Kendal and Weiner on Palestinian Christian Persecution

ASSIST Ministries has published a two-parter on “The Persecution of Palestinian Christians”, penned by Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission. Part one is a précis of a new monograph by Justus Reid Weiner, of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs. The plight of Palestinian Christians has been a subject of particular concern since the recent election of Hamas, but Weiner’s Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society brings together reports and interviews that highlight terrible abuses and discrimination at the hands of the Palestinian Authority and Islamists going back several years. These include, in Kendal’s summary:

…The deliberate and strategic marginalisation of Christians…economic hardship as Muslims boycott their businesses…The practice of extortion of Christian businesses…impunity granted to those who attack Christians and Christian property [which] only encourages Muslim criminals to break in to churches and monasteries to steal valuable items.

And most seriously of all:

According to Weiner’s research, violence against Christian women in the Palestinian Territories was rare before the PA took control. Christian women testify that before 1993, security was such that they could walk the streets in safety. However, after the PA took control, Christian women could be attacked with impunity…Once again, Muslim criminals know they can rape Christian women without fear of retaliation or legal consequence.

…One Palestinian Christian girl (aged 23) told Prof. Weiner that Muslim men often rape Christian women purely to render them undesirable to Christian men. “She can’t get married, at all, after that,” she said.

Weiner also accuses Palestinian Christian leaders of downplaying the persecution for their own purposes.

Those familiar with Weiner’s best-known previous work – a notorious screed against Edward Said described by Christopher Hitchens as not “deserv[ing] to be called a hatchet job because it is so inept” – might well be tempted to dismiss the concerns raised out-of-hand. There were also claims of persecution in 1998 that were criticized as politically motivated. Palestinian Anglican Naim Ateek noted at the time:

…Fourteen Evangelical clergy, scholars, journalists, and charity leaders led by the Rev. Dr. Don Wagner came in May 1998 to investigate the allegations of persecution of Christians by the PNA. They toured the land and met with a broad number of people on all sides of the political and religious spectrum. At the end of their visit they released a press statement in which they adamantly rejected those allegations. They found the reports of abuse “to be alarmist, oversimplified, politically motivated, and inaccurate.” They wrote, “Systematic persecution of Christians by the Palestinian Authority cannot be substantiated … If Christians are being persecuted for their faith, then we wanted to document it and do all we could to stop it. What we found instead was an intense desire for harmony among both Christians and Muslims from Galilee to Gaza. There are a handful of very isolated, personal incidents, but no indication of an anti-Christian tide rising.” (Please see – EMEU Report…)

However, 1998 was a long time ago, and Weiner provides sources and interviews which amount to a serious case to answer. Weiner is indeed a poor messenger, and shows of concern for Palestinian Christians from the pro-Israel right are invariably driven by an ulterior motive – but if Islamists and corrupt PA officials are so willing to provide propaganda points to the other side, just ignoring the problem is not going to help.

Inevitably, though, Weiner;s work is marred. The basic problem, as expected, is that he has very little to say about the role of the Occupation in undermining the centuries of co-existence between Palestinian Christians and Muslims. In fact, he dismisses the Occupation in one paragraph:

Because there have been no opinion polls taken of departing Palestinian Christians, it is possible to claim that the recent wave of massive Christian emigration is a result of the Israeli occupation and the resulting political and economic instability. As one Catholic leader commented, “The principal reason for the dramatic rise in Christian emigration has been the continuing military occupation and the denial of the sovereignty of a Palestinian state wherein Christian Arabs could feel at home economically, politically, culturally and spiritually.” (Shavit and Bana 2001*) The stated “dramatic rise” in Christian emigration, however, could not have resulted from a “continuing” condition. An explanation of the dramatic rise in Christian emigration from PA-controlled territories should therefore include a phenomenon that has only recently emerged in order to account for the rise in emigration patterns that does not reflect the normative political timeline.

Weiner instead points the finger at increased Islamism, which is reasonable – but his response to “the Catholic leader” is playing with words: a situation can be both “continuing” and increasingly intolerable. The question is how we should balance the various pressures on Palestinian Christians – but for ideological reasons Weiner is not willing to discuss suffering caused by the Occupation in any detail.

Another issue Weiner skirts over quickly:

…The growing strength of Islamic fundamentalism within the Palestinian national movement poses problems for Christians in that they might be deemed opponents of Islam and risk becoming targets for attacks by Muslim fundamentalists. Attacks against Christians might also result from perceptions that Christianity is associated with Zionism and Western imperialism. (Nammar 2002**)

That may well be the case, and for Muslim fundamentalists to attack Palestinian Christians on such a misidentification shows their stupidity (although the EMEU report suggests that some Palestinian ex-Muslim converts to Christianity are pro-Zionist). But it might help matters a lot if there weren’t large numbers of Western Christians who do associate Christianity not just with Zionism, but with the far-right Messianic Zionism of the settlers. In fact, two of Weiner’s informants are William Murray and David Ortiz, both of whom are American pastors who live in illegal West Bank settlements in order to show solidarity with the Israeli far-right (a detail Weiner ignores).

Bizarrely, Weiner also includes a paragraph of commentary from Joseph Farah of WorldNetDaily – a demagogue who presides over a news source which is virulently anti-Palestinian and which often provides sympathetic profiles of far-right Israeli extremists (as charted on ConWebWatch). Given that the paragraph he cites merely repeats generalities and offers no new information, one wonders what the point of including it is, except to advertise WND to readers.

On the other hand, Weiner is able to cite sources he probably doesn’t have much in common with in a way that is fair. He quotes from the Anglican Bishop Riah El-Assal, and writes neutrally about the EMEU:

The Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU), an organization of North American churches, agencies, and individuals that seek to foster cooperation and understanding among different religious groups in the Middle Eastern region, is monitoring the PA’s inclusion of Sharia as “the primary source of legislation” and “is particularly wary of anything the PA might do to limit the practice and observance of any faith including the open discussion of theological issues.”

But, as with other pro-Israel “defenders” of Palestinian Christians, he’s not open to their complaints about the Occupation. Here’s a couple of quotes, which I gathered for a previous entry:

Lutheran pastor Mitri Raheb, on the separation wall: “Once it is completed, there will be only three gates and the keys will be controlled by the Israeli military,” he said. “Our little town of Bethlehem is being transformed into a big prison.”

(Raheb has also spoken out recently against Hamas)

Bishara Awad, the dean of Bethlehem’s Bible College: “We, Muslims and Christians alike, have been on the receiving end of oppression since 1967. The occupation is the root cause of economic deterioration. Some people can’t live under constant pressure for a long time; so they emigrate when they are no longer able or willing to withstand oppression.”

Weiner claims that such statements merely reflect the biases of a pro-Arafat religious leadership; but to make such a dismissal and then complain that “the voice of one very significant minority, that of the autochthonous Palestinian Christian community, is often disregarded”, is a bit much.

Part Two of Kendal’s report for ASSIST gets off to a bad start:

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES – 2. WHAT NOW FOR THE CHRISTIANS OF HAMASTAN?

“Hamastan”? I suppose that must make Israel “Zionistia”, but maybe silly insults like that are best avoided altogether. Kendal intones:

Hamas’ electoral win is not a surprise result that cannot be explained. Hamas will not radicalise Palestinian Muslims. Hamas won the elections because the Palestinian Authority has already radicalised Muslim society to the extent that it freely elected a terrorist organisation as its government. Hamas’ win is the culmination of decades of growing discontent – with the economy, violence and corruption – coupled with the increased radicalisation of Palestinian Muslim society.

The trouble is, how do we define “coupled”? Does increased radicalisation account for 50% of the change, or more, or less? Does the fact that 55.55% of those who voted chose other parties count for nothing? I’ll happily agree with Kendal that Hamas is bad news, and its landslide of seats won is likely to be a disaster for Palestinian civil society. But I also recall a country next door that has been radicalised to the extent that it freely elected a man found indirectly responsible for war crimes as its Prime Minister (and notorious for much else besides) – and is likely to very soon be voting in a man very much to the right of him. I believe it’s called a spiral of hate.

UPDATE (17 February): I note a specific example of where the Occupation is responsible for creating problems for Palestinian Christians today.

*****

*Shavit, Uriya and Bana, Jalal (2001). “The Secret Exodus.” Ha’aretz. Oct. 3: 15

**Nammar, Jacob (2002). “Palestinian Christians in Holy Land Are Forgotten.” San Antonio Express, Oct. 26

4 Responses

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