Palestinian Christian Decline: Whose Fault?

On June 8, US Reps Michael McCaul and Joe Crowley published a draft resolution on the subject of Palestinian Christians, beginning with a dramatic headline:

Help Save the Oldest Christian Community in the World

Co-sponsor a resolution recognizing the plight of Palestinian Christians

Dear Colleague:

It’s time for Congress, the President and the international community to address the systematic destruction of the oldest Christian community in the world. Since the Palestinian Authority gained control over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the political, social and economic status of the Christian community has declined precipitously. This has led to mass migration of Palestinian Christians out of territories under Palestinian Authority control. In addition, Christian holy sites and cemeteries have suffered repeated desecration with little response from the police.

…If we do not act now Christians around the world risk losing control of and access to the most ancient and holy sites in Christendom. Please join us in cosponsoring this resolution and working to save the Palestinian Christian community from devastation…

No actual details or references are given, but the authors are drawing on the recent report compiled by Justus Weiner, which I discussed in depth here. Weiner’s report raised serious issues that ought not to be dismissed out of hand, although his well-known biases and past journalistic excesses undermine his credibility.  McCaul and Crowley follow Weiner’s lead in attributing Palestinian Christian problems solely to increased Islamism in Palestinian society, while totally ignoring complaints by Palestinian Christian leaders against the Israeli occupation. In fact, this perspective actively seeks to discredit these leaders, who have received sympathetic hearings in a number of mainline churches. Most aggressive in this campaign in the USA is perhaps Mark Tooley, the ex-CIA employee now based at the Institute of Religion and Democracy. Tooley self-righteously castigates Palestinian clergy for making political statements critical of Israel instead of attending to spiritual matters – although he has no problem with Christian Zionists who provide crucial and uncritical backing for the most reactionary elements of Israeli society.

However, this Weiner/Tooley version of events has itself been challenged. The Forward notes a report by members of Rep Henry Hyde’s staff at the House International Relations Committee that describes

…sections of the [separation] barrier being built on Palestinian Christian land, the inability of Palestinian Christians to access their places of worship because of Israeli travel restrictions, and the Israeli government’s backing of aggressive attempts by militant Jewish settlers to move into the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City and into other predominantly Christian parts of Jerusalem.

I have not been able to find the actual report, but details of it got picked up by Robert Novak and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Novak also did his own research, and highlighted how Israeli settlements have pressuried Palestinian Christians living in the village of Aboud (as I blogged here), and said that besides the Italian Franciscan guardian of the Holy Places, he “could not find another Catholic layman or prelate who complained of anti-Christian bias by Muslims”.

Further criticisms have come in the wake of the proposed resolution, and Forward gives voice to some of the sceptics (link added):

Daphne Tsimhoni, a professor at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and a leading scholar on Christian minorities in the Middle East, told the Forward that almost all the bill’s assertions are either exaggerations, misrepresentations or sheer fabrications.

…”This, to me, is like trying to drown a fish in water,” said Afif Safieh, who heads the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission to Washington. Safieh, a Roman Catholic with scores of relatives in the West Bank, said that the incidents of which he is aware are ones that can be attributed to “lawlessness from which the entire population suffers.” He added that the PLO always has been “extremely open-minded and fair toward the Christian community.”

Christians, he said, are overrepresented in the Palestinian political system and in the P.A.’s bureaucracy. He added that, despite his political differences with the ruling militant Hamas organization, he must admit that the Islamist movement has not taken any steps to discriminate against Christians and has not imposed Islamic law.

Al-Jazeerah, meanwhile, notes that a certain Dale Crowley was fired from a Christian radio station recently for publicly blaming Israel for Palestinian Christian woes. That firing may have been unfair, but it was no great loss: the fundamentalist Rev Crowley keeps company with unsavoury characters connected with the far-right Liberty Lobby and its Spotlight magazine. For many years Dale Crowley worked with Haviv Schieber, a former ultra-right Zionist who rejected Israel because of its supposed socialism (Public Eye has more).

More helpfully, al-Jazeerah also draws attention to the response of the Palestian Christian organisation Open Bethlehem to the resolution:

In response to Texas congressman Michael McCaul’s resolution on the plight of Palestinian Christians, Open Bethlehem’s chief executive Leila Sansour, a Christian from Bethlehem, has sent a letter to congress expressing her community’s shock at the gross misrepresentation of the real threat facing Christians of the Holy Land and has urged congress to pay heed to the real threat to the oldest Christian community in the world.

…By perpetuating the misconception that it is their Muslim neighbors and the Palestinian Authority who are creating this crisis, rather than policies imposed by the Israeli government, congressman McCaul is further entrenching the problems facing the Christian community rather than helping to address them…

Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church USA has decided to rescind its 2004 decision to divest selectively from certain multinational corporations operating in Israel. Instead, the PCUSA has expressed regret for the “hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community” which their policy allegedly caused. No doubt any “hurt and misunderstanding” felt by Palestinian Christians who thought they could rely on their US co-religionists to hold firm will pass unremarked.

UPDATE: The draft resolution has been “quietly withdrawn”. See here.