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At home and abroad, Christian Palestinians under attack by Israel and its apologists

May 24, 2014 at 5:50 pm

As the Pope visits the ‘Holy Land’, much media coverage has focused on the current problems facing Christian Palestinians, and in particular, the so-called ‘price tag’ attacks being perpetrated by right-wing Jewish extremists. Ahead of the Papal visit, Israeli police even issued restraining orders against known activists.

As Jessica Purkiss has written here for Middle East Monitor, “growing concerns over the rising anti-Christian attacks are darkening the occasion [of Pope Francis’ visit] for Israel’s Christian community”.

Non Jewish sites such as mosques, churches, Christian and Muslim graveyards, as well as Palestinian property and land in both in the occupied territories and Israel are routinely targeted, damaged and defaced.

These attacks and threats come on top of long-standing grievances over land confiscation, restrictions on freedom of access and worship, and visa problems for foreign clergy. But there is a bigger picture to take into account, beyond the latest disturbing developments.

In recent years there has been a marked increase in political organising and activism amongst Christian Palestinians, either as part of broader movements and campaigns, or, explicitly ‘as Christians’. These activities have taken place inside both Israel and the Occupied Territories, and can be viewed alongside the wider trend of Palestinians confronting territorial and organisational fragmentation, especially amongst youth.

Christian Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, for example, have been going back to the sites of villages ethnically cleansed by Israel in the Nakba, like Kafr Bir’im. At these sites, Palestinians have been holding religious ceremonies and attempting a ‘return’, such as the case of al-Bassa, where expelled villagers conducted a baptism (and were attacked by the Jewish residents of Shlomi, a community built on village land).

Christian Palestinian youth have also been active in a variety of initiatives amongst the community inside the pre-’67 lines, such as the ‘Stop Prawer’ campaign, and Nakba Day demonstrations.

A particularly significant development was the publication of the Kairos Palestine declaration in 2009, when a number of Christian Palestinian community leaders and organisations came together to produce a statement on the struggle of their people against Israeli colonisation and occupation – and appeal for solidarity and support from Christians worldwide.

This document, rooted in the lived experience of the colonised, and with an explicit call for international action – including through strategies such as boycott and divestment – was dynamite as far as the Israel lobby was concerned, especially as it began to be read, and replied to, by churches worldwide.

Another example of Christian Palestinian organisation has been the Christ at the Checkpoint conferences, held now in 2010, 2012, and earlier this year, gatherings that have grown in size and profile, attracting indigenous theologians and activists, as well as hundreds of international delegates, mainly from North America.

All of which has fed into, and boosted, Palestine solidarity activism in Western churches and Christian organisations, a development that has angered Israel’s die-hard defenders. Writing recently for the hard-right Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, Dexter Van Zile of Israel lobby group CAMERA cannot disguise his contempt, accusing “Arab Christians” and “especially those living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem” of having had “a corrosive and narcotic effect on church and para-church organizations in Europe and the United States”.

In recent years, support for Palestinian rights has been expressed in numerous denominations and Christian organisations, from the World Council of Churches to local congregations. Mainline Protestant churches in North America, Australia, and the UK have all engaged with the issue of how best to support Palestinians (mostly taking as read Israel’s violations of international law and human rights), including through BDS.

There has even been some progress amongst those Christians that Israel has traditionally relied on for political support – fundamentalist Protestant Evangelicals. In the U.S., new conversations have emerged around, for example, the success of the film ‘With God On Our Side‘, and there is a growing number of high-profile pastors and Evangelical household names who are voicing concern over uncritical support for Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights

Put all of this together – the activism amongst Christian Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, and the growth in solidarity amongst Western churches – and a picture emerges that is extremely worrying for Israel and its lobbyists. The response that seems to be taking shape is familiar: divide and conquer.

As an AFP report put it this week, experts are pointing to Israeli government efforts “to bring its Christian Arab population on side in a move aimed at splitting them from their Muslim compatriots”. Back in February, the Knesset passed a law giving separate representation to Muslim and Christian Palestinian citizens on a national employment commission. Bill sponsor Likud MK Yariv Levin made his agenda explicit: “[the Christians are] our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within.”

Meanwhile, attempts to try and boost the tiny number of Christian Palestinian citizens serving in the Israeli military have escalated from the activities of a few small groups and more informal explorations to an official IDF ‘invitation‘ to Christian youth to join the IDF. Those protesting such developments have faced repression by the authorities – including house arrest for social media posts.

While Israel may be focusing on legislative efforts and the issue of the military draft/national service as it targets those Palestinians with citizenship, when it comes to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a familiar propaganda refrain is being heard: that Muslims are persecuting Christians. The tactic has added allure now, from the Israeli point of view, with Christian communities in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere facing pressures that, for hasbara purposes, can be lumped together as a common ‘jihadist’ threat.

The role of the Israel lobby abroad here is crucial, and we have recently witnessed a good example. In April, a video was circulated by a number of Zionist organizations and advocacy groups, showing a Christian Palestinian woman from Bethlehem, Christy Anastas, talking to a group of students in Sweden.

Anastas has been speaking at pro-Israel meetings in the UK since autumn 2012, though her identity had not been previously revealed online. She typically appears alongside Howard Stern, a man described in a 2011 blog post as a “Christian Zionist Federation Spokesman for Israel”. In that post, Stern had noted what he called pro-Palestinian activists’ “exploitation of emotive language and narrative”, concluding that “Israel has much catching up to do in the PR game”.

In September 2012, the Zionist Federation hosted an event “introducing” Christy, alongside Stern, whose “initiative it was to host [her]”. The pair soon subsequently appeared in Birmingham, at another Zionist Federation event, and also at a StandWithUs-run day conference. By spring 2013, Stern was telling audiences that “he and his wife had ‘adopted’ Christy as a member of their family”, claiming that “Christy had been rejected by her own family and was experiencing great emotional pain”. The pair also lobbied at least one politician, MEP Marina Yannakoudakis, along with two Zionist Federation officials.

Anastas and Stern are moving within Britain’s small, right-wing fundamentalist Christian community. Both spoke at conferences on the “End Times“, one of which featured Baptist preacher David Pawson urging the Church to “repent of accepting the end of capital punishment and divorce and remarriage”. The fact that the Israeli embassy itself is glad of support from such marginal extremists, speaks volumes.

It is clear Anastas’ declared support for Israel is linked to a theological outlook. Her ‘guardian’ meanwhile, believes events in the Middle East are part of “[God’s] moves on the geopolitical chessboard”. More disturbingly, Stern wrote last year that the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich should “motivate us to pray more…for God’s grace and mercy on this nation which has moved so far from his will”, adding – “God always warns before acting”. An account of an Anastas-Stern event refers to “the barbaric attitudes of Palestinian Moslems“.

What makes the case of Anastas particularly curious is that merely a few months before she was being taken around the UK with the Zionist Federation, she appeared on a much-publicised report broadcast by US network CBS in April 2012. This short segment was unprecedented for the way in which a mainstream American audience was exposed to the way in which Israeli apartheid impacts on the indigenous Christian community.

Israel, unsurprisingly, was furious, with the head of CBS Newscontacted directly by the then-Israeli ambassador Michael Oren even before the broadcast. Israel lobby groups also swung into action, desperately seeking to discredit and undermine the impact of the report.

Christy Anastas was one of those Christian Palestinians who spoke to CBS of the effects of Israeli occupation, telling the story of her family’s experiences consistent with what she had told foreign media back in 2009. Thus once the video of her speech in Sweden went online, it did not take long for Israel’s defenders to use Anastas’ new-found Christian Zionism as a means of renewing the attacks on CBS.

The disingenuous concern of Israel lobby groups like CAMERA for Christian Palestinians has been particularly transparent of late. While on the one hand they misrepresent and exaggerate a recent fight in al-Khader between locals and visiting worshippers, CAMERA completely ignores recent Israeli efforts to expropriate land in the same village, part of ongoing attacks in the area by soldiers and settlers. The Israeli army’s recent destruction of a Christian Palestinian family’s fruit trees was met with a shrug.

The facts speak for themselves. As The Economist‘s Nicolas Pelham pointed out in Haaretz, when it comes to appointing Christians to senior positions in government, “the PA’s record is far better than Israel’s”. In 2012, I noted how four separate polls of Christian Palestinians over 15 years had the same message: that concerns over sectarian tensions pale in comparison to the desperation prompted by occupation, and that a lack of freedom is the main cause of emigration.

Worryingly, the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy being pursued by the Israeli government and lobby groups could, as Jonathan Cook has written, mean “insinuations” fuel “sectarian tensions” so that hasbara myths become “self-fulfilling prophecy”. Not that the apartheid apologists care of course. Their feigned concern fools no one, including the Christians who suffer under a settler colonial regime that privileges Jews at the expense of Palestinians – whether they pray in a mosque or a church.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.