Some anti-Israel church activists in the West blast Israel in time for Christmas. Others choose Easter. Recently, World Vision chief Richard Stearns, who heads one of the largest U.S. evangelical relief groups, proclaimed in the _Huffington Post_ that Palestinian Christians are enduring a Holy Week of “trial and tribulation” thanks to Israel.
Claiming Israel allows only 2,000-3000 travel permits for Jerusalem during Holy Week to a population of about 50,000 Palestinian Christians, Stearns never bothered to acknowledge why Israel has security concerns about visitors to Jerusalem. Quoting a Palestinian colleague who attended church in Jerusalem in 2010, Stearns ominously recalled: “The crowd, striving to stay joyful, could still feel the change of what Easter had now become and the dark cloud of checkpoints, police forces, and denial of entry that had obscured the joy of this holiday.“ Stearns announced he’s praying for the “miracle” of “full religious freedom to the Christians in the West Bank and Gaza.”
If he has time, maybe Stearns can pray for all Christians in the Middle East, whose problems entail considerably more than travel inconveniences.
Responding to Stearns, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said Israel has provided more than 20,000 permits this year for Palestinian Christians to enter Jerusalem for Holy Week, plus 500 permits for the handful of Christians left in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
“With the exception of the very few individuals who have raised security concerns, and notwithstanding the measures we must take to protect our citizens, any Christian from the West Bank can reach Jerusalem on Good Friday and Easter,” Oren said. “Israel, the only Middle Eastern country with a growing and thriving Christian population, remains committed to maintaining its superb relations with Christian communities worldwide. Though we face serious and continuing defense challenges, we uphold the principle of free access to the Holy Places to all religions.”
Ambassador Oren has recently had to address the realities that confront the Middle East’s shriveling Christian populations while many Western Christians prefer silence or blaming Israel. In a _Wall Street Journal_ op-ed recently he described the Christian exodus from Palestinian territories thanks to Islamist intimidation. The Religious Left and its preferred Palestinian voices responded indignantly, since Oren had challenged their narrative that only Israel can be faulted for Christian difficulties in the Middle East.
Oren’s facts were indisputable. About 20 percent of the Middle East a century ago was Christian. Today it’s 5 percent and plunging, as churches are burned in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere, forcing thousands to flee. Oren likened the Christian exodus to the 800,000 Jews forced from their homes in Arab lands after Israel’s creation. The only safe place for Christians in the current Middle East is in Israel, he observed with understatement.
As a minority, Christians experience some “intolerance” in Israel, Oren admitted. “But in contrast to elsewhere in the Middle East where hatred of Christians is ignored or encouraged,” he wrote, “Israel remains committed to its Declaration of Independence pledge to ‘ensure the complete equality of all its citizens irrespective of religion.’”
In contrast, half of Gaza’s almost tiny Christian community has fled since the Hamas coup in 2007, Oren noted. On the West Bank, the Christian community has fallen to under 2 percent. Although Israel is commonly blamed for Christian emigration, most Palestinian Christians live in West Bank cities under the Palestinian Authority. And the Muslim majority population continues to grow. In Bethlehem, where Christians where once the majority, they have become 20 percent since the Palestinian take-over in 1995.
“The extinction of the Middle East’s Christian communities is an injustice of historic magnitude,” Oren concluded. But an anti-Israel Christian group called Kairos Palestine denounced Oren’s op-ed as “inaccurate and manipulative” for faulting Muslims instead of Israel’s “illegal Israeli occupation.” Their response, helpfully broadcast by the United Church of Christ’s Global Ministries Board, did not identify any specific inaccuracies by Oren. Instead, the Palestinian activists blamed Christian “persecution” on the “occupation that systematically degrades all Palestinians” and the “underlying political oppression that afflicts Christians and Muslims alike.”
Oddly, Kairos Palestine surmises that Oren’s citation of Israeli protections for Christians implies Israel’s “_lack_ of interest in ensuring the same for Muslims.” And of course they incredulously wonder why permits should be needed for visiting holy sites in Jerusalem. Ostensibly, they claim, “Christians and Muslims lived together for the past 1500 years without major problems,” until Israel’s creation. And naturally they fault the “roots of empire and colonialism,” and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“As Kairos Palestine, we refuse to be marginalized in the way Oren defines our marginalization,” they boast. “We refuse to be pitted against our Palestinian Muslim neighbours and friends; and we refuse to let our collective oppression be manipulated in a way that fragments us, obscures us, or masks the oppression’s true cause, which is the Israeli occupation.”
How very brave. But Kairos Palestine, like other supposed proponents of Christian Palestinians, doesn’t explain why the Muslim population in the West Bank and Gaza continue to grow while only the Christian population declines. If exodus signifies persecution, then seemingly Israeli policies must favour Palestinian Muslims.
In fact, the vast majority of Palestinians, Muslim and Christian, live under the direct rule of the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians do not have military control over the West Bank. And Palestinians must contend with the inconveniences of security checks when they travel from one region to the next. The much maligned Israeli security wall, which has saved so many lives from terror, has created additional inconveniences by separating some communities. But travel and security inconveniences, compounded by the indignity to Palestinian nationalism of ultimate Israeli military oversight, afflict all Palestinians and do not selectively affect Palestinian Christians.
“Israeli obstacles and practices do not differentiate between Muslims and Christians, and are imposed over a whole nation,” admitted a Palestinian priest in a Palestinian news service story intended to rebut the Israeli ambassador. “The bullets that fired against Palestinians do not differentiate between Christians and Muslims.” The priest boasted that Israeli oppression would “strengthen the ties between Christians and Muslims.” How wonderful. Then why are Christian Palestinians leaving? The priest jibbed that Israel should “offer freedom to the Christian communities under its occupation before criticizing Muslim oppression in other countries in the Middle East.” And he insisted: “No such oppression exists in Palestine.” Right. Critics of Oren’s op-ed further cited a Palestinian study showing Christians who emigrate are “aggravated by the lack of freedom and security.” Will Palestinian Christians gain in “freedom and security” under a fully autonomous Palestinian state where Hamas is a likely co-ruler?
The tiny Christian minority among Palestinians, always struggling to survive, is hardly in any position to criticize its Palestinian Muslim overlords. On a human level, they cannot be faulted for saying what they have to say and defensively burnishing their nationalist credentials. But Western church groups, like the United Church of Christ’s Global Ministries, should be ashamed for exploiting their plight. Ideally Western church groups would instead speak truth about why Christians are fleeing the Middle East. But at least the Israeli ambassador is speaking on behalf of besieged Middle East Christians when too many Western churches refuse to do so.
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