Bethlehem’s last Christians?
Op-ed: World, churches silent in face of Islamic persecution of Palestinian Christians
Veteran CBS News anchor Bob Simon just reported on the Palestinian Christians, indicting Israel’s
“occupation” as responsible for their dramatic disappearance. The 60 Minutes story caused Israel tremendous PR damage.
Yet largely ignored by Western media, a systematic campaign of Muslim persecution against the Christians is taking place in Palestinian areas. It’s a religious and ethnic cleansing campaign silenced by the global churches.
Christians have long been the frontrunners of Arab nationalism. The most prominent Palestinian intellectual was a Christian, Edward Said. The propaganda term “Nakba” has been penned by a Christian, Constantin Zureiq. The terrorist George Habash was a Christian, as was Yasser Arafat’s wife. Azmi Bishara, the Arab MK who leaked secrets to Hezbollah, comes from a middle-class Christian family from Nazareth.
Since the first Intifada, Palestinian Christians created a Muslim-Christian unity to portray Israel as the aggressor, colonizer and invader. They thought that the Islamic-Christian front against Zionism would help secure their position in the Arab world. Indeed, Arab Christians, and especially their judeophobic clergy, have been in the vanguard of the battle for the destruction of Israel. It was a political operation that also served to cover the crimes committed against Christians by the PLO and the Islamic groups: forced marriage, conversions, beatings, land theft, fire bombings, commercial boycott, torture, kidnapping, sexual harassment, and extortion.
The latest victim has been the Baptist Church in Bethlehem, which the Palestinian Authority just declared as illegitimate, as the US church’s message of reconciliation flies in the face of the hateful propaganda permeating Palestinian society. Arab Christians were obliged to make continual compromises, afraid to mention their own suffering for fear of irritating the Muslim authorities. Soon it became a taboo subject even in the West.
When last month Ayaan Hirsi Ali penned the Newsweek cover story on the persecution of Christians under Islam, she did not mention the Palestinian areas, where Christians dropped from 15% of the population in 1950 to just 2% today. With the PA refusing to reveal accurate statistics, the real extent of Christian emigration is unknown.
As the CBS report showed, Palestinian Christians today have to speak out against “Israeli occupation,” because if they don’t, their silence will be perceived as pro-Israeli by the Muslims. Christian leaders don’t mention the fact that they have suffered the most from the mafia-style rule of Yasser Arafat’s kleptocracy, that slogans like “Islam will win” and “First the Saturday people then the Sunday People” have been painted on their churches, and that PLO flags were draped over crosses.
After the 1948 war, Christian communities suffered most in the West Bank, not under “Israel’s occupation,” but because Muslim refugees were cynically settled in their midst by the Arab leadership. Ramallah was 90% Christian before the war, while Bethlehem was 80% Christian. By 1967, more than half of Bethlehem’s residents were Muslim, while Ramallah is a large Muslim city today.
In a process of “Lebanonization,” Arafat changed Bethlehem’s demography by bringing in thousands of Muslims from refugee camps. Arafat then turned the city into a safe haven for suicide bombers and transformed the Greek Orthodox monastery, located next to the Church of Nativity, into his residence. Christian cemeteries and convents were desecrated and Christians became the PLO’s human shields.
In the first year of the second Intifada, when Arafat’s terrorists ravaged Christian towns by gunfire and mortars, 1,640 Christians left Bethlehem and another 880 left Ramallah.
In 2007, one year after Hamas’ Gaza takeover, the owner of the Strip’s only Christian bookstore was murdered. Christian shops and schools were firebombed. Ahmad El-Achwal is just one of the many Palestinians converted to Christianity killed by Islamic militants.
The silence of the Vatican and the World Council of Churches has been astonishing. Only a few Christian leaders have been brave enough to denounce what is taking place on the ground. With harsh and unexpected words, in 2005 the Custodian of the Holy Land, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said to an Italian newspaper: “Almost every day – I repeat, almost every day – our communities are harassed by the Islamic extremists.”
When Palestinian Christians approached their organizations and complained that terrorists were using Christian homes to fire on Gilo, international Christian solidarity did not meet the challenge.
A few days ago, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, urged William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary, to address the “tragic situation” faced by Palestinians - not because Islamist threats, but because Arabs were “displaced” by the Israeli barrier in Beit Jala, despite the fact that in constructing the security barrier no land has been annexed by Israel, no houses have been demolished, and no-one has been required to leave their home.
In fact, the bigger truth ignored by the Western press and the Churches is that Israel’s barrier helped restore calm and security not just in Israel, but also in Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity, which Palestinian terrorists defiled in 2002 to escape from the Israeli army, is now filled again with tourists from around the world.
The Catholic and Orthodox Churches also frequently asked Israeli authorities to change the route of the fence. They simply didn’t want to live under the Palestinian autocracy. Thus, for example, the Rosary Sisters School in the Dachyat El Barid neighborhood north of Jerusalem was included on the Israeli side of the fence, in light of requests from the Mother Superior of the order.
Today, Palestinian Christians risk the same fate of their brethren in Lebanon. Everyone remembers the Phalange atrocities at Sabra and Shatila. But very few know that the first ethnically cleansed community during the civil war was a Christian town. In November 1976, Palestinian forces came into Damour and dynamited homes and churches, massacring entire families. They exhumed the dead from the Christian cemetery and scattered skeletons throughout the rubble. Some 500 Christians died that day. Will Bethlehem be a second Damour?
Giulio Meotti, a journalist with Il Foglio, is the author of the book A New Shoah: The Untold Story of Israel's Victims of Terrorism