Some anti-Israel church activists in the West blast Israel in time for Christmas. Others choose Easter. Recently, World Vision chief Richard Stearns, who heads one of the largest U.S. evangelical relief groups, proclaimed in the Huffington Post that Palestinian Christians are enduring a Holy Week of “trial and tribulation” thanks to Israel.
Claiming Israel allows only 2,000-3000 travel permits for Jerusalem during Holy Week to a population of about 50,000 Palestinian Christians, Stearns never bothered to acknowledge why Israel has security concerns about visitors to Jerusalem. Quoting a Palestinian colleague who attended church in Jerusalem in 2010, Stearns ominously recalled: “The crowd, striving to stay joyful, could still feel the change of what Easter had now become and the dark cloud of checkpoints, police forces, and denial of entry that had obscured the joy of this holiday.” Stearns announced he’s praying for the “miracle” of “full religious freedom to the Christians in the West Bank and Gaza.”
If he has time, maybe Stearns can pray for all Christians in the Middle East, whose problems entail considerably more than travel inconveniences.
Responding to Stearns, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said Israel has provided more than 20,000 permits this year for Palestinian Christians to enter Jerusalem for Holy Week, plus 500 permits for the handful of Christians left in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
“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,” Oren said. “Israel, the only Middle Eastern country with a growing and thriving Christian population, remains committed to maintaining its superb relations with Christian communities worldwide. Though we face serious and continuing defense challenges, we uphold the principle of free access to the Holy Places to all religions.”
Ambassador Oren has recently had to address the realities that confront the Middle East’s shriveling Christian populations while many Western Christians prefer silence or blaming Israel. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed recently he described the Christian exodus from Palestinian territories thanks to Islamist intimidation. The Religious Left and its preferred Palestinian voices responded indignantly, since Oren had challenged their narrative that only Israel can be faulted for Christian difficulties in the Middle East.
Oren’s facts were indisputable. About 20 percent of the Middle East a century ago was Christian. Today it’s 5 percent and plunging, as churches are burned in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere, forcing thousands to flee. Oren likened the Christian exodus to the 800,000 Jews forced from their homes in Arab lands after Israel’s creation. The only safe place for Christians in the current Middle East is in Israel, he observed with understatement.
As a minority, Christians experience some “intolerance” in Israel, Oren admitted. “But in contrast to elsewhere in the Middle East where hatred of Christians is ignored or encouraged,” he wrote, “Israel remains committed to its Declaration of Independence pledge to ‘ensure the complete equality of all its citizens irrespective of religion.’”
In contrast, half of Gaza’s almost tiny Christian community has fled since the Hamas coup in 2007, Oren noted. On the West Bank, the Christian community has fallen to under 2 percent. Although Israel is commonly blamed for Christian emigration, most Palestinian Christians live in West Bank cities under the Palestinian Authority. And the Muslim majority population continues to grow. In Bethlehem, where Christians where once the majority, they have become 20 percent since the Palestinian take-over in 1995.
“The extinction of the Middle East’s Christian communities is an injustice of historic magnitude,” Oren concluded. But an anti-Israel Christian group called Kairos Palestine denounced Oren’s op-ed as “inaccurate and manipulative” for faulting Muslims instead of Israel’s “illegal Israeli occupation.” Their response, helpfully broadcast by the United Church of Christ’s Global Ministries Board, did not identify any specific inaccuracies by Oren. Instead, the Palestinian activists blamed Christian “persecution” on the “occupation that systematically degrades all Palestinians” and the “underlying political oppression that afflicts Christians and Muslims alike.”
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