian presence in Jerusalem, let alone the Christian presence in Gaza or elsewhere.”

Hagop Djernazian, Save the ARQ

Daoud Kuttab: Jack, two weeks ago, I was in Ramallah, and we heard stories about so many of the Gaza Christians who are looking for ways to emigrate to Australia and other countries. Why not suggest to them to come temporarily to the West Bank? I was talking to a relative and she was telling me that many of them, especially the older ones, do not want to go to Australia; some do not speak English. It might be much easier for them to come to the West Bank. This way, they will legally be in the same country, and this can be temporarily, and they can later return to Gaza. If you or I are in their place and your life is in danger, you might want to leave. We cannot tell them, “be strong and do not emigrate.” This is not logical. But what about the West Bank as a temporary refuge?

Rev. Jack Sara: I am in touch with about 10 Palestinian Christians in Gaza, and they are going through an unbelievable trauma, like everyone else. Many are saying, “We do not want to stay in the entire region.” I cannot say this about all, but many are telling me, “We are tired. We are ready to leave our homes, our land, our business, and just get out with our kids and family alive.” This is a huge trauma of more than two months of daily life.

As I mentioned in the beginning, Christians in Gaza are facing an existential threat—they are going through the most difficult time in the entire history of them living in Gaza. On the other hand, I understand their willingness to leave Gaza. It is very difficult to speak on behalf of people who are experiencing a  catastrophe. We are sitting here, and I cannot decide if they will do it right by leaving, by moving to the West Bank or to any other parts of the world, or if they will stay there. It is up to them, but in the end our [Christian] presence in Gaza, a historical presence, should remain, but again, it is up to the people who are living there and who are going through these horrific days. Therefore, they are not interested in continuing to live under Israeli rule with permits, checkpoints, and so on. They just want to leave to a stable location. None of us can decide for them. We are living in Jerusalem; while things are not great here, there is no comparison. We can offer to help them. We are not elite, as Omar said. Why is this idea of temporary move to the West Bank not being offered to all Palestinians, not just Christians? I spoke to this young woman who had an opportunity of taking sick people to the border and she spoke about the guilt feeling she had as she drove by people who were walking for safety. She said she did not want to feel privileged while she was seeing how everyone else was suffering.

“Christians in Gaza are facing an existential threat.”

Rev. Jack Sara, President, Bethlehem Bible College

It is hard to choose. If they choose to come to the West Bank, all our homes are open. The Bible College that I run will be able to provide them with some of the rooms at the guest house, and Bethlehem will also be willing to host them if they choose to come. Of course, we are against some of the out-of-tune voices that said we want to intervene with the Israeli army to bring out the Christians from Gaza. Imagine the feeling that they would have of coming at the back of Israeli army vehicles and how people will look at them and ask the simple question, “Why only you? Are not other Palestinians suffering?” People were unable to think of next steps.

Daoud Kuttab: Adele, what do you think of this?

Adele Zumot: You know we have the Higher Committee for Church Affairs; I am sure most of you are members or know of it. They should take a role. Some shy efforts did take place, but there was little follow-up. I think if there is a serious effort, it could produce results. I think if people can be given a chance to leave, even for a short period of time, I am sure they will not say no, because things are so bad there now. This is not supposed to be a war against all Palestinians but rather a war against Hamas. Ideology plays a role. I am not sure if we can contact the Higher Church Council; this would also be good. We also had similar efforts to create a Jerusalem committee to combat what has been happening here in the city in area of the New Gate—the efforts to make that area more Jewish. I attended one of the meetings, but we know who has an interest in what is happening in the New Gate area. The Higher Council has lots of money, and it should have a role in what happens in Gaza.

Daoud Kuttab: Hagop, do you have a response to the issue of emigration of Christians from Gaza?

Hagop Djernazian: As I mentioned at the outset, Christians in Gaza are facing an existential threat, and they are going through the most difficult time in their entire history in Gaza. I understand that they want to leave Gaza. It is hard to speak on behalf of people going through a catastrophe. We are still here in Jerusalem, and I personally cannot answer whether it would be best to move to the West Bank or to emigrate to other countries. It is up to them, but in the end, our historical presence as Christians in Gaza should remain.

Daoud Kuttab: Hani?

Hani Boullata: First of all, we are Palestinian Christians. The order is very important. And what is happening in Gaza is not a war on Hamas but a war on the Palestinian people. They are shelling Gaza now, but our turn is coming. We need to know at which phase we will become targets. We might in the future find ourselves in the same position as the people in Gaza are facing now. As for my family and I, we are determined not to leave. We no longer believe in human rights talk of many of the Western countries. They could dump those covenants in the garbage. We as Palestinians have no one except God.

“They are shelling Gaza now, but our turn is coming. We need to know at which phase we will become targets.”

Hani Boullata

Omar Haramy: We need to keep in mind the context of Gaza. Most of the Palestinians living in Gaza are refugees from 1948. For many of them Gaza is a temporary location. They are refugees whether in Gaza, Jerusalem, or Amman. Another issue to keep in mind is that many of the people living in Gaza have children working in the West Bank or in Gulf countries. The ones that remain are older adults, many taking care of the businesses. The context is that emigration had already started; this is the final push. Even if this war did not take place, some were planning to emigrate anyway. We should not be very harsh. We read the story of the holy family also leaving Bethlehem to escape the massacres of Herod. The issue is not heroism and staying put at all costs. It should not be reduced to literary simplicity. This is people’s lives. All who can hide and stay safe until Herod dies, should do so, at least that is how many people think. And then maybe we will die before Herod dies!!

Hani Boullata: We should stop the war. No ceasefire is not enough anymore. 

Hagop Djernazian: Hani, we know that this is what should be done. Maybe it is a ceasefire to finish the war. I do not know. 

Daoud Kuttab: I want to continue with you because you are leaving early. I like the idea you said about youth cooperation and boy scout cooperation. The situation of Armenians especially, and Christians in general especially, has been very difficult. I mean, the spitting at priest, the attacks on the churches, the attacks on people, the hooliganism of the settlers, it needs a much stronger reaction from the community. And as you said, everybody is protecting themselves and we are stronger as a unit. So, what more can we do to strengthen Christian presence in Jerusalem?

Hagop Djernazian: So, first of all, the campaign or the movement that we as Armenians started, it’s not only for the Armenian Quarter. I mean, in each interview that we give, we include the New Gate, Jaffa Gate, the Christian Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter, because at the end, both quarters should stay united, as it was announced by the heads of churches during the Camp David summits. 

Today, more than ever, both quarters should stay not only geographically united, but also by people. The communities who are living in both quarters should cooperate by, for example, events, committees, different projects. I mean, the separation that we went through in the past years has harmed Christians. And that is why we reached a point that we are fewer than 8,000 Christians in Jerusalem, which is absolutely insane. The city where Christ was crucified. We have our own quarters, and we have our holy places—but we have no Christians to protect them. And in order to make sure that these places and the quarters that we are fighting for will stay, we should ensure that, first of all, heads of churches will cooperate and put aside the arguments and misunderstandings so they will give the right example to the communities they are leading. Those communities should also cooperate. Thank God that the communities are doing it very well in the past months.

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“We reached a point that we are fewer than 8,000 Christians in Jerusalem, which is absolutely insane.”

Hagop Djernazian

Daoud Kuttab: But it is the blood of innocent people that has caused this.

Hagop Djernazian: Yes, and if you have the will, you can achieve everything. So as Christian communities, we need to have the will to change our future, to make sure that the future generations will be able to live here. But this should only happen through mutual unity and not a fake unity of only announcements and joint statements of the heads of churches. It should be done on the ground, and this is what we are doing now.

And I would just like to use this opportunity to appreciate our brothers and sisters from all the communities who come [to the Armenian Quarter] and support us [the Armenians] daily and visit us and call us. Two of them are here, Hani and Omar, and of course you, Daoud. I appreciate that this is the beginning of mutual cooperation, of mutual understanding, and of unity between communities. 

Daoud Kuttab: Hani, what is the chance that the Orthodox Club, which you head, and the Armenians can cooperate?

Hani Boullata: Hagop is a positive example. He gives us hope that we can still have a better future. We started to cooperate two years ago. Last year was more. If we do not cooperate, we will not survive. We live among so much misinformation, and we are also fighting Israel’s effort to Judaize the entire area. We need to overcome our differences. But there is a lot of misinformation.

“If we do not cooperate, we will not survive.”

Hani Boullata

Daoud Kuttab: Omar, you took local leaders and visited with all the heads of churches recently. Do you think we can build on this, just as Hagop and Hani are cooperating. Can we reach a situation where there would be really practical and effective unity?

Omar Haramy: They say necessity is the mother of invention. People make their moves based on their need. Weakness often forces people to cooperate. Cooperation is effective, and it reduces societal tension. This is what is behind cooperation, but the goal we are all agreed on is that we want to protect the Christian presence in Jerusalem. This requires maturity and the ability to transcend differences based on denomination or party. 

Daoud Kuttab: Jack, you grew up in the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. How do you see the potential for cooperation between all parties, both religious and secular? Many see a huge gap between the religious leadership and lay people in Jerusalem.

Rev. Jack Sara: I do not want to say that unity is an order from Christ. In John, Jesus talks about unity. This is the goal of Jesus and where his heart is—that the Christian people be one, not only when things are difficult. It is true that difficulties produce unity and open our eyes to the fact that we are not alone. When there is pressure and persecution, the first place that Christians should look is unity. We should put aside our theological differences, most of which are not that important to our spiritual life. To be honest, one of the problems we have is that the religious church leadership is not Arab. If they were, I think things would be different. I might be wrong, but this is my opinion. If all the church leaders where Arab, they would feel the pulse of the community and the challenges that they face. How much they are suffering, how they are dealing with the suffering that they are facing, and how their identity is challenged every day.

It feels sometimes that we have a leach on our necks and the leach is pulled if we say or do something that they do not like. It is not easy to unify opinions, but when it comes to issues of daily life and the difficulties facing the people and the churches, we should be united. People are frustrated, and what adds to the situation is the feeling that the churches are not doing enough. There is external pressure and internal pressure. The internal pressure is sometimes more difficult than the external pressure.

Hani Boullata: When we had a meeting recently with Christian institutions in Jerusalem and the retired Patriarch Michel Sabah attended, it was different. I say this to add to what Jack said about the importance of having an Arab as the religious head of the church. It makes a big difference—the way he presents issues, the words he uses, and how they are presented. When we met with Patriarch Sabah, he reminded us that we are Palestinian Christian institutions and that what applies to all Palestinians applies to us. We are not different; what we need to do is use our positions to make a difference.

Ever since I was young, we have been praying for the unity of churches, and now we know that we have been praying for church unity for 1,500 years. 

Daoud Kuttab: As proof of this disunity, the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are with the Nusseibeh (Muslim) family.

Hani Boullata: That is fine, leave the keys with them. We need to look at what has happened since the 1980s. At that time, we had many more intellectuals. Also, at that time, there was a rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and there was a reaction to it around the world, and this had its effects here. We might be small in number, but we have a lot of effects. Look at the Armenians—they began investing here back in the third century; they are part of this beautiful mosaic of Jerusalem. I told Hagop that the Omari Covenant, which was signed with the Orthodox Patriarch at the time, also included as a witness to the covenant the Armenian patriarch.

“We might be small in number, but we have a lot of effects.”

Hani Boullata

Daoud Kuttab: Adele, what is needed to improve the efforts at Christian unity?

Adele Zumot: The first thing we need to do is work on the preconceived ideas we have. Also, we need to be sure that Jerusalem is not only the al-Aqsa Mosque. Christians are sidelined. I am not sure why it is—because our numbers are small? Or is it because we are not good at gaining public support for our ideas. But to be honest, I do not see any signs of Christian unity. Even in simple things like the distribution of housing units in Jerusalem. If you are from a different denomination, you do not get an apartment. 

We Jerusalemites see this daily. Some major organizations headed by Palestinian Christians are not doing enough to hire fellow Christians. I am not saying that there should be favoritism, but if we believe in strengthening the presence of Palestinian Christians, we need to think of ways to fight emigration. I am opposed to emigration of Christians from Jerusalem, but at the same time we do not see any help—either from Christian leaders or from Christian laypersons. We have plenty of quality people, but we do not strengthen each other. 

Daoud Kuttab: Jack, can we talk about housing? I did research recently and discovered a number of church housing projects that were approved by the municipality but have never seen the light. There is no unified effort to deal with the two areas that can slow down emigration—housing and jobs. If people own their own home and have a comfortable job, they are unlikely to emigrate.

Rev. Jack Sara: I support every church that works on providing housing. I am not aware of churches that are not being built. I know that Catholics, Melkites, and Lutherans have all built housing projects in Jerusalem. The Orthodox Assyrians built. If you are talking about today’s youth, where are they going to produce the cost of an apartment that goes for $600,000–700,000? If my son starts today to save money for the down payment, I am not sure when he will have saved enough money. Churches have properties and some are being lost. This is the biggest investment that they can make with their land and their money. 

Hagop Djernazian: Concluding statement: Personally, I can assure you that we will continue the path we are going. And we will make sure of that. Next time that we meet, we will have some new developments and good developments, positive developments within the old communities. And that is it. I hope that the young generation will be able to make sure that the next generation will be able to live in this city.

Hani Boullata: We are working on a housing project for the Orthodox. We had negotiations about how much money they will contribute to support the housing project. They had suggested NIS 200,000; we convinced them to raise that to NIS 600,000. This was distributed to all and not only to the Orthodox. We are working on building 64 units in Beit Hanina not far from the Nusseibeh complex. They sit on five dunums. Half will be for the Orthodox Club, and the other half will be for the 64 units. But we have run into problems, because we discovered unexpected huge municipal fees—$1.7 million just to start building after we got all the approvals needed. This amount will be recouped, because we can sell the apartments.

Daoud Kuttab: There are many wealthy Orthodox Christians. Why don’t you lean on them?

Hani Boullata: True, but this issue is difficult.

Omar Haramy: When considering the role of the church in providing housing, it is essential to maintain a realistic perspective. The church’s primary role should be to act as a catalyst, bringing people together to initiate housing projects and strengthen community ties. It is important to recognize that the church is not, and should not be, a ministry of housing; this is beyond its mandate.

The church can, however, play a vital role in facilitating the community’s use of land in proper and transparent ways. The land owned by the church is a communal asset, belonging to the entire community rather than just a few families. This perspective is crucial for fair and equitable development.

“The land owned by the church is a communal asset, belonging to the entire community rather than just a few families.”

Omar Haramy

Daoud Kuttab: Adele, I’d like to ask you a question about education. There is a major difference of opinion on whether the Christian schools should do more to help prepare Palestinian high school students to attend Israeli universities.

Adele Zumot: Today, on the level of schools, we are unable to deal with the problems before we talk about which university. We are facing constant problems, even though everyone is looking for favors from Palestinian Christians to help them get their children to church schools. I receive daily two to three requests from people saying to me, “please talk to the nun so we can get our kids into the Rosary Sister, or the Freres, or Mutran.” There is no capacity to accept all those who want to study, but on the other hand, if there is any mistake in any of these schools, they revolt against them. As for me, I prefer the Israeli universities because graduates from there have much better chances at getting a job.

Hani Boullata: What I will say might be close to what Adele said. I went through this discussion last year with my daughter. My daughter decided in the end to go to Bethlehem University and after the war on Gaza, I am happy that my daughter is in Bethlehem University and not in the Hebrew University, because there is a lot of racism that has been exposed. In the end, university is not only about education. I agree that we need to know the other side and how they think, but what I see in the Israeli higher educational system is that there is a limit to what you can study. The sky should be the limit.

Daoud Kuttab: Jack, you run the Bethlehem Bible College and you teach things like music, tourism, and so on. Do you think that the higher education in Palestine gives Jerusalemites a chance for employment?

Rev. Jack Sara: Depending on the topics, few from Jerusalem study with us, because of the specific topics we teach, but if you go to Bethlehem University and Dar al-Kalima University and Palestine Ahli school, there is good education at these institutes, and it should be given priority. Of course, there is the issue of jobs and languages and better salaries, so if you are a social worker from Bethlehem University and want to work in a government job in Jerusalem, you have to take further education. My sister and others study at Bir Zeit University and Bethlehem University, and they find work. Language needs to be added to some. Anyone who takes a BA is not satisfied with that and they continue on for an MA or PhD.

Hani Boullata: I have a question. Why don’t our schools and universities teach Hebrew? I think it should be mandatory. This war might have changed some things, but in the end, we are doomed to live together, and this area will always have 50 percent Jews and 50 percent Arabs. Therefore, we need to learn the language and logic.

Rev. Jack Sara: We [at Bethlehem Bible University] teach Hebrew to all our students for a full year, and this education is confirmed and accredited by the Palestinian ministry.

Adele Zumot: I hope my daughter will be a doctor in Hadassah and—sorry for saying this—but not an engineer from Bethlehem University and work a normal job. We need to learn Hebrew. Today, the new generation has a strong national aspiration, and I am surprised. My 15-year-old told me that she does not want to study in the Hebrew University but rather in Bethlehem University as part of her patriotic feelings. What we are going through and as we try to take a middle ground—our young people are taking a strong patriotic position.

Omar Haramy: The churches in Jerusalem have historically invested in education and health ministries. These were critical areas during the Ottoman era and the British Mandate. However, the current situation in Jerusalem calls for a reevaluation of the church’s contributions to these sectors. As more schools adopt the Israeli education system, the church must consider the diminishing value of competing with the established Israeli medical and educational systems. This reassessment should focus on how the church can best serve the community’s needs in these evolving circumstances.

Daoud Kuttab: We are approaching Christmas, and we all know that the festivities were cancelled this year due to the war on Gaza, but some people feel that we are punishing our children. They have nothing to do with the war, and we should not punish them, they say. Can we think of some hybrid solutions where we can allow people to celebrate but also use this occasion to remember Gaza? Look what Rev. Munther Isaac did in Bethlehem—he put out a manger but made it from rocks and rubble to reflect what is in Gaza. Should we have tried to think of more creative solutions rather than just take the easy way and cancel the celebrations?

The 2023 nativity scene depicting a baby Jesus swaddled in a Palestinian kuffiyeh, lying in the rubble

The nativity scene depicting a baby Jesus swaddled in a Palestinian kuffiyeh, lying in the rubble like so many children in Gaza today, has gone viral.


Maja Hitij, Getty Images

Adele Zumot: The holidays are certainly joy and happiness but, in their basics, they are religious ceremonies. Maybe this is the year that we should pay more attention to the spiritual parts of Christmas. I, for one, have not put up a tree, and I have no stomach to put up lights and a tree.

“Maybe this is the year that we should pay more attention to the spiritual parts of Christmas.”

Adele Zumot

Rev. Jack Sara: Adele is right that every one of us is having a hard time celebrating at this time based on what we see on TV from Gaza. People that we know are suffering in Gaza, so it is difficult to treat this as being normal. I never thought of Christmas as trees and lights only. Sure, we spend time, and we remember that Jesus was born and was born in our land. Jesus came also at a difficult time—there was also occupation then, and he became a refugee. We can and should take the spiritual meaning of Christmas and at the same time it is right that we should not prevent children from the joy of the holidays. We want them to know the reason we decided this, and we know children are quite aware of what happened in Gaza. Every day they see the checkpoints and the restrictions, and they understand the difficulties of occupation. I go to Bethlehem daily and see the problems; imagine if I had children with me. It is not easy. Yes, we want our children to speak out and enjoy life, but we need to think of our people in Gaza.

A woman prays at the deserted Church of the Holy Sepulchre, December 14, 2023, in Jerusalem.

A woman prays at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Church of the Resurrection) on December 14, 2023, in the Old City of Jerusalem. The emptiness of the church in the heart of the Christmas season is a reflection of the somber community mood during Israel’s war on Gaza.


Latifeh Abdellatif/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images

Daoud Kuttab: Jack, I want to take advantage of you being with us to say a few words about Christian Zionism. As we know, many support Israel in an attempt to speed up the second coming of Jesus in their eyes. What are your thoughts on this stance taken by many Christians in the West, and how do you and other theologians respond to it?

Rev. Jack Sara: From the first days of the war until now we have not stopped writing articles and speaking. I have traveled twice to the US and to Brussels and spoken with the US administration, the EU, and others about the need for a ceasefire. We have also worked on many fronts defending true Christianity and debunking the stuff that comes out about end days and Christian theology. The stuff that has come out since the war on Gaza has been huge. And this is not restricted to evangelical churches. I spoke to a Catholic woman who was convinced that we are witnessing the end of the world and the apocalypse. There are many Christians that are being fooled by these issues. We do many things including conferences, papers, petitions, and many are surprised to learn that there are Palestinian Christians. We speak with conviction about the genuine Christianity, and we provide a Palestinian Christian theology.

Hani Boullata: I agree with what Adele and Jack said. When we were young, and someone died in the family, we would not watch television. In the end, we have to defend our traditions. The people of Gaza are our people, and the least we can do is to restrict religious ceremonies and reduce the outward celebrations and expressions of joy. In the Orthodox Club, many families asked me whether they should put up a Christmas tree at home or not. I said it is not fair to children not to provide some of the joy of the holidays. My suggestion to them was instead of putting the tree near a window put it in a more discrete place. This holiday is a holiday of joy and happiness, and we want to keep the hope alive for people to stay.

“The people of Gaza are our people, and the least we can do is to restrict religious ceremonies and reduce the outward celebrations and expressions of joy.”

Hani Boullata

Adele Zumot: I hope that a committee in Jerusalem can be created. There is a lot of chaos in Jerusalem. We need to have a reference point. People have fights and then they start searching for people to intervene. As a journalist, I have an easier time of reaching the prime minister in Ramallah than being able to talk to a priest. We need unity, and we should find people with impeccable reputations who are loved by all and that have no personal interests and give them a chance to help raise awareness and fight the problem of Christian emigration. A committee that can solve problems. We do not want to emigrate; we love this city; we want to live. It is simple—we need housing and a good job. 

Daoud Kuttab: On this note, that we want to live, we end our third Jerusalem Story Roundtable.

“We do not want to emigrate; we love this city; we want to live.”

Adele Zumot