Demonizing Israel More Important Than Defending Persecuted Christians?
It continues to be a source of amazement that the mainstream Christian churches in the West and in the Middle East pay so little, if any, attention to the plight of Christians and the destruction of their churches in Arab and Muslim countries. Rather, they prefer to focus on the "oppression of Palestinians" so completely that they are blind to the real tragedies. This myopic lack of perceptiveness has been typical of a significant part of the Anglican Church; the Presbyterian Church, USA; the National Council of Churches; the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation; the World Council of Churches; and some Christian NGOs whose shortsightedness is limited to divestment from Israel or condemnation of it.
The most recent example of this hostility was exhibited in August 2013, at the Greenbelt Christian festival, held at the Cheltenham Racecourse in England. This festival of "arts, faith, and justice" has been held annually since 1974 and is essentially a summer camp for young Christians. However, claiming to speak on behalf of Christians and Muslims who share a belief in the "deep rooted history" and the "natural right" of Palestinians to the land of Palestine, it has become yet another forum for anti-Israeli messages. This year, the festival launched "Kairos Britain," a pro-Palestinian Christian organization drawing its motivation from the 2009 document of the Sabeel ecumenical movement of Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, Kairos Palestine Document: a Moment of Truth, which has called for BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) of Israel and has portrayed Israel as an apartheid state.
Some extreme Catholic leaders have followed the same path of hostility towards Israel and total indifference to Muslim aggression against Christians. A notable example was the statement in January 2011 by eight bishops from North America and Europe who visited Gaza. The most striking comments were by French Archbishop Michael Dubost and William Kenney, Auxiliary Bishop in Birmingham, England. Dubost told the Gaza population, "I asked prisoners in the largest prison in Europe [in his town, Evry] to pray for you." The implication was that Israel is an even worse prison. Kenney informed his congregation, "I have just returned from visiting two of the largest open prisons in the world, Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip."
The indifference to the realities of the treatment of fellow Christians while concentrating on the criticism of Israel is equally true of Arab Christian leaders in the Middle East, who should be palpably anguished about these abuses but show little fervor to help the Christians suffering them.
The facts of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, as well as in Nigeria, Uganda, and Pakistan, could not be clearer. Brave Christian leaders such as Naim Khoury have suffered for criticism of Muslim behavior. His church has been bombed 14 times by what he calls "extreme Hamas fundamentalists." Since Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007, the Christian population has shrunk to about 1,500, less than half it was a decade ago. An even more unprincipled form of behavior has been the use of Christian houses by Palestinian terrorists as sniper positions to fire at Gilo, the Jerusalem suburb.
In Iraq, more than one million Christians whose families have lived in the area for centuries have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic terrorism. A Christian population once 1.4 million strong has now decreased to less than 400,000. The attack in October 2010 on the church in Baghdad killed more than 50 worshippers and left many more injured. In Egypt, perhaps as many as 100,000 Christian Copts have fled since the downfall of President Mubarak in June 2012 and the ensuing violence in the country. About 100 churches have been ransacked or burned in Egypt, and Christians have suffered from attacks not only on churches and monasteries, but also on their shops, schools, and clubs,
Perhaps the most telling commentary on the fate of Christians is their disappearance from Bethlehem. Since 1995, the city has been under Palestinian civil control, which has altered the demographics by changing boundaries, and its present population includes 20,000 Christians, one third of the population. Two decades ago, Christians accounted for 75 percent of the city's population. In the West Bank as a whole, there are only 50,000, less than 3 percent of the total -- a decline due partly to low birthrate but mainly to Christian emigration from the area.
The overriding irony is that Israel is the only country in the Middle East where people of all religions have freedom to practice their faith, and it is the only country where the number of Christians has increased. While Bethlehem has been losing its Christians, the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth is increasing its Christian population.
Instead of the Christian leaders, Arabs as well as Western, expressing outrage about persecution, there is the sound of silence -- except for the assertion that Israel is responsible for the plight of Palestinians. Prominent Palestinian Christians such as Naim Ateek, Mitri Raheb, Michel Sabbah, and Fouad Twai express in similar ways the argument that Israel is responsible for suffering in the Middle East and that the Jewish state is responsible for the decline of Christianity.
Naim Ateek, an Arab citizen of Israel, is former canon of St. George's Cathedral in Jerusalem and now head of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, which is dedicated to the liberation of Palestinians. Some of his utterances provide interesting reading by nature of their excessive rhetoric. In a Christmas message in 2000, ironically at a moment when Yasser Arafat was instigating the violent Second Intifada against Israel, he told his congregation that "[t]he state of Israel has been brutally gunning down hundreds of people and injuring thousands of people whose only crime is their desire for a life of freedom and the independence of their country from the oppressive occupation. ... It is the occupation that is evil and violent. It is apartheid in its ugliest form."
Any objective observer must find Ateek's extreme rhetoric shocking and appalling. In an Easter message of April 2001, Ateek remarked, "In this season, Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around Him. ... The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily."
Ateek's recent utterances continue this animus. At the 8th international Sabeel Conference in February 2011 in Bethlehem, he stated, "The establishment of Israel was a relapse to the most primitive concepts of an exclusive tribal God." Ateek has spoken of the need to win the battle in Washington. In a remark in 2011 that will perhaps puzzle President Obama, he said that the Israel lobby has "confiscated American foreign policy."
Ateek's Sabeel Center holds annual international conferences. Previous conferences have included familiar critics of Israel Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Edward Said, and Rashid Khalidi, now of Columbia University. One should not expect pearls of wisdom, or even conciliatory remarks, to emanate from the next Sabeel conference, to be held in Jerusalem on November 20, 2013, at which the first item on the agenda is "The Occupation of the Bible and Palestine."
A second person who can illustrate the regrettable antagonism to Israel is Fouad Twai, the Jordanian archbishop of the Catholic Church who, since 2008 has been the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, and who is also the Vatican's representative in Israel. In an interview in Die Tagespost on March 20, 2012, he said, "Israel's existence as such has nothing to do with the Bible. ... The concept of the promised land cannot be used as a base for the justification of the return of Jews to Israel and the displacement of Palestinians." At another time he condemned "the Judaization of Jerusalem."
One can appreciate that Christians in the Middle East may be fearful of Muslim attitudes towards them, and believe that silence is the wisest option. But that does not excuse the unwillingness and failure of Church leaders there and in the West to address the problem of Islamist violence against Christians. It is high time for those leaders to express their views openly about the suffering by Christians in Arab and Muslim countries.