Wash. Post, AP blind to Christian persecution in Bethlehem

Leo Rennert
In its Dec. 25 edition, the Washington Post runs an Associated Press article that depicts Bethlehem in warm, festive terms with tourists and pilgrims packing hotels for Christmas celebrations in Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity - plus an accolade to the Palestinian Authority for its presumed respect of all religions ("Bethlehem packed with Christmas Eve visitors" page A19)

To put this year's celebration in a historical context, the article reports that Israel turned Bethlehem over to Palestinian civil control in 1995, and "since then, residents have been celebrating the holiday regardless of religion."  Which religion pray tell was blacklisted in Bethlehem before 1995?  The AP doesn't say.

It gets even more problematic in the next paragraph, which reads:  "Today, only about one-third of Bethlehem's residents are Christian, reflecting a broader exodus of Christians from the Middle East in recent decades."  This hardly does justice to Bethlehem's real history and the real travails of its Christian residents under Palestinian rule.

For starters, the decline in Bethlehem's Christian population has been far more precipitous in recent years than the article postulates.  According to Justus Reid Weiner, an international human rights lawyer who teaches at Hebrew University, Christians lost their majority status in Bethlehem soon after Yasser Arafat assumed control under the Oslo agreements in the mid-90s - from 60 percent Christian in 1990 to 40 percent in 2000 to a mere 15 percent today, leaving only a bit more than 10,000 Christians in Jesus' birthplace.  Weiner estimates that 1,000 Christians now leave Bethlehem each year.

It apparently never entered the AP and Washington Post's mind to interview departing Christians to find out why there is such a massive exit from Bethlehem under Palestinian rule.

Consequently, what the Post and the AP fail to tell readers are the reasons for this shocking Christian exodus.  Weiner, in a survey of human-rights abuses under Palestinian rule, found plenty of reasons  -- intimidations, beatings, land theft, firebombing of churches, denial of employment, torture, kidnappings, forced marriages, and extortion.  And woe the Palestinian Muslim who converts to Christianity.

The AP's benign view of respect for religion in Bethlehem also emits a false note when one remembers that during the latest Palestinian intifada Bethlehem was a hotbed  of Palestinian terrorist cells bent on killing Israelis.  Or when one remembers that in an effort to elude capture by Israeli forces, dozens of armed Palestinian terrorists occupied the Church of the Nativity for more than a month in 2002 - hardly a respectful attitude toward one of Christianity's holiest shrines.

Real historical context is evidently a commodity in short supply at the AP and the Washington Post.  Because also left unreported is the contrasting lot of Christians in Israel.  While there indeed has been a Christian exodus from Bethlehem and from throughout the Middle East in recent years, there is one place in the region where Christians are growing in numbers - in Israel.

Too bad that the AP and the Post forgot to report that Christians numbered 34,000 after Israel declared its independence in 1948.  and that the Jewish state's Christian population since has been on an ascendant curve, numbering today about 150,000.

Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers

In its Dec. 25 edition, the Washington Post runs an Associated Press article that depicts Bethlehem in warm, festive terms with tourists and pilgrims packing hotels for Christmas celebrations in Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity - plus an accolade to the Palestinian Authority for its presumed respect of all religions ("Bethlehem packed with Christmas Eve visitors" page A19)

To put this year's celebration in a historical context, the article reports that Israel turned Bethlehem over to Palestinian civil control in 1995, and "since then, residents have been celebrating the holiday regardless of religion."  Which religion pray tell was blacklisted in Bethlehem before 1995?  The AP doesn't say.

It gets even more problematic in the next paragraph, which reads:  "Today, only about one-third of Bethlehem's residents are Christian, reflecting a broader exodus of Christians from the Middle East in recent decades."  This hardly does justice to Bethlehem's real history and the real travails of its Christian residents under Palestinian rule.

For starters, the decline in Bethlehem's Christian population has been far more precipitous in recent years than the article postulates.  According to Justus Reid Weiner, an international human rights lawyer who teaches at Hebrew University, Christians lost their majority status in Bethlehem soon after Yasser Arafat assumed control under the Oslo agreements in the mid-90s - from 60 percent Christian in 1990 to 40 percent in 2000 to a mere 15 percent today, leaving only a bit more than 10,000 Christians in Jesus' birthplace.  Weiner estimates that 1,000 Christians now leave Bethlehem each year.

It apparently never entered the AP and Washington Post's mind to interview departing Christians to find out why there is such a massive exit from Bethlehem under Palestinian rule.

Consequently, what the Post and the AP fail to tell readers are the reasons for this shocking Christian exodus.  Weiner, in a survey of human-rights abuses under Palestinian rule, found plenty of reasons  -- intimidations, beatings, land theft, firebombing of churches, denial of employment, torture, kidnappings, forced marriages, and extortion.  And woe the Palestinian Muslim who converts to Christianity.

The AP's benign view of respect for religion in Bethlehem also emits a false note when one remembers that during the latest Palestinian intifada Bethlehem was a hotbed  of Palestinian terrorist cells bent on killing Israelis.  Or when one remembers that in an effort to elude capture by Israeli forces, dozens of armed Palestinian terrorists occupied the Church of the Nativity for more than a month in 2002 - hardly a respectful attitude toward one of Christianity's holiest shrines.

Real historical context is evidently a commodity in short supply at the AP and the Washington Post.  Because also left unreported is the contrasting lot of Christians in Israel.  While there indeed has been a Christian exodus from Bethlehem and from throughout the Middle East in recent years, there is one place in the region where Christians are growing in numbers - in Israel.

Too bad that the AP and the Post forgot to report that Christians numbered 34,000 after Israel declared its independence in 1948.  and that the Jewish state's Christian population since has been on an ascendant curve, numbering today about 150,000.

Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers