While Israeli Christians Thrive, Those under Palestinian Rule Suffer

Jan. 16 2018

Following American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, thirteen of the city’s prominent Christian leaders, representing a variety of denominations, signed a joint letter condemning the decision. Amit Barkat explains that they did so more out of fear of the Palestinian Authority (PA) than of animosity toward the Jewish state:

Most of the political activity of the Christian community [is undertaken] in response to pressure from the Palestinian Authority. The denominations centered in Jerusalem also have churches and monasteries in the PA, Gaza, and Jordan, and additional ties throughout the Middle East. Figures in the PA successfully exploit this fact and use the Christians for their propaganda purposes to cover for the injustices they commit against Christians in Judea and Samaria.

But as much as [Palestinians] try to hide [the reality of persecution of Christians], it’s difficult to debate numbers. . . . The best example of their disappearance on the ground is Bethlehem, the city of the birthplace of David and Jesus. Bethlehem was once a clearly Christian city where Christian residents formed an 86-percent majority. Today, that figure stands at fewer than 10 percent, and the negative trend is not stopping. The situation is even worse in Gaza, where among the thousands of Christians who used to live there, only a few hundred remain under the constant threat of persecution, with serious limitations on Christian ceremonies and holidays, and effectively without rights. . . .

Steps like the [Christian leaders’ letter about Jerusalem] are aimed against Israel to protect the security of religious figures in the PA, and Israel for its part gives its silent consent on the matter. Official publications of heads of churches and Christian parties in the PA and the world generally portray Israel in a negative light, with politics and fear serving as the main factors in this distortion of reality and transformation of lies into truth. . . .

While the PA and in fact the entire Middle East are restricting the moves of Christians and harming their freedom of religion, the situation is different in Israel. Alongside the corrupt and violent PA, which is systematically erasing Christians from its territory, the Jewish and democratic state of Israel [allows] a safe life for all religious minorities.

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Fear and Loathing in Bethlehem

Amit Barak

This piece was first published on the Hebrew-language website Mida on January 14, 2018, rendered into English by Avi Woolf, and republished here with permission. The original article can be found by clicking on the link at the bottom of this page.

While the Christian community in Israel is thriving and prospering, Christians living in the Palestinian Authority suffer from violence and unending persecution.

Last Christmas eve, the Muslim mayor of Nazareth, Ali Salem, decided to cancel celebrations in the city. He justified his decision as an act of protest against President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. However, we can assume that the coming Nazareth elections were a factor in his decision, as Salem is trying to get more votes from the city’s Muslims, who now constitute a majority since so many Christians have left in recent years.

The mayor’s decision aroused a great deal of anger among the Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel. Among the leaders of the protest was the Brit Aḥim (Brothers’ Covenant) organization which distributed protest letters on the subject to decision makers in Israel, Christian parties, and Israeli and international media outlets.

Among other things, the letter stated that “the mayor of Nazareth’s decision is a cynical exploitation of Christian residents and it does harm to Christians in Israel and their holiday, harm to the economy of the city, and harm to relations between the religions. . . . We want to remind Mr. Salem that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel 3,000 years ago and the Holy Books and history cannot be changed for political needs detached from reality. It’s time that the Christian community, which for the most part respects the state of Israel and sees itself as a partner in its construction, not be captive to radical political parties both in the Arab sector and the Christian community.”

In the wake of pressure from Israel and international media coverage, the mayor reversed his decision, but he moved the main stage [where public festivities were held] from its regular spot to another location in town. But Ali Salem is not the only one to take steps after the declaration of the American president.

Thirteen prominent Christian religious figures, including the Armenian patriarch, the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, archbishops from the Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian churches, and the manager of the Latin patriarchate in Jerusalem signed a letter attacking the [White House’s Jerusalem] declaration. A few days later, they were present at a Christmas reception at the [Israeli] Tourism Ministry and were even hosted at the traditional gathering at the Israeli presidential residence for the New Year, and met with the mayor of Jerusalem.

Among Israeli Christians, there is a radical and vocal minority that promotes anti-Israel activity, with the prominent participation of the head of the Greek Orthodox Council in Nazareth (funded by the state of Israel), Bishop Atallah Khana. The bishop has been known to have called on Christian youth to enlist in Hamas and even recently met with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

However, we should note that not all Christian organizations and priests in Israel signed the letter, and some of them even publicly supported Trump’s move at various opportunities. Many Israeli Christians were happy about the decision openly, and this points to a gap between the Christian leaders surrendering to political diktats from the PA and Christians in Israel who feel safe and free.

The main political involvement in the Christian community in Israel is comes from the pro-Palestinians in churches and in response to pressure from the Palestinian Authority. The denominations centered in Jerusalem also have churches and monasteries in the PA, Gaza, and Jordan, and additional ties throughout the Middle East. Figures in the PA successfully exploit this fact and use the Christians for their propaganda purposes to cover for the injustices they commit against Christians in Judea and Samaria.

But as much as [Palestinians] try to hide [the reality of persecution of Christians], it’s difficult to debate numbers. In the 1970s, the Christians in Judea and Samaria constituted some 5 percent of the population, a proportion that has since dropped to 2 percent. The best example of their disappearance on the ground is Bethlehem, the city of the birthplace of David and Jesus. Bethlehem was once a clearly Christian city where Christian residents formed an 86-percent majority. Today, that figure stands at fewer than 10 percent, and the negative trend is not stopping. The situation is even worse in Gaza, where among the thousands of Christians who used to live there, only a few hundred remain under the constant threat of persecution, with serious limitations on Christian ceremonies and holidays, and effectively without rights

 

Politics and Fear

The Christian fear of living under Palestinian rule began after the Six Day War, when hundreds of Bethlehem notables turned to the Israeli government asking for them to annex the city, including the Church of the Nativity, but Israel refused to do so for demographic reasons.

In 1995, the Christian mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij, turned to Yitzḥak Rabin and asked him not to withdraw from the city as part of the Oslo Accords due to his fear for the future of Christians in the city. Rabin answered that he wanted an official and public statement from the church heads to that effect. They refused, and Israel withdrew and handed control to the PA. The situation of the Christians in the city has only deteriorated since, with Christian leaders bearing direct responsibility.

In 2003, when the security barrier was erected between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the church property next to the fence remained on the Palestinian side and their leaders asked official parties in Israel to change the route in order for as much property as possible to remain on the Israeli side. The state of Israel decided to make a gesture of good will towards the Christians, and the contours of the fence were changed based on negotiations with the Vatican.

Sensitive moves such as these are usually done behind closed doors and are generally made public many years later due to Israeli responsibility for the safety of Christian religious figures. Thus the public picture presented to the world [of Israeli-Christian relations] is precisely the opposite of what it appears to be. Steps like the patriarchs’ letter [about Jerusalem] are directly aimed against Israel to protect the security of religious figures in the PA, and Israel for its part gives its silent consent on the matter. Official publications of heads of churches and Christian parties in the PA and the world generally portray Israel in a negative light, with politics and fear serving as the main factors in this distortion of reality and transformation of lies into truth.

What, then, are the reasons for the fear and flight of Christians from the PA? Here is a representative story: on September 26, 2015, the monastery of St. Charbel in Bethlehem was burned. the Bishop reported that two days before the fire the monastery had been broken into by Muslims and valuables were stolen, but the PA as usual claimed the fire was the result of an electrical short, despite much evidence of deliberate arson by Muslim radicals.

Many Christians try to sell their property and lands before fleeing to Western countries; they usually seek to sell to Jews via mediators, due to the PA deciding on the death penalty for anyone selling land [to a Jew]. These are the “human rights” acceptable in the PA. It is not for nothing that the PA ranks 36th of a list of 50 states religiously repressing Christians according to an organization called Open Doors, a list which includes countries like Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen.

While the PA and in fact the entire Middle East are restricting the moves of Christians and harming their freedom of religion, the situation is different in Israel. Alongside the corrupt and violent PA, which is systematically erasing Christians from its territory, the Jewish and democratic state of Israel [allows] a safe life for all religious minorities.

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Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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