JERUSALEM, ISRAEL — December 31, 2021 — A few days before Christmas, I got a message from a friend asking what I thought about an article in which “Church leaders” in Jerusalem warned of “radical” groups being responsible for driving Christians from the Holy Land. I hadn’t heard about this so I read the article. Other than an occasional incident by Jewish people who disparage and even might assault a Christian, or vandalizing a church property which is unacceptable and repugnant on all levels, I’d never heard of such organized “radical groups” doing so. What did the “Church leaders” mean?
My friend is a respected Christian journalist and was asking to see if maybe he missed something that he didn’t know about. As he tried to discern if there was anything to this allegation, I asked around as well. None of my friends – Jews or Christians – thought, or were aware, anything new that would give reason to raise this issue as was done. Some cynically noted that it’s “in the spirit of the season” where those who try to find fault with Israel do so in ways that are most egregious, and will get the most press.
Most of those who I asked and work in the sphere of building bridges between Jews and Christians just shrugged it off in the vein of dishonest “church leaders will be church leaders.” Most of us know that not only is the Christian population in Israel increasing, that Arab Christians in Israel are integrating more and more into Israeli society, and that Israel is the only place in the Middle East where Christians can freely practice and live without fear of persecution. Most also know that the reality is that Christians in the Palestinian Authority are far more persecuted, and in most cases, persecution of Christians within Israel or the Palestinian Authority is from Moslems, and the PA itself. But that’s not the kind of “radical groups” about which the noble local “Christian leaders” wrote.
It’s too bad that their allegations weren’t just a bad Christmas gift that could be returned. Rather than going away, other “Christian leaders” decided to regift the allegations, with no factual.
Leading the charge, and embarrassment, was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who co-authored an article with Hosam Naoum, the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem. Armed with the gospel of the “Christian leaders” who made the initial allegations, this dynamic duo claimed Christians were being “systematically” driven out of the Holy Land.
While attacks that have occurred by Jewish extremists are reprehensible, and widely condemned by the vast majority in Israel, the truth remains that the safest place for Christians in the Middle East to be today is the Jewish State of Israel.
While the “Christian leaders” presented no evidence or actual numbers to back their claims, actual numbers reported by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) proves the opposite. Rather than being driven out, in Israel, the Christian population grew by 1.4%. Christians do suffer persecution by their Moslem neighbors, and Israel needs to do more to address that. Nevertheless, on the whole, Christians in Israel are prospering, and according to the CBS, 84% of whom are “satisfied” with their lives.
What made the “Christian leaders” allegations so bad is that their claims were so egregious that they were hard not to believe. That’s what left me and my friends scratching our heads. If the claims were real, surely, we’d have heard something. But the claims were made without any evidence. A great tactic to get people to be upset, but not one based in reality, truth, or that can fix the actual source of Christian persecution.
The “Christian leaders” claimed that there have been “countless incidents of physical and verbal assaults against priests and other clergy, attacks on Christian churches – with holy sites regularly vandalized and desecrated… (to) drive Christians out.” I’m no expert, but “countless” means too many to count. It suggests so many incidents that they blur together and are indistinguishable from one another, and that they are all the scheme of “radical groups” with the nefarious agenda to persecute and drive out Christians.
What groups are these exactly? Addressing their assumption that only Jewish radicals are responsible for persecuting Christians, and that’s the cause for the (alleged) decrease in Christian population, the “Christian leaders” deliberately and dishonestly blur reality. The “Holy Land” consists of all of Israel as well as what’s known as the West Bank, the majority of the population of which is under Palestinian Authority (PA) control. Let’s be clear, any Jewish attacks on Christians or Christian property in Israel is unacceptable. It does happen, and is dealt with according to Israeli law. Maybe it needs to be dealt with more, along with the wave of Arab-on-Arab crime. But as a Jewish phenomenon, it is isolated, and does not represent Israeli society.
There’s no question that the “Christian leaders” meant Jewish groups as the reason for Christians being driven out of the Holy Land. But if the numbers in Israel don’t bear this allegation out, one must ask if in fact Christians are being driven out at all, and the population is decreasing, who and where are the radicals who are responsible. Looking at the Christian population of the Palestinian Authority (PA), among Christians in the “West Bank” or Gaza, is where you see the actual suffering and the phenomena of Christian persecution taking place.
Where Bethlehem used to be 80 percent Christian before the Palestinian Authority came into existence, today it is estimated to be in the low double digits. Christian friends there tell another story about why there has been an exodus, and it has nothing to do with Israel and/or the Jews. When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, there were an estimated 5,000-7,000 Christians. Today, there remain only about 1,000 Christians under Hamas where they are subject to persecution from Islamic extremists.
Of course, if the number of Christians in the Holy Land is decreasing, and Israel’s Christian population is the largest part of that and it is growing, then there’s a vastly disproportionate number of Christians being driven out from the Palestinian Authority. That’s the source of the problem. Yet, the “Christian leaders,” and Archbishops Welby and Naoum, could not be bothered to mention the Palestinian Authority (PA) or Hamas even once.
The trend of declining Christian population throughout the Middle East is not new, nor unique to the Holy Land. A 2019 report published by then British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, someone with whom the Archbishop of Canterbury should be familiar, depicted a huge drop in the Christian population of the Middle East over the last century, from 20 percent then to five percent presently.
As the number of Christians in the Middle East has dwindled, Israel is the only place the Christian population can live and practice freely, and where the population is growing. It’s sad that “Christian leaders” in the Holy Land would not seek to identify the true sources of why Christians feel threatened and are leaving. It’s dishonest to suggest that Israel and Jewish extremists are the sole cause of the challenges Christians face in the Holy Land. The Archbishop of Canterbury should know better. He should know his facts in the first place. He should also know to “fact check” such outrageous allegations, and not misrepresent the truth, mislead the world, or miss the target when addressing the actual source of persecution of Christians in the Holy Land specifically, and the Middle East in general.
If the Archbishop had just reached out to me, or any of my friends who care about and have been discussing the issue, we could have helped paint a picture that’s based on reality rather that one deceitfully espoused.