Christians in Israel, the territories and the Middle East:
context, from Michael Oren

Published: 18 April 2012
Briefing Number 310

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Summary: Israel is routinely criticised for its policies towards Christians inside Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza.

This new Beyond Images Briefing reproduces an article on this theme by Michael Oren, who is currently Israel’s Ambassador to the USA. Oren formerly served as an adviser to the Israeli government on inter-religious affairs. He firmly rebuts the allegation levelled against the country, and provides necessary context for the situation of Christians in Israel and the territories. The article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 9 March 2012. 

Oren argues that in fact Christians enjoy greater protection and religious freedom in Israel than anywhere else in the Middle East.  And he demonstrates that it is not Israeli policies which are oppressing Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Gaza, but Islamist extremism. 

This Briefing also include Oren’s rebuttal of an article on this topic by the founder of humanitarian charity World Vision, which appeared in the Washington Post on 4 April 2012 called ‘A dark Easter for Palestinian Christians’.

Michael Oren wrote as follows in the Wall Street Journal
(9 March 2012):

The Church [of the Nativity] in Bethlehem had survived more than 1000 years, through wars and conquests, but its future now seemed in jeopardy.  Spray-painted all over its ancient stone walls were Arabic letters for Hamas.  The year was 1994 and the city was about to pass from Israeli to Palestinian control.  I was meeting with the church’s clergy as an Israeli government adviser on inter-religious affairs.  They were despondent but too frightened to file a complaint.  The same Hamas thugs who had desecrated their sanctuary were liable to take their lives. 

Dwindling Christian life across the Arab Middle East

The trauma of those priests is now commonplace among Middle Eastern Christians.  Their share of the region’s population has plunged from 20% a century ago to less than 5% today and it is falling. 

  • In Egypt, 200,000 Coptic Christians fled their homes last year after beatings and massacres by Muslim extremist mobs 
  • Since 2003, 70 Iraqi churches have been burned and nearly 1000 Christians killed in Baghdad alone, causing more than half of this million member community to flee
  • Conversion to Christianity is a capital offense in Iran, where last month Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death 
  • Saudi Arabia outlaws private Christian prayer

As 800,000 Jews were once expelled from Arab countries, so are Christians being forced from lands which they have inhabited for centuries.

By contrast, Israel’s Christian population has increased by 1000% since 1948

The only place in the Middle East where Christians aren’t endangered but flourishing is Israel. 

Since Israel’s founding in 1948, its Christian communities (including Russian and Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Armenians and Protestants) have expanded more than 1000%.
Christians are prominent in all aspects of Israeli life, serving in the Knesset, the Foreign Ministry, and on the Supreme Court.  They are exempt from Israeli military service, but thousands have volunteered and been sworn in on special New Testaments printed in Hebrew.

Israeli Arab Christians are on average more affluent than Israeli Jews and better-educated, even scoring higher in their SATs.

This does not mean that Israeli Christians do not occasionally encounter intolerance.  (See Beyond Images Briefing 311 – Shared humanity in Jerusalem: an open letter to Christians).

But in contrast to elsewhere in the Middle East where hatred of Christians is ignored or encouraged, Israel remains committed to its Declaration of Independence pledge to “ensure the complete equality of all its citizens irrespective of religion”.  It guarantees free access to all Christian holy places, which are under the exclusive aegis of Christian clergy.  When Muslims tried to erect a mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Israeli government interceded to preserve the sanctity of the shrine.

Israel abounds with such sites (for example Capernaum, the Hill of the Beatitudes, the birth place of St John the Baptist) but the [territory of the] state of Israel constitutes only part of the Holy Land.  The rest, according to Jewish and Christian tradition, is in Gaza and the West Bank. Christians in those areas suffer the same plight as their co-religionists throughout the region.

The diminishing Christian population of Gaza and the West Bank

Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007 (see Beyond Images Briefing 198 – The Hamas takeover of Gaza: quickly forgotten facts), half the Christian community has fled. 

Christmas decorations and public displays of crucifixes are forbidden.  In a December 2010 broadcast, Hamas officials exhorted Muslims to slaughter their Christian neighbours.  Rami Ayad, owner of Gaza’s only Christian bookstore, was murdered, his store reduced to ash. 

This is the same Hamas with which the Palestinian Authority of the West Bank has recently signed a unity pact.

Little wonder, then, that the West Bank is also haemhorraging Christians.

Once 15% of the population, Christians now make up less than 2%.  Some have attributed the flight to Israeli policies that allegedly deny Christians economic opportunities, stunt demographic growth, and impede access to the holy sites of Jerusalem.  In fact, most West Bank Christians live in cities such as Nablus, Jericho and Ramallah, which are under Palestinian Authority control.  All those cities have experienced marked economic growth and a sharp population increase – but only among [Palestinian] Muslims [not among the Palestinian Christian population].

Israel, in spite of its need to safeguard the borders from terrorists, allows holiday access to Jerusalem’s churches to Christians from both the West Bank and Gaza.  In Jerusalem, the number of Arabs – among them Christians – has tripled since the city’s unification by Israel in 1967 (see Beyond Images Briefing 254 – Jerusalem: the battle over facts, history and context).

Bethlehem, and why Christians are leaving the West Bank

There must be another reason, then, for the West Bank’s Christian exodus.  The answer lies in Bethlehem. 

Under Israeli auspices, the city’s Christian population grew by 57%.  But under the Palestinian Authority since 1995, those numbers have plummeted.  Palestinian gunmen seized Christian homes [in Beit Jalla, South of Jerusalem – Beyond Images] compelling Israel to build a protective barrier between them and Jewish neighbourhoods, and then occupied the Church of the Nativity, looting it and using it as a latrine.  Today, Christians comprise a mere one-fifth of their holy city’s population.

(see Beyond Images Briefing 163 – The Christians of Bethlehem: intimidation by Muslim extremists)
An injustice of historic magnitude
The extinction of the Middle East’s Christian communities is an injustice of historic magnitude.  Yet Israel provides an example of how this trend can not only be prevented but reversed.  With the respect and appreciation they receive from the Jewish state, the Christians of Muslim countries could not only survive but thrive.

- End article

Richard Stearns: ‘Dark Easter’ for Palestinian Christians? 
Michael Oren’s response, April 2012

Within weeks, Michael Oren’s voice was heard publicly again on this theme.

On 4 April 2012 an opinion article appeared in the Washington Post newspaper by Richard Stearns, who is the US President of the humanitarian group World Vision.  In the article, Stearns alleged that only 2000 Palestinian Christians had been permitted to go to Jerusalem for Easter, from over 20,000 applicants.   The article was called ‘A dark Easter for Palestinian Christians’.

Oren responded the next day, issuing a public statement accusing Stearns of defaming Israel and promoting complete falsehoods. Here is Oren’s statement:

“The claims made in a recent article by Richard Stearns (“A dark Easter for Palestinian Christians”) are completely without foundation and libellous to the State of Israel.

Israel has provided more than 20,000 permits this year for Palestinian Christians to enter Jerusalem for the Good Friday and Easter holidays.  Five-hundred similar permits have also been issued to the remaining Christians of Gaza, though the area is under the control of the terrorist organisation Hamas.
With the exception of the very few individuals who have raised security concerns, and notwithstanding the measures we must take to protect our citizens, any Christian from the West Bank can reach Jerusalem on Good Friday and Easter.  All allegations to the contrary are flagrantly untrue and represent a reckless attempt to defame the Jewish state.

Israel, the only Middle Eastern country with a growing and thriving Christian population, remains committed to maintaining its superb relations with Christians communities worldwide.  Though we face serious and continuing defence challenges, we uphold the principle of free access to the Holy places to all religions.  On this year, as in all previous years, we wish Christians throughout the world a joyous holiday.....”

Some related Beyond Images Briefings

Briefing 163 – 18 December 2005
The Christians of Bethlehem: intimidation by Muslim extremists

Briefing 311 – April 2012
Sharing common humanity: Jerusalem Rabbi’s message to Christians

Israel Accused: 70 Concise Responses
See Response 37 to the accusation: “Israel violated the sanctity of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem”