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.
“Those who are leaving … because of the bad economic and political situation represent 87.3 percent of the total respondents,” the survey claimed, adding that 8 percent of the respondents attributed emigration to religious extremism.
The Sabeel and Kairos Palestine letters contradict the reports of human rights groups like the Barnabas Fund, which cite kidnapping of Christians in Hamas-governed Gaza and recurring physical threats against Christians as a primary reason for the departures. The anti-persecution advocacy organization also cited violence between Hamas and Fatah in 2007 as fueling Christian emigration.
“There is no doubt at all that it is a very anxious time for Christian communities,” Williams said in his radio interview. ”There have been extremist atrocities already, especially in Egypt.”
Identifying what he called a “fairly consistent pattern” over a number of months, the Archbishop noted that although leaders in Egypt’s Muslim community condemned the violence, other forces at work, possibly including extremists from outside Egypt, were involved. These “more traditional sites of extremism” included Saudi Arabia and northern Sudan, and the Archbishop did not rule out activity by al-Qaeda.
Warning that the “level of violence has been extreme,” the Anglican Communion leader added that violent extremism had made life unsustainable for Christians in northern Iraq, amounting to ethnic cleansing, and that in Syria, tensions between Christians and Muslims were burgeoning.
Kassis and Ateek did not address Williams’ comments about Syria, Iraq and Egypt.
According to the Jerusalem Interchurch Center, there are some 200,000 Christians throughout Israel, the West Bank and Gaza (150,000 in Israel, and 50,000 in Palestinian territories, including 10,000 in East Jerusalem). At Israel’s creation in 1948, this number was nearer to 350,000. The Christian population inside Israel is believed to be growing, even as it continues to plunge in the territories governed by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
According to the World Christian Database and U.S. State Department reports, between 1.1-2.4 percent of the population of Gaza and the West Bank is Christian, while in neighboring Syria the Christian population is 5.4-9.4 percent and in Jordan the number is between three and four percent. Egypt has the largest Christian population in the region, with estimates ranging anywhere from 8 to 16 percent of the country. In the early 20th century, Christians were much higher percentages in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and in most Muslim majority countries of the region. Their ongoing exodus began well before Israel’s creation. Christianity’s future in the Middle East is grim for reasons having little to do with Israel.
Archbishop Rowan Williams deserves credit for pointing out an obvious truth that anti-Israel zealots like Sabeel and Kairos Palestine, along with their global network of allies, would understandably like to ignore. Some vulnerable Arab Christians no doubt know this truth but must protest otherwise for their own self-protection. For this reason, Western Christians and other religious liberty advocates should speak loudly when persecuted Christians living under Muslim rule cannot themselves speak candidly.