Christian Zionist “Worried” about Palestinian Christians

From Agape Press (links added):

A religious liberty advocate is worried because the influence of Christians in some parts of the Middle East is on the decline. According to William Murray of the Washington, DC-based Religious Freedom Coalition, this fact makes for a difficult situation for born-again believers and subjects their children to especially bad conditions.

…Recently, the RFC chairman has expressed concern over the fact that the power and presence of Christians in the Middle East is waning. His organization has noted that Christians are fleeing oppression in Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank in ever-increasing numbers, while those that remain behind under the hostile regime face intimidation, religious repression, and the ongoing threat of violence.

Murray feels the city of Bethlehem is a perfect example of the Church’s diminishing influence in the region. “The birthplace of Jesus Christ is fast becoming a Christian theme park operated by Muslim businessmen,” he says. “Once 85 percent populated by Christians, Bethlehem is now less than 20 percent. There are only 30,000 Christians left in all of Palestinian-controlled areas.”

Murray is hardly the first person to notice this problem (there was a report in the New York Times just last December). Christian Zionists like Murray and other conservatives usually place the blame on Islamist harassment in collusion with the Palestinian Authority; but although intimidation and worse have been documented (albeit in dubiously polemical sources that have been challenged), and there is real concern over the rise of Hamas in Bethlehem, the Palestinian Christian exodus has been going on since 1948, and most Palestinian Christians themselves see the underlying problem in rather different terms.

Back in April, Bethlehem Media Net ran a piece on local Lutheran pastor Mitri Raheb:

Raheb, 43, who has lived his entire life in Bethlehem, says the 130,000 residents of his hometown and surrounding area, five miles south of Jerusalem, have suffered greatly from the Israeli occupation that began after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Although Bethlehem came under Palestinian Authority control in 1995, today virtually 87 percent of Bethlehem County is under military rule by the Israelis, Raheb said. There are 78 physical barriers including concrete roadblocks and 10 Israeli military checkpoints currently around Bethlehem.

And the new barrier going up, which he says is “higher, longer and uglier than the Berlin Wall,” is making Bethlehem a walled fortress, cut off from Jerusalem and the northern areas of the West Bank.

“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 told several stories of the hardships of living under Israeli domination, including the fact that Israelis control 80 percent of the water system ‹ the lifeblood of the region ‹ around Bethlehem. And the Israelis control a majority of the tourism sites, which is significant because 75 percent of the economy of Bethlehem depends on tourism.

Bishara Awad, the dean of Bethlehem’s Bible College, addressed Muslim-Christian relations in 2003:

“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.”

Awad denies Israeli allegations that many Christians leave because of harassment by Muslims.

“I haven’t seen any attack on our churches or institutions. We’re like brothers here. We share and attend each other’s social occasions. We’re one people.”

That’s not to say there are no anxieties about Islamism. In 1999 Graham Usher wrote an interesting piece for al-Ahram:

Issam Nasser, a professor in History at Al-Quds University and associate director of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies…agrees…that the PA has a “vested diplomatic interest in preserving the image of Palestine as a holy-land open to all religions.” But, “on the ground,” he is disturbed by what he sees as growing Islamisation of Palestinian national culture. He cites the Palestinian national curriculum currently being prepared for PA schools in the West Bank and Gaza.

“The textbooks basically equate the history of Palestine with the history of the Islamic conquest of Palestine,” he says. “The Christian history of Palestine — as occurred, say, during the Byzantine period — is not celebrated in the same way. The result is that many Palestinians taking the curriculum will grow up believing that Palestine is historically Muslim with the only ‘Christian’ references being the Crusades and Napoleon. “I really don’t see how this equips Palestinian Muslims to view their Christian compatriots as equals.”

But somehow one doubts that Murray will be particularly interested in the actual Palestinian Christian perspective. Last month he boasted on his website that:

This morning I was among 20 evangelical Christian leaders who met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Washington, DC. Among those in attendance were Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Pat Robertson, Dr. John Hagee and former presidential candidate Gary Bauer.

…After the public portion of the meeting I pressed the Prime Minister privately to be more specific about the future of Ariel which is the base of the Religious Freedom Coalitions operations in Israel. I specifically asked him if the city would be inside the fence and be a future part of Israel. He smiled and responded, “They don’t have to worry.” I asked him directly if I could tell that to leaders of the city and he responded by saying “Tell them.” I believe this is the most direct answer the Prime Minister has given about the fate of Ariel which is the very heart of Samaria.

In other words, Murray’s “Religious Freedom Coalition” operates out of an illegal settlement in the heart of the occupied West Bank – in an office located on stolen land, built as part of a military strategy to cement the very occupation that Palestinian Christians blame for their woes. To claim to be offering Palestinian Christians support while in such a morally compromised position is, surely, beyond nauseous.