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Let’s Be Honest, Mr. Ambassador

It isn’t an easy time to be a Christian in the Middle East.  In Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox and the small Evangelical community share the aspirations and disappointments of the Arab Spring, but also feel vulnerable in this transitional time as the previous accommodations both with the secular government and the majority Muslim communities have been deconstructed leaving a future arrangement yet to be negotiated.  The American invasion of Iraq unleashed sectarian and political violence that has made life nearly untenable for the ancient Christian population, their numbers plummeting due to the violence affecting all Iraqis as well as attacks and threats targeted directly at them.  In Lebanon thriving Armenian Orthodox, Greek, Maronite, and Evangelical communities, both Armenian and Arab, watch their members emigrate in the face of an uncertain political future that seems suspended between an unstable and increasingly volatile Syria to the east, Iranian backed Hezbollah within, and aggressive Israeli military hegemony to the south.  Syrian Christians experience the same brutal crucifixion as their Muslim neighbors but also bear the stigma of their own accommodations with the Assad regime that had allowed them some protection but at an unknown price they may yet need to pay.  No, it’s not an easy time for Christians in the Middle East.

Arab Christians in the ancient “Holy Land,” share many of these historical struggles with their Arab neighbors.  Like their neighbors, Palestinians faced daunting and delicate political decisions during the Ottoman Empire and the colonial period between the First and Second World wars, working out accommodations that brought them some recognition as well as basic religious rights but hardly equal status.  But in 1948 the history and struggle of Christians in Palestine took a very different course.  The establishment of the state of Israel led to the emigration of 750,000 Palestinians who had watched their villages razed, their homes destroyed, their livelihood stolen.  Made refugees, they have to this day no right of return.  In the decades following the 1967 war another 40% of the remaining Christian population has left under the strain of over four decades of occupation and the building of the separation barrier.  In the West Bank and East Jerusalem the transformation of Palestinian Christian and Muslim neighborhoods into new Jewish settlements moves at an alarming pace.  Today Christians comprise less than 2% of the total population in the region, down from around 15% decades earlier.

Viewers of CBS’ Sixty Minutes heard much of this story in a segment aired on Sunday night that has stirred quite a storm.  Some viewers were surprised, I suspect, to learn that there are Christians in the Holy Land who are residents, not merely tourists!  For those of us who know something about the situation of Christians in Israel and the occupied territories, the real surprise was hearing the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, make the claim that the Christian communities are thriving in Israel, that compared to the vulnerability of Christians in other parts of the Arab world, Palestinian Christians are the most fortunate.  “The only place in the Middle East where Christians aren’t endangered but flourishing is Israel,” Oren claimed, echoing an earlier opinion column in The Wall Street Journal. Oren was making a careful distinction between Israel proper and the Occupied Territories.  But even so, it was an audacious claim.  Even more breathtaking was the claim that the real threat to on-going Christian life in Palestine is from the Muslim majority.

Breathtaking because no Palestinian Christian leader I have ever met has shared this view, and I have visited with leaders in the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Quaker communities and beyond as well as leaders of the YMCA, YWCA, and Middle East Council of Churches.  This is hardly a cherry picked sample.  They all, to a person, point to the Occupation, its control over Palestinian life, its expropriation of land, home evictions and demolitions, its control of movement, its relentless bureaucratic restrictions, and the growing despair due to the wall and the expansion of settlements as the primary motivator of Christian emigration, not the fear of Muslims.  As a group of over fifty Palestinian Christian leaders said to Ambassador Oren in a response to his editorial, “Your attempt to blame the difficult reality that Palestinian Christians face on Palestinian Muslims is a shameful manipulation of the facts intended to mask the damage that Israel has done to our community.”

If not Muslim extremism, then what is the cause of the decline?  One highly regarded Palestinian Christian leader, Rifat Odeh Kassis, summarizes the common refrain I have heard from church leaders for over ten years on visits to the Middle East:

“Christian emigration is mainly due to the prolonged Israeli military occupation – and its continuous denial of sovereignty for a Palestinian state in which Christians could feel economically, politically, culturally and spiritually at home.”

What’s the message here?  Don’t let Ambassador Oren and others change the subject.  If the existence of an indigenous Palestinian Christian community is important – and I fervently believe it is – then its survival depends on ending the Occupation and the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.  There are Muslim extremists and they are a problem for Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Middle East.  But shifting attention to that is a clever and dangerous obfuscation which gets Israel and its patron, the United States off the hook for perpetuating decades of stalemate while settlements grow and the Christian population inexorably declines.

No, it’s not an easy time for Christians in the Middle East – anywhere.  Let’s not make life more difficult by proffering self-justifying claims that are blatantly dishonest.

John H. Thomas

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