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Palestinian Christians Weigh A Growing Role in Uprising

The tactics of Palestinians and Israelis toward both peace and protest have long been divided along religious lines: Islam and Judaism.

But for many Palestinians who are Christian, there's a third approach.

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At Bethlehem University, for instance, where about 40 percent of the Palestinian students are Christian, the Muslim-led student council leaders were rallying schoolmates last week to take to the streets in an anti-Israeli protest. Inside their planning office, the walls bear pictures of each shahid - a martyr who dies for the Islamic cause.

Mary Mansour, a Christian student here, thinks this is where she parts ways.

"In the Koran there is jihad [holy war], and they say you are lucky if you die a shahid, but in Christianity there is nothing like this," says Ms. Mansour, who is involved in a rapprochement center aimed at changing attitudes for an era of reconciliation. "Maybe Christians go more for peace and talking. We know we have to live together, the two peoples, side by side." By her estimation, not only do Christians shun Islamic bombings like the recent one in Tel Aviv, but fewer young Christians protest in the street.

Such reticence was characteristic of many Christian Palestinians during the intifadah, says Virginia Baron, an American journalist who is writing a book about Beit Sahour, a Bethlehem village that has been home to a progressive Israeli-Palestinian dialogue group for 10 years.

"The people of Beit Sahour were known for nonviolent actions," she says, such as declaring strike days and withholding Israeli taxes. "They ... tried to keep their kids off the street during protests. Today, they are much more involved in peace efforts."

A vocal minority

At just over 2 percent of the West Bank and Gaza population, local Christians are a tiny minority who have nonetheless carved out important roles for themselves as leaders in the struggle for Palestinian independence alongside peace with Israel. Christians are overrepresented in peace groups. And though they are often reluctant to define themselves as distinct from the Islamic majority, declaring Palestinian nationalism paramount, the approach of many Palestinian Christians has favored negotiations over violence, civil disobedience over the intifadah.

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But as the crisis here deepens over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to build a controversial Jewish housing project in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, and over Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's rejection of demands that he rein in militants, Christians find themselves closer to the front line. The planned settlement borders on Bethlehem, an area with one of the highest concentrations of Christians in all the West Bank.

Some analysts attribute the positive attitudes toward peace to class differences as much as religious outlook. Christians are among the wealthiest and best-educated in Palestinian society, and few ever had to settle in refugee camps. Bethlehem University sociologist Bernard Sabella, an expert on the Christian community, says their higher socioeconomic status has allowed them to be "more avant-garde" by Palestinian standards.

"As a community, they may be more enthusiastic about the eventuality of peace because it would enable them to really enjoy middle-class and upper-class status," says Dr. Sabella. According to his research, a smaller proportion of Christians than Muslims "think they should get all of Palestine - they have a more realistic and pragmatic approach. Some Christians do not buy dismantlement of the state of Israel."

Christians here are likely to identify as Palestinians first, while most Palestinians are likely to identify first as Muslims. Moreover, Sabella says, Christians are twice as likely to consider leaving as the general population. Most have family in the West. Those who stay cite economic hardship, political instability, and the rise of political Islam as reasons to consider leaving.

Finding a common agenda

Indeed, the growth in popularity of the fundamentalist movement Hamas has local Christians worried. Aside from its no-peace stance with Israel, Hamas supporters want to set up an Islamic state based on religious law, taking a cue from other theocracies in the region. That goal seems far off. But in his bid to please Islamists, Mr. Arafat has sometimes issued fundamentalist directives. During the fasting month of Ramadan this year, for example, the Palestinian Authority vowed to fine Muslims for eating or smoking in public.

Still, the Islamic opposition - and Christian support for the accords - has made many of the local Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Palestinians turn to Arafat's Fatah party, considered a secular nationalist movement. But some nonpracticing Christians have opted for groups like the communist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which rejects the 1993 Oslo Accords and still commits drive-by shootings of Israelis.

But just as Israelis tend to unify when they feel under siege by the Arab world, the peace breakdown has Palestinians across the spectrum finding a common agenda against Israeli policy. Many staunchly pro-peace Christians are fully behind Arafat, blaming the current crisis on Israel and defending the rioting as a legitimate means of protest. "There is no intifadah, just violence started by the government of Netanyahu .... We are one, we are Palestinians," says Bishara Suleiman Dawood, a Palestinian councilman in traditionally Christian Beit Jala, outside Bethlehem.

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