The Holy Land and the Church in the Middle East
Last month we featured a guest blog post from Jeffery M. Abood on the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Here we offer a response from Rabbi Eugene Korn. Rabbi Korn is director of Israel’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, where he directs its Institute for Theological Inquiry:
The recent news about Christians in the Middle East is chilling: Last October 31 members of “the Islamic State of Iraq” massacred 53 Christians in Iraq’s Our Lady of Salvation Church. In Pakistan, Asia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in November for not renouncing Christianity; on January 3 she was sentenced to death. On January 1, a car bomb in Alexandria killed 23 Christian Copts and wounded 100 while they attended midnight mass. These tragedies expose how misleading and damaging is Jeffery Abood’s essay, “A Vanishing Church” (December 30).
Abood’s dissembles regarding Christians in the Holy Land: The facts indicate two very different stories unfolding for these Christians: one in Israel and the opposite in territories of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Israeli Christians have grown from 40,000 in 1948 when Israel was founded to 155,000 today. Indeed Israel is the only place in the Middle East where the Christian population has grown over the last 60 years. And this increase continues: the Israeli Christian population has risen by an average of 2.1% annually in the last decade.
This is in stark contrast to Christian demographics in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza—the other part of “the Holy Land.” There, Christians are emigrating in large numbers. In 15 years under PA control, their percentage in Bethlehem has dropped from 60% to 14%. There has also been a Christian exodus from Ramallah, and while Gaza once had a significant Christian community, only 3,000 remain; 2,000 have left in the two years since Hamas wrested control. This is no surprise. Does anyone think that Christians will live safely under Hamas, the fundamentalist terrorist organization committed to a Shari’a Islamist state where Christians would be dhimmis—second class residents who by law are always subordinated to Muslims?
Abood is one of many ideologues claiming that Christian troubles are due exclusively to occupation and the separation barrier Israelis built for defense against Palestinian terror. The barrier and Israeli checkpoints make life more difficult for Palestinians, but they cannot account for the dramatic continuing Christian demise in the territories. When Israel was responsible for Bethlehem from 1967-1995 (i.e., “occupation”), it remained overwhelmingly Christian and was governed by Christians. Soon after taking control in 1995, Yasir Arafat drained Bethlehem’s bureaucratic, security and political eschelons of Christians. December 1997 was five years before the barrier. The Oslo peace accords were at their height and there were no Israeli restrictions in Bethlehem, yet the London Times reported that, “life in (PA ruled) Bethlehem has become insufferable for many members of the dwindling Christian minorities….” In April 2007, Islamic extremists firebombed Gaza’s only Christian bookstore and months later its Christian manager, Rami Ayyad, was found dead of stab wounds. Nor can this be explained by occupation, as the Israelis evacuated from Gaza in 2005.
Recently economic conditions in the West Bank have improved dramatically, with a GDP growth of 8.5% in 2009 and 9% from January to September 2010. If Palestinian Christians continue to leave (as they are), it is not due primarily to Israeli economic limitations, but to internal Palestinian social and religious dynamics. And while Christian emigration from Palestinian territories swells, Christian emigration out of Israel is almost non-existent. Israeli and Palestinian Christians are voting very differently with their feet.
Abood alleges that “Evangelization itself, always a primary mission of the Church, carries a mandatory prison term in Israel.” This is simply false. Evangelization in Israel is illegal only when done coercively, deceptively, when money is offered or when targeted at minors. Israel’s Declaration of Independence guarantees freedom of religion, and this is not just theory. The US State Department’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report lists Israel as the only Middle East country that is “free.”
Compare this to the Palestinian territories: The Basic Law passed by the Palestinian National Council states, “(All) Palestinian people are governed by Shari’a, Islamic law regarding all religious matters.” The previous PA Ministry of Information put it this way: “A Muslim convert or unbeliever commits a major sin punishable by death. The PA cannot take a different position in this matter.” Numerous Muslim converts to Christianity have been tortured and killed in the territories. In prohibiting conversion to Christianity the PA follows Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, where renouncing Islam is punishable by death.
Ignoring the vast disparity between Christian life in Israel and the Palestinian territories is a common ideological deception. And in Abood’s case there appears to be another agenda at work. Israel was created in 1947 by UN General Assembly Resolution 181, but here is Abood’s account: “Since the Israel has occupied these lands (partially in 1948, taking the rest in 1967) Christians have left.” For him, the establishment of Israel by international law is “occupation.” He later declares that Christian Zionismis “intrinsically rooted in violence and exclusivism.” Evidently, Israel’s mere existence constitutes an unforgivable act of violence and racial exclusivism. The issue here is not occupation, but the inherent illegitimacy of the Jewish State itself—within any borders.
As an imperfect democracy, Israel must do more to ensure equality and respect for its Christian citizens. Abood correctly points to entry visa restrictions for Christians. Caused by the Ultra-Orthodox bureaucratic stranglehold on the Interior Ministry that controls visas, this should be fought—by Jews and Christians alike—until it is changed. Some Christians also experience sporadic acts of spitting and cursing from some ultra-Orthodox students in Jerusalem. Pressure needs to be applied to Jerusalem authorities to prevent these despicable displays of prejudice. Yet these incidents are marginal compared to the overall welfare and growth of Christians living in Israel.
Abood’s account reflects the standard Palestinian narrative in which Israel is responsible for all Palestinian ills. But this tendentious history cannot explain most Palestinian Christian suffering. The persecution and exodus of Palestinian Christians is part of the larger picture of Christian suffering throughout the Middle East, whose primary cause is the steep rise of Islamic identity and its concomitant intolerance toward non-Muslims.
Of course Christians under the PA and Hamas are between a rock and a hard place. Unprotected from Muslim authorities, Christian leaders cannot afford to speak against the authorities or their Muslim neighbors. It is safer for Palestinian church leaders to blame Israel for their suffering, but American and European Christian leaders are free. They should know better—and act more responsibly.
Some radical pundits, journals and Christian leaders are fond of repeating anti-Israel narratives. But Americans are not buying it. Today Americans identify with Israel more than ever, favoring it over the PA and Hamas by more than 4 to 1. American Christians see clearly what the ideologues do not: Despite its imperfections, Israel is a democratic and pluralistic country, while most of the Middle East is hurdling rapidly toward repressive and intolerant autocracies that reject liberty and pluralism.
This bodes ill for Christians and Jews of the Middle East. Both minorities are in the crosshairs of Islamic extremists and both prosper only when minority rights and freedom are strong in that troubled region. For that reason, the fates of Israel and of Middle East Christians are strategically and inexorably intertwined.
So while anti-Israel advocates continue to pummel Israel for their own ideological purposes, Christians in the Palestinian territories, like Christians throughout the entire Middle East, continue to suffer and emigrate.
They deserve much better from us.