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Christian Exodus from the Holy Land

August 14, 2012

by: Rev. Cheryl Hauer, International Development Director

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Today, unlike times past, anti-Semitism is generally frowned upon, and many nations have legislation providing for the prosecution of those who engage in it. However, that doesn’t mean it has disappeared; it has simply changed its appearance. Now, rather than hating and reviling the Jews, it is accepted practice to hate and revile the nation of Israel. Israel has become “the Jew” among the nations, and “anti-Israelism” is the new anti-Semitism.

One of the more recent accusations is that the State of Israel is responsible for the “mass exodus” of Christians from the Holy Land. In a recent program broadcast by CBS News in the United States, the difficult plight of many Arab Christians was blamed entirely on Israel. Though Muslim hostility toward that Christian community was mentioned, it was quickly dismissed and attention was focused on “the occupation” and Israel’s alleged mistreatment of Palestinians as the reasons for the community’s decrease in size.

Numbers Tell a Different Story

Entrance of the Church of the Nativity

According to the US State Department, it is estimated that the population of Bethlehem was approximately 80% Christian at the establishment of Israeli statehood in 1948. Today, Christians comprise less than 15% of the town. CBS News used a figure of less than 2%. The State Department also indicates that there has been a decrease in Christian population throughout the Palestinian Authority as well. However, this exodus began long before the two Intifadas (Arab uprisings, 1987–1993 and 2000–2007) forced Israel to create checkpoints and a security fence. Some estimate up to 66% of the Christian population actually fled the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) when it was under Jordanian rule.

As for Christian Arabs who live in Israel, the following information was provided by CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America): According to statistics, 80.4% of Christians in Israel are Arabs, and the bulk of the rest are immigrants who arrived under the Law of Return because they had Jewish relatives. The majority of those in the second category arrived during the large waves of aliyah from the former Soviet Union. The average Christian family in Israel has 2 children, slightly fewer than the 2.2 for Jewish families and the 3 for Muslim citizens, so birth rate clearly has an impact on statistical analysis.

What 60 Minutes neglected to point out is that the dramatic numbers they used were actually referring to a percentage of the total, which is down due to an increased Muslim population. It is critically important to note that Israel is the only Middle East nation where the Christian population has openly grown in the last half century. It has gone from 34,000 in 1948 to 140,000 today. This is in large measure because of the freedom of religion that Israel affords its citizens.

It was during Jordanian control of the Old City of Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967 that Arab Christian rights were infringed upon, and they were barred from their holy places. The Christian population declined from 25,000 to 12,646 during those years. However, it has seen slow but steady growth since 1967. The Christian population of the West Bank declined 29% from 1997 to 2002. During that same time, the Christian population of the Gaza Strip declined by over 20%. However, Israel’s Christian Arab population grew by nearly 15%.

The Rest of the Story

Star which marks the place of Jesus’ birth (www.israelimages.com)

Although the numbers are important, a more critical aspect of the issue is the failure of those at 60 Minutes—and others who vilify Israel because of this spurious allegation—to deal with the very real danger that Muslim persecution poses to Christians in the region.

The US State Department provides reports of many Arab Christians being harassed and even violently oppressed by their Muslim neighbors. This information is often hard to obtain because of the danger of reprisal for those who would speak out. However, Khaled Abu Toameh, Palestinian journalist and writer for the Jerusalem Post, has written about the mistreatment of Christians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

He indicates that Christians have complained about acts of intimidation and destruction of personal property. Muslim gangs often simply take possession of Christian-owned land while the security services stand by. Firebombing is common. Toameh states that Christian women in these areas have suffered both verbal and sexual assaults by Muslim men. These same Muslim gangs threaten violence and demand payment for protection, a tax called the jaziya, instituted hundreds of years ago in Muslim-majority nations and still levied today against Christian and Jewish minorities.

Other reports tell of kidnappings, murder, and threats against Christian women who refuse to wear the Islamic headscarf. Many have fled persecution but must remain silent to protect family members who remain behind. Such reports have been filed with the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox leadership as well.

By glossing over the real threat, 60 Minutes is not helping Palestinian Christians. Rather, they are adding fuel to an out-of-control fire. As Christians throughout the Middle East are tortured, persecuted, and murdered for their faith by Muslim fundamentalists, responsible journalists need to find and report the truth: Israel, as the only true democracy in the region, upholds human rights and protects freedom of religion within her borders. In this, she stands alone in the Middle East.

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