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Jewish settlers, the Israeli government and “Christian Zionists” are the main cause of Palestinian Christian emigration from the Middle East, not the rise of Islamic extremism, according to the chiefs of two Palestinian Christian groups.
In protesting letters to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Anglican Priest Naim Ateek of Sabeel and Kairos Palestine Coordinator Rifat Odeh Kassis chastised the head of the Anglican Communion for citing increasing Islamic extremism as a key factor in the departure of Christians from the region.
In a June 14 interview with the BBC Radio, Williams warned that Islamist groups were exploiting the chaos of the “Arab Spring” revolutions to attack Christian minorities. In Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, Christians who had once been in the majority were now a “marginalised minority,” Williams told the BBC.
There has been a Christian exodus from Muslim majority countries throughout the Middle East for the last century. But anti-Israel activists only cite the departure of Palestinian Christians as a tool for blaming Israel.
“Your inaccurate and erroneous remarks cite Muslim extremism as the greatest threat facing Christians in Palestine, and the primary reason for our emigration,” Kassis complained to Williams. “We were hoping that Your Grace would have a different voice than the one in mass media and other right wing political parties, which exploit our sufferings to fuel some islamophobic tendencies and negative images about Islam.”
In his own letter to Williams, the Rev. Ateek explained: “Your words were negatively received by our people; and we have been asked by our friends – locally and internationally – to make a public response.”
Patterned after a group that opposed South Africa’s apartheid, the Kairos Palestine group includes the Patriarchs of indigenous Latin and Orthodox churches in the Holy Land, plus a number of other Christian prelates. Like the South African group, Kairos Palestine calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel ostensibly on behalf of oppressed Palestinians. The group does not similarly criticize Fatah or Hamas, except for blanket condemnations of all violence. Sabeel is a Palestinian liberation theology group that sharply criticizes Israel – and by extension, the United States – as imperial forces that oppress an aggrieved indigenous population. It regularly denounces Israel and also likens it to the South African apartheid state, claiming Israeli racism. Sabeel devotes almost all of its energies towards organizing campaigns against Israel and networks with friendly overseas church officials in North America and Europe, counting as supporters former U.S. Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning.
In his letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Ateek insisted that Palestinian Christians primarily identify themselves as part of a Palestinian majority, not as part of a Christian minority.
“You singled out the extremist Islamists as a threat to Christian presence, but neglected to mention two other extremists groups, namely, Jewish extremists represented by the religious and racist settlers on the West Bank that are encouraged directly by the present extreme rightwing Israeli government, and Christian extremists represented by the Western Christian Zionists that support Israel blindly and unconditionally,” Ateek wrote. “Jewish and Western Christian Zionists are a greater threat to us than the extremist Islamists.”
Ateek cited a 2006 survey of Christians in Israel and Palestine conducted by Sabeel that indicated that the primary causes for the emigration of Christians from the West Bank were political and economic conditions.
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