Everyone agrees their numbers are dwindling. What remains in dispute is who should be held responsible for the decline
The long-neglected plight of Palestinian Christians has finally hit radar screens in the US Congress, though there is still lots of clutter to clear up over the source of their distress and how to remedy it.
The unlikely catalyst was conservative commentator Robert Novak, who relishes any chance to spread dirt on Israel. In a Washington Post column in late May, Novak disclosed that veteran Congressman Henry Hyde, Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, sent President George W. Bush a private letter suggesting American support for Israel's security fence may involve "the affirmation of injustice" due to its "negative consequences on communities and lands under their occupation."
Accompanying Hyde's letter was a report compiled by his staff over recent years detailing the alleged impact Israel's security barrier is having on Arab Christians in the Holy Land, particularly in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
In response, House members Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Joseph Crowley (D-NY) circulated a proposed resolution in June that blamed the Palestinian Authority's systematic abuse of Palestinians Christians for their continuing flight from the land where Christianity began.
A heated debate has ensued on Capitol Hill, fueled by Arab clerics and pro-Palestinian American clergy who fault the draft resolution for exaggerating the role Islamic radicalism plays in the Christian exodus from the Holy Land. Three senior Arab clerics in Jerusalem (Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, Anglican Archbishop Riah Abu al-Assal, and Lutheran Archbishop Mounib Younan) even invited McCaul and Crowley to visit the region and see for themselves how the "massive migration to other countries of Palestinian Christians [is] largely due to the illegal [Israeli] Occupation."
This debate is not new and all sides agree that the Palestinian Christian community is dwindling fast, from around 10% of the population in 1948 to barely 1.5% today. What remains in dispute is who should be held responsible for the decline - Israel or the Palestinian Muslims.
IT WOULD seem Chairman Hyde has fallen victim to that evil twin of divestment - namely the dismantlement campaign. Both are anti-Israel propaganda initiatives launched after the infamous UN conference on racism in Durban in 2002. While divestment made some in-roads in the Presbyterian and Anglican churches, the campaign to force Israel to dismantle its security fence has now penetrated the halls of Congress - thanks mainly to Arab Christian activism.
Yet it is farcical to pin the primary blame for the Palestinian Christian exodus on Israel's security fence or its "occupation," since the phenomena predates both by decades.
More than 60% of the native-born Palestinian Christians had already fled the land long before the fence started going up three years ago. And most of that emigration occurred prior to Israel's entry into the West Bank in 1967, when the area was under Jordanian occupation. The last British census in Jerusalem, for example, found 28,000 Arab Christian residents in 1948, while Israel's first official tally in 1967 registered only 11,000.
So for the bulk of the ancient Arab Christian community of the Holy Land, the current debate over the impact of the security fence is rather pointless - they fled long ago.
TRUTH BE told, Palestinian Christians have been driven out by the Arab-Israeli conflict itself, which arose from and is perpetuated by the Islamic world's bitter and unremitting rejection of Israel's very existence.
These Christians have wanted little to do with this conflict, which stymied economic opportunities in the land. More mobile and better educated than their Muslim neighbors, they sought a future elsewhere. Some crossed over into Israel proper, the only country in the Middle East where the Christian community has actually grown over the past 50 years, while scores of others started anew in such far off places as Toronto, Santiago and Sydney.
Those that remain suffer under the same hostile Islamic spirit battering Israel, which views Jews and Christians as followers of "inferior" faiths who are naturally destined to be subjugated by Muslims. Palestinian Christians - like other Christian minorities in Arab lands - have grown accustomed through the centuries to this sad state of dhimmitude, with most of their leaders maintaining a code of silence about it to protect their flocks.
It is a truism that the higher up the Palestinian Christian cleric, the greater their likely silence. The signers of the invitation letter to Cong. McCaul and Crowley are cases in point.
"The entire history of Palestine never witnessed any religious conflict between Christians and Muslims," Bishop Riah told The Washington Times at a time when Muslim gunmen were invading Christian homes in Beit Jalla to shoot at Gilo.
"[I]n Arab countries there is no persecution of Christians," Latin Patriarch Sabbah assured Newsweek at Christmas two years later.
BY PUSHING for dismantlement of Israel's security barrier, Palestinian Christian leaders seek to accomplish two goals:
First, they prove their nationalist credentials to the Palestinian Muslim majority. They have not given any sons as shahids (martyrs) in the jihad against Israel, but they are contributing to the cause and thereby appease the Islamist beast.
Second, they genuinely want to keep the door open to Israel, lest their parishioners get trapped beyond the wall without any escape hatch from the menacing Muslim masses.
Nonetheless, they would have us pretend that Palestinian society is the shining exception to the prevailing Muslim oppression of Arab Christian minorities throughout the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands from the ancient Assyrian Christian community have fled the Sunni insurgency in Iraq over recent years. The proud Egyptian Coptic and Lebanese Maronite communities are wilting and fleeing under official and societal persecution. The practice of Christianity is banned in Saudi Arabia. But all is fine in Palestine!?
I suspect Bob Novak probably cares more about smearing Israel than the fate of Palestinian Christians. By the same token, some probably highlight Muslim maltreatment of Palestinian Christians just to score points for Israel. But for far too many of them, it is much too late to play the blame game over who or what caused their exodus from the Holy Land. Rather, the pertinent question should be what can be done to preserve the embattled Christian remnant still clinging to the land. The answer to that, dear friends, lies largely in Israel's protective hands.
The writer is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem and contributing editor of The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition.