A few weeks ago, a section of the Palestinian church sponsored a controversial conference, “Christ at the Checkpoint” (see our post here). Last week, CBS News aired one of their “60 Minutes” segments on “Christians in the Holy Land“. Both these public events highlight some important issues in the relationship between Palestinian Christians, the Muslims they live among and the State of Israel.
The traditional denominations in the Palestinian Church (as represented by the ecumenical organisation Sabeel) have been quite successful in raising support in the Western church by casting themselves as victims of Israel’s “illegal occupation” of the West Bank. Just to confuse things, the evangelicals in Britain and Europe who support Sabeel’s critical stance on Israel are (literally and figuratively) an ocean away from the generally pro-Israel stance of American evangelicals.
Palestinian Christians do suffer, of that there is no denial. But is their suffering primarily down to nasty old Israel’s occupation or to the more widespread Muslim persecution of Christians that goes on across the whole Middle East? Sabeel and its supporters go to great lengths to assure the West that there is no persecution of Christians by Muslims in the West Bank. They are all brothers and sisters suffering together under Israel’s “apartheid” and “genocidal” policies. Hanan Ashrawi is seen as an example of how Christians can reach high places in the PLO and PA (although this is more likely because her father was a founder of the PLO)!
Unfortunately, the cries to the West by Palestinian Christian leaders about their suffering because of Israel are mitigated by some equally unfortunate realities on the ground. These largely concern the way in which both international critics of Israel and the Palestinians themselves have blurred the distinction between Palestinians living in Israel as citizens (Israeli Arabs) and those living in the West Bank territories, who are not Israeli citizens. We need to comprehend three major issue here; the difference between Christians in Israel and Christians in the West Bank, the actual extent of Muslim persecution of Christians in the PA areas and the real reason Palestinian Christians can push a perception of persecution by Israel.
For the first issue, take an example from the 60 Minutes programme mentioned above. Nazareth is an Israeli Arab town in Northern Israel. It’s inhabitants are generally Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel with all the rights that this brings in a liberal democratic state, including freedom of religion. They are also largely Christians. Bethlehem is in the West Bank, “behind” Israel’s security barrier. Its inhabitants are not Israeli citizens and therefore (crucially) do not share the advantages held by their opposite numbers in Nazareth.
When Bethlehem was ceded to Palestinian control under the Oslo Accords as part of “Area A” (under the full control of the PA), the PA lost no time in altering its demographics by changing boundaries, importing people from Hebron and actively persecuting the majority Christian population. As a result, Bethlehem has lost most of its Christians and become a Muslim-majority town. Hardly Israel’s fault!
So for a comparison; Nazareth’s Christian Arabs can freely visit every Christian site, church or shrine in Israel, and do. Bethlehem’s Christian Arabs cannot. This is not apartheid; it is simply a state differentiating between the rights of citizens and non-citizens. In fact, Israel has relaxed controls at the Bethlehem checkpoint at important points in the year to allow Christians more freedom of movement to worship at Christianity’s two most significant sites; the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. West Bank Palestinian Christians are not suffering from “apartheid policies” by Israel; they just don’t have the same citizens’ rights as Israel’s Christian Arabs.
To the second issue, that of Muslim persecution of Christians. If a Western journalist stuck a camera under your nose in public in Ramallah and asked if you were being persecuted by Muslims, what would you say? Would you point to someone and say that he had beaten up your son yesterday? Would you claim unfair treatment by PA officials because of your religion? Of course you wouldn’t, because you would certainly suffer even more afterwards! And that is just what happens. A few years ago, I talked with an evangelical pastor in Bethlehem, who assured me (a little too strongly I felt) that there was no persecution of Christians by Muslims in Bethlehem and everything was fine. The situation was so “fine” in fact, that his Christian radio station was torched three days later – by Muslims (nothing to do with our conversation, I hasten to add)! An excellent source of more detailed examples is this article by the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs.
I believe the evidence disputes the stand of such as Palestinian journalist Omar Rahman, who holds that the Christians are “…a seamless part of the Palestinian population” in his comment on the 60 Minutes programme. While many, or maybe most, Palestinian Christians probably support the nationalistic objectives of the PLO, they do so as junior partners, not as equals. As throughout the Muslim world, they are “dhimmis”, second-class citizens in a dominant Muslim culture.
It takes a brave Christian leader in Bethlehem to either speak out too loudly for his rights or (shock, horror!) show any support for Israel. But in fact there is one; Naim Khoury, a Baptist pastor – and he suffers for his stand on both counts. To quote a 2009 Ha’Aretz article…
“Because their beliefs are antithetical to both Islam and Palestinian nationalism, Naim Khoury and his followers live under constant physical threat. The pastor’s church has been bombed 14 times by what he calls “extreme Hamas fundamentalists,” and he has been shot.”
Thirdly then, provides Palestinian Christians with reasons to blame Israel for their suffering? The answer was given most succinctly in the 60 Minutes show by Israeli journalist Ari Shavit. He pointed out quite simply that the Christians are caught in the middle. Past terrorist activity, instigated and encouraged by Yasser Arafat and his gang before his death, led to the erection of Israel’s security barrier over several years and the accompanying checkpoints and restrictions on travel into Israel. Palestinian Christians were not a target of these policies, but they have been innocent victims of the conflict they sadly happen to live in the midst of.
Another example from Bethlehem. In early 2000 there was a successful multi-cultural church in Jerusalem, run by a long-established overseas Christian agency. It had a thriving congregation of ex-patriate Westerners, some Messianic (Christian) Jewish members and a healthy proportion of Christian Arabs who lived in the Bethlehem area. They had freedom to travel into and out of Jerusalem and were at church in Jerusalem every Sunday.
Over the next two years, as the “Al Aqsa Intifada” gained pace, the ex-patriates largely left and the Bethlehem contingent suddenly found themselves confined by security lock-downs and eventually the security barrier itself. The church’s congregation dwindled to nothing and stopped meeting! Were the Bethlehem Christians being targetted by apartheid policies? Were they singled out from other Palestinians for “special measures” by Israeli soldiers? Were they issued less permits into Jerusalem than non-Christian Arabs? No, no and no! Simply and no more than this, they were caught in the middle of a terrorist war between Palestinian terror groups and the State of Israel. In fact, terrorists would use Christian houses as sniper positions to shoot at the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, knowing that the Christians would suffer the inevitable counter-attacks. They would also make sure they were in direct line of fire with Christian churches so that Israeli fire against them would damage the churches. This came to a stop when the (Christian) council in Beit Jala stood up to the terrorists and told them in no uncertain terms to stay away!
Today, the Christians of Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, Taibeh and other once-thriving Christian communities are still caught in the middle. Sadly, they have chosen over the years to use their situation to unleash unmitigated criticism of Israel and have further hardened Western Christian anti-Israel attitudes, already firmly held through erroneous theology. Maybe they’ve forgotten that some prime Christian directives are to “love your neighbour as yourself” and to “love your enemy” (quotes from the Bible) and the prayer they pray regularly that includes, “…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us…” (the Lord’s Prayer).