The Myth of Palestinian Christianity
There has been much excellent academic study of the history of Christianity in the land of its birth. It could fill a whole library. In recent years, however, all that fine work has been eclipsed by the myth, created by the so-called "Palestinian narrative," of Palestinian Christianity.
It has become fashionable to talk of "narratives" and defer to them. But what is a narrative in this sense? Maybe all of us have received spurious emails in the name of a friend who desperately begs money, having allegedly been robbed while on holiday in a foreign land. That is a "narrative": often a pack of lies that demands immediate uncritical assent. Beware of those who solemnly plead with you to listen to their narrative.
Conveniently, last month the main elements of the myth of Palestinian Christianity were neatly summarized in a blog post entitled "The Vanishing Church in the Holy Land." Its author, who styles himself Sir Jeffery Abood (his knighthood comes not from Her Majesty but from Rome), already published it on December 30 last in America Magazine. So he has had ample time to become advised of its many errors, but it reappeared, unchanged, apart from insignificant stylistic touches. Myths are impervious to truth.
Sir Jeff's blog post (he prefers "Jeff" to "Jeffrey") has one great virtue: concision. It brings together in relatively few words a mass of often repeated misrepresentations about Christians in the Holy Land. It also contains one important statement that is true; we shall invoke it at the end. In all other regards, Sir Jeff has provided the opportunity to compile a handy equally concise demythologization of this myth of Palestinian Christianity.
The tone is set by an opening statement that is not merely false, it is patently and absurdly false: "For two thousand years, Christian communities there have thrived." Let us recall the destruction of Christian communities under Diocletian in the fourth century, under the Persian invasion in the seventh, under the Muslim Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim in the tenth, and under Bibars in the thirteenth. Not to mention other cruel regimes, invasions, massacres, plagues and famines.
In later centuries, there was general depopulation. Around 1800, the population of Jerusalem was a mere nine thousand, today it is three quarters of a million, and the population of the whole country was maybe three hundred thousand, where today ten million Israelis and Palestinians live. Christians often did not thrive; often nobody throve.
He continues: "Yet, over the last sixty years, their population has gone from historically around 18 percent to less than 2 percent today. Never have the Christian communities there been as close to going out, as they are now." Sir Jeff, as we shall shortly see, thinks that only Arab Christians need to be counted. But even in those terms, he is wrong. Arab Christians numbered some 150,000 or 8 (not 18) percent in 1947, whereas today, at around 180,000, they are indeed under 2 percent. So the absolute number of Arab Christians has increased over the last sixty years; only the number of Jews has increased much more, and the number of Muslims even more.
Further, the Arab Christian population of the State of Israel has nearly tripled in sixty years. There are no definitive statistics for the current Christian population in the areas of the Palestinian Authority (PA); various numbers are thrown around, even by official sources. But in 2008 Palestinian academics published carefully collected figures, which suggest that the Arab Christian population today may be less than in 1948, but that the decline took place before 1967, since when it has actually risen. In that event, the increase of Arab Christians in Israel has more than compensated for any decline in areas under Arab rule (during 1948-1967 and since 1995). According to those figures, the Arab Christians living in the State of Israel as Israeli citizens now outnumber those under the Palestinian Authority by nearly three to one.
The Palestinian academics concerned were Rania Al Qass Collings, Rifat Odeh Kassis and Mitri Raheb. The latter two are on record as not counting me among their best friends, so I cannot be accused of tendentious selection of sources, let alone of Zionist propaganda. But while I do honestly disagree with them about various things, I can respect their evidently conscientious attempt to gather reliable data.
Their figures for the number of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza in the last half century are: 48,855 (1961: Jordanian census), 42,494 (1967: Israeli census), 51,563 (1995), 48,800 (2006), 51,710 (2007/8). The last three figures are estimates of those academics, based on minute data collected in the relevant population centers. These figures completely refute Sir Jeff's talk of a "vanishing church," ascribed to the influence of Israel. On the contrary, the Christian population was falling before Israel took over in 1967, but rose markedly afterwards. Since 1995, when almost the whole Christian population came under direct PA control as part of Area A of the West Bank, the figure has been almost static. But it did recover from a dip during the second Palestinian intifada (during which some Christians may have taken refuge abroad).
Next, Sir Jeff turns to the composition of the Christian communities in the Holy Land: "Whether they live in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza, these Christians are all Palestinians (with the exception of recent immigrant worker communities) and have been living there for 2,000 years." So much nonsense in one short sentence!
The first local Christians were Jews, joined gradually by gentile converts from the Greek cities of the coast and Transjordan (the Decapolis). Over the centuries, great numbers of Christians arrived from many countries. Thus there are today Armenians and Syrian Orthodox (mostly refugees from SE Turkey), Copts, Ethiopians and Maronites. Members of Sir Jeff's own church community, the Latin Catholics, will proudly tell you that they are descended from the many Europeans who arrived during the Crusader period. Many Greek Orthodox had Greek-speaking ancestors. Today they are all called (as here) "Arab Christians" because they grow up speaking Arabic, although their intercontinental ancestry is mostly not Arab.
The most recent influx, ignored by Sir Jeff, is the Christians among the 300,000 non-Jewish relatives of Jews who came from the former Soviet Union. Their total could match that of all the older communities; nobody knows, but a common guesstimate is 30,000. There are also now a few thousand Jewish or "Messianic" Christians in Israel, though this number is uncertain too. In short, there have been vast changes in the makeup of the Christian population over 2,000 years and to call them "all Palestinians" is merely to say that we are talking about the same geographic area.
Sir Jeff now invokes the widely propagated claim that Christians and Muslims always lived happily together under Muslim rule in the Holy Land: "Christians are not leaving Israel/Palestine because of their Muslim neighbors. After all, for 1,500 years the Christian population has been relatively stable despite living in a largely Muslim culture." To speak of a "stable population," as we saw, is nonsense. So I shall mention only two of endless examples that refute the illusion of a happy coexistence.
The Christians of Nazareth were expelled in 1517; only in 1620 did the Franciscans succeed in renewing a Christian presence there. In Bethlehem, it was the Christians who expelled the Muslims in 1831. During the last two decades, however, Christians have been encouraged to leave Bethlehem by Muslims who buy up their houses and businesses; so the Christians have gone from great majority to small minority.
"Even today, many of elected Palestinian leaders are Christians who enjoy popularity and a wide base of support." The Palestinian Legislative Council, whose ineffectual meetings ceased four years ago, has a handful of seats reserved for Christians. There is also the one-woman faction of Hanan Ashrawi. In neither case can one speak of "popularity and a wide base of support."
"Since the State of Israel has occupied these lands (partially in 1948, taking the rest in 1967) the Christians have left." Apparently, Sir Jeff is one of those who regard also the State of Israel, within any borders, as part of "Occupied Palestine." In any event, as we saw, the Christian population actually grew substantially under Israeli occupation after 1967. Nor did Christians suddenly start leaving in 1948. Back in 2000, Chile officially celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the Palestinian presence there, although the earliest known arrival dates from 1854. Some 400,000 Chileans claim Palestinian ancestry, mainly from Christians in the Bethlehem area who emigrated during 1900-1930.
"Most Christian owned lands have been and continue to be confiscated for the building of illegal settlements." Most? Sir Jeff proffers only one example: a "giant wall" built on property belonging to the "Home of Our Lady of Sorrows outside Jerusalem." Since when is a wall a settlement?
In fact, a large part of West Jerusalem, including the prestigious Rehavia quarter and the Knesset, is built on land that was leased from and continues to belong to the Greek Orthodox Church. Many of the leases ran out recently and the church received payment for their renewal. The Coptic Orthodox Church recently leased a large building for use as an Israeli health clinic. Other churches that have leased residential areas include the Armenians and the Syrian Orthodox. In none of these instances was land confiscated; church ownership remains anchored in Israeli law.
As he considers all of Israel to be occupied land, maybe Sir Jeff concurs with Palestinian references to the Jewish inhabitants of West Jerusalem as "settlers." For example, on October 31, 2010, Al-Quds had various articles about an arson attack on a church located, as the newspaper explicitly noted, in "Prophets Street" in "West Jerusalem." To this day, the perpetrators remain unknown. But the main article in Al-Quds (p. 1) termed it an attack by "settlers" in "occupied Jerusalem." There was a picture (p. 2) of "settlers" passing by the church. Also PA prime minister Salam Fayyad (p. 1), PA spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina (p. 1) and PA foreign minister Riyad Al-Maliki (p. 7) were variously quoted as using the terms "settlers" and "occupation" in reference to the incident. All those statements presupposed that West Jerusalem, too, is "occupied Palestine" inhabited by "settlers."
There is a broader issue here that needs to be clarified. Routinely, the Palestinians demand "a state with Jerusalem as its capital." They are widely assumed to mean "East Jerusalem," but they refrain from saying so. It may be a case of deliberate ambiguity: let foreigners think that only East Jerusalem is meant, while Palestinians can understand "all of Jerusalem." Whenever they use that phrase, they should be pressed to clarify: "We make no claim on West Jerusalem."
Sir Jeff, let it be clear, did not cite those allegations about the Jerusalem church. Nor did he mention arson attacks on Christian churches and other institutions in areas under PA control. For example, five churches were attacked after the Pope's controversial remark about Muslims at Regensburg in September 2006 (four churches in Nablus and one in Gaza).
"There also continue to be efforts by the government to remove the tax exempt status of the Church." Until the nineteenth century, Christians had to pay the taxes required by their dhimmi status, and churches were squeezed to pay various impositions. Under pressure from the European powers, the Ottoman government eliminated all those discriminatory taxes. Thus arose the tax exempt status of churches.
In today's world, the issue is wholly different. Should just not churches, though everybody else, pay taxes for the operation of restaurants and gift shops, for the import of limousines, for municipal services like modern roads, sewage and garbage collection? That is what various churches now claim as their right. Israel does grant tax concessions for recognized charities and other non-profits acting in the public interest; it would like the churches to adapt to this regime.
"Evangelization itself, always a primary mission of the Church, is a crime in Israel, and carries a mandatory prison term." Sir Jeff has no excuse for repeating this canard, whose falsity is well known. In 1978, under pressure from Orthodox Jewish circles, the Knesset passed a law that prohibited not evangelization as such, but offering or receiving "material inducement"for changing religion. The law also forbade attempts to persuade minors to change religion.
Everyone knows two things about this law. One, that it does not refer specifically to Christianity but applies to any change of religion. Two, that until today, over thirty years later, there has never been a prosecution under this law, although there are constant cases of Jews converting to Christianity or vice versa. Sir Jeff should rather break his silence about the persecution of Muslims in the West Bank who dare to become Christian.
"Even the Holy Sites are coming under increasing threat. Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity still bears the marks of Israeli Defense Forces gunfire from 2002." Sir Jeff surely knows what he refrains from mentioning: that this happened when Palestinian gunmen seized and vandalized the church, after fleeing from an engagement with Israelis.
"Access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is increasingly denied to Palestinian worshippers who live outside Jerusalem's walled Old City." As already noted, the great majority of Arab Christians live in Israel as Israeli citizens; their access to the Holy Sepulchre is unlimited. Arrangements are made on major festivals for Christians from the West Bank to come and worship.
"This past year access was even denied on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter." An extremely deceptive remark. He is referring to the Holy Fire ceremony, when the Holy Sepulchre is jam-packed with thousands of Orthodox pilgrims carrying bunches of candles, waiting to kindle them all at once when the fire miraculously appears. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian Orthodox Christians have been coming in hordes, joining the masses of Greek Orthodox pilgrims and the locals.
The danger is obvious and the Israeli authorities have had to impose a limit not on Arab Christians, but on the total number allowed into the cramped space of the church. Does Sir Jeff not know this? Or does he not care if a massive catastrophe occurs, which he could add to his litany of complaints?
"The Upper Room is all but off limits to all Christians. When Pope John Paul II was allowed to pray there in 2000, it was a rare opportunity indeed." The first sentence is false; the second is grossly misleading. Tourists have regular access to the Upper Room. But the attempt of the Latin Catholics to acquire it as a place of worship has met with resistance for many reasons. First of all, the Muslims long ago declared the place a mosque. This is witnessed by inscriptions including the Muslim profession of faith. Second, why should the State of Israel allocate exclusively to one church, the Latins, a site that is revered by all Christians?
Every January, on Thursday during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an ecumenical prayer service attended by hundreds is held in the Upper Room. The Upper Room has also been used by request for ecumenical prayer on other occasions. So John Paul II's visit was not "a rare opportunity." It is just that Sir Jeff and his fellow knights do not own the place.
Enough of listing falsities. Let us consider the one important statement in Sir Jeff's blog spot that is true: "Israel also has denied visas to more than 500 religious workers and clergy to live and work in the West Bank and Gaza." He could have said more: in recent years, Israel has made it more and more difficult for foreign Christian personnel, and even Christian friends of Israel, to dwell in the State of Israel itself. I myself have been a constant critic of this policy, both recently and on earlier occasions.
But Sir Jeff should ask himself: When prominent Christians make a habit of defaming the State of Israel and posting lies about it all over the Internet, why should Israel show any eagerness to offer them residence? For his blog spot is not unique; it is merely a compendium of baseless allegations against Israel made by other leading Christians of many denominations in recent years.
Many individual lies were long ago refuted, but the lies are unscrupulously and knowingly repeated over and over again. All this gives Israel reason to be wary of any Christian who seeks to come and live there. Sir Jeff should consider his own responsibility in this area.
Moreover, as in the present case of America Magazine, it is often leading Christian publications that unhesitatingly provide such Christians with a forum. The customary disclaimers ("do not necessarily reflect the views of this journal") are inadequate when a whole nation is being defamed.
Let us give Sir Jeff the benefit of the doubt and entertain the possibility that many of his claims were copied in all ignorance from his predecessors in Christian defamation of Israel. Then let him take an example from Richard Goldstone, who was brave enough to admit that the eponymous Goldstone Report contained grave false allegations about the State of Israel.
Sir Jeff is at liberty to withdraw his blog spot and publicly admit its gross errors. Can the Catholic knight match the courage of the Jewish judge?
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