ISTANBUL / WEST BANK – President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas congratulated his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on converting Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to a mosque and reopening it for prayers. Where the conversion of the Hagia Sophia has met worldwide condemnation and the U.S., the EU, Russia, UNESCO and various ecclesiastical leaders expressed their concerns and regrets, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is one of few officials who welcomed the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque – an other one is Qatar.
According to Turkish news outlet Daily Sabah, the Palestinian Authority President Abbas in a phone call with President Erdoğan, “hailed Turkey’s decision to revert Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia into a mosque.” Turkey’s Communications Directorate said that President Erdoğan reiterated Turkey’s determination to continue to support the Palestinian cause.
The hailing of the version into a mosque by Abbas is somewhat awkward. Christians as a share of the population in Palestine have dwindled in the last century, falling from nearly 10% in 1922 to 6% in 1967, to just 1% of the population in 2020. According to a 2017 Palestinian Authority survey, there are 46,850 Christians left in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
According to a survey conducted by the Philos Project, a pro-Israel and Christian advocacy organization, the trend of Christians leaving Palestinian territory shows an “alarming” trend. And “Palestinian Christians are twice as likely as their Muslim neighbors to emigrate”, the survey stated.
The survey says many Christians under the Palestinian Authority fear economic distress and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are concerned about attacks by Jewish settlers, the denial of civil rights by Israel, worries about corruption in the Palestinian government, and they fear Hamas.
While both Christians and Muslims might leave Palestine for economic reasons, the survey shows that Christians also feel unsafe or insecure by the threat from (Muslim) neighbors. Nearly 77% of Palestinian Christians surveyed said they are worried about radical Salafist groups in Palestine.
The Syriacs in next-door Israel
Reasons for emigration are multitude and continue to endanger Christian and Syriac presence under the Palestinian Authority.
The situation in Israel is different where, in 2014, the state of Israel recognized a new nationality* by officially introducing the ethnic designation Aramean in the Israeli National Population Registry, in principle intended as an alternative for the Arab (Christian) designation. From September of that year, “Arab Christians” could register a defined Aramean nationality in their Israeli identification documents.
The number of Christians in Israel is now much higher than those living in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem combined. According to the Israeli Central Bureau for Statistics there were some 177,000 Christians living within the borders of the state of Israel at the end of 2019. Around 80% of them is designated Arab nationality.
The Aramean nationality in Israel has so far not attracted a substantial number of official adherents. The SyriacPress news desk could not find reliable numbers; our best unverified estimate is 1,000-3,000.
The Christians in Israel which are eligible for Aramaic nationality are the Syriacs which adhere to the Syriac Maronite Church (~10,000), Syriac Orthodox Church (~5,000), Syriac Catholic Church (~ 3,000), Assyrian Church of the East (~ 1,000), and the Syriac Rum or Melkite Catholic Greek Church (~80,000)**.
Syriac presence in the Middle East is under real existential threat. Taking into account that the number of Syriacs in the Tur Abdin Region in Turkey is now a mere two thousand, and considering that the number of Christians and Syriacs in the Palestinian territories continues to decline, the Aramean nationality in Israel might be one of the existential lifelines for future Syriac presence and existence in the Middle East.
*In Israel citizenship is different from nationality, which is an ethnic designation. Nationality is based on distinct variables such as religion, language, origin, and cultural and social values. Of the 9.2 million Israeli citizens, 74% is Jewish nationality and 21% is Arab nationality. According to the Israeli Central Bureau for Statistics, Druze nationals number around 148,000, (Muslim-) Circassian nationals more than 4,000.
**The denomination “Melkite” is derived from the Syriac word for “king”, malko / malka.