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The Bishop of Truro must do justice to Palestine's invisible Christians

The illuminated Christmas Tree and sparkling lights are seen glittering over streets and avenues near the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem on 1 December 2018. [Issam Rimawi /Anadolu Agency]
The illuminated Christmas Tree and sparkling lights are seen glittering over streets and avenues near the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem on 1 December 2018. [Issam Rimawi /Anadolu Agency]

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has chosen the Christian festive season to launch an independent review to examine what the British government can do to stop the persecution of Christians around the world. There will be a special focus on the Middle East.

It is indeed a much needed and worthy campaign, although an opinion piece written by Hunt failed to mention the exodus of Christians from occupied Palestine. Apart from a vague reference to the birthplace of Christianity, the key cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem were not even mentioned.

The alarming omission shows that Hunt, like his predecessor Boris Johnson, is prepared to gloss over Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinian Christians and the Zionist state’s blatant disregard for international law. The truth is that Palestinian Christians have been driven out of the birthplace of Jesus by policies drawn up in Tel Aviv and the actions of violent Israeli settlers. The city of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem, is cut off by Israel’s hated Apartheid Wall.

“It is distressingly poignant at Christmas to hear recent warnings that the persecution facing Christians across the globe is now most stark in the region of its birth,” wrote Britain’s Foreign Secretary. “A century ago, 20 per cent of the people of the Middle East were Christian; today the figure is below 5 per cent. It is not hard to see why. On Palm Sunday in 2017, a suicide bomber in Egypt attacked a Christian Cathedral that has existed since the inception of Christianity, brutally killing 17 of the congregation. This is an extreme example, but it is by no means isolated. Last week, I met an Iraqi doctor who told me how patients had threatened her and her family with beheading when they heard she was a Christian who refused to convert. Step by agonising step, we are witnessing the erosion of Christianity as a living religion in its heartland.”

READ: Palestinian ‘Santas’ barred from Jerusalem for Christmas 

The independent review will be chaired by the Bishop of Truro, the Right Reverend Philip Mounstephen; like Hunt, he is a graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford. He will examine what practical steps Britain can take to help Christians around the globe following a “dramatic rise in violence” against Christians; an average of 250 are killed each month. Hunt says that his review will have three aims and will include the mapping out of persecution in the Middle East, Africa and Asia while providing “objective analysis” of what support Britain can give. It will also make recommendations for a “cohesive and comprehensive policy response.”

Hunt is not the first senior British official to make this point. In November 2014, heir to the throne Prince Charles called on faith leaders and governments to honour people’s rights to practise their faith. He made the case specifically due to the dire situation facing Christians and other minority groups in the Syrian civil war and the presence of Daesh in the Middle East.

That intervention from the future “Defender of the [Anglican] Faith” in Britain made headlines. At the time, I wrote an article in MEMO pointing out that the outspoken royal stopped short of talking about the plight of the oldest Christian flock in the region, the “Living Stones” in Palestine. There is no doubt that the situation for millions of Christians in Africa, Asia and the Middle East is dire, but so is that of the fast-disappearing Christian community in Gaza and the West Bank, especially in Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Messiah.

It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that the likes of Prince Charles and Jeremy Hunt want to airbrush the Israelis out of the picture when it comes to the crisis facing Christians, especially when they are Palestinians from the Holy Land who have largely been driven out by Israel’s brutal military occupation. The Apartheid Wall and other instruments of Israel’s decades-old colonialism makes it impossible, for example, for Palestinians to travel the ten kilometres from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre unless they have special permission from the occupation authorities.

READ: Christian Arabs should be given a greater role in Palestinian advocacy 

The Foreign Secretary was right to point out that only 5 per cent of the population across the Middle East is now Christian, whereas it was once 20 per cent. He appears reluctant to mention, though, that prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in Palestine in 1948 — a key reference point for all Palestinians —85 per cent of the population in Bethlehem was Christian, but by 2000 this figure had dropped by more than half and it now stands at just 12 per cent. Thousands of Christians leave their homeland every year, forced out by Israel’s colonial expansionism. The Zionist state, of course, wants to see as many Palestinians as possible leaving their land, never to return.

Neither Hunt nor the Prince of Wales mentioned these sickening statistics. Nor did they tell us that the responsibility for the Christian exodus from the Holy Land lies squarely with Israel, just as the civil wars in Iraq and Syria are responsible for the decimation of the Christian population in those countries. If Bethlehem is to remain a centre of the Christian faith, and not simply a tourist attraction for American and European Christians who pay little heed to the presence and plight of the indigenous Christians in Palestine, something has to be done, and soon.

The sad fact is that, with few notable exceptions, Christian leaders in the West generally keep quiet about the persecution of their brothers and sisters in faith by Israel. The situation is so bad that there is a genuine fear that the land which gave birth to Christianity could soon be without a vibrant, living church; the Living Stones will be no more.

Christians in Gaza take part in Christmas mass on 24 December 2018 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

Christians in Gaza take part in Christmas mass on 24 December 2018 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

Speaking from the Church of the Nativity where it is believed that Jesus was born, Father Rami Askarian said last year that the biggest challenge was persuading his parishioners to remain. “Our biggest challenge is to keep them here. You need to build a government, a country, an identity for the people. We pray for that to have peace in this country.”

If the exodus continues he and other church leaders fear that their congregations will be reduced to tourists and pilgrims in another couple of generations. Many of his colleagues insist that US President Donald Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel a year ago is only making things worse for the Christian community in occupied Palestine.

Indeed, when Trump announced his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — in defiance of international law — 13 church leaders from 13 denominations signed an open letter warning of “irreparable harm” to the Holy City if the policy was implemented: “We are certain that such steps will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us farther from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive division. We ask from you Mr President to help us all walk towards more love and a definitive peace, which cannot be reached without Jerusalem being for all.”

One of Jerusalem’s highest-ranking Christian figures recently told the American cable network CNN, “Our fear is not from our people, from Muslims. Our fear is from America. If [Trump] wants to defend Christians in the Middle East, he has to start [by] changing American policy in the Middle East: to [begin] a new vision of politics, built on life and… not more death or destruction.”

The views of the former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem are echoed by other Christian leaders. The 84-year-old blames the destabilisation of the region, resulting from the US-led 2003 invasion and war in Iraq, for the increase in persecution of Christians from terror groups like Daesh.

READ: Religious tourism to Palestine at peak 

Patriarch Theophilos III was more vocal in a column in the Guardian in January this year: “One group that has always been a pillar of society in the Holy Land – Christians – seems to have been rendered invisible in this standoff.” The head of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem highlighted the fact that “radical” Israeli settlers pose a threat to Palestinian Christians as well as Palestinian Muslims. He pointed out that the church had been forced to surrender too much land to the Israeli radicals, much too often, and usually in secret. The Patriarch also described anti-Christian prejudice in the current Israeli parliament, the Knesset, adding that more needed to be done to raise awareness of this in the West. His views are supported by the Coptic, Armenian, Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches, as well as a host of British Christian priests.

“Part of the Christmas story,” said Rt. Rev. Mounstephen when Hunt’s review was announced, “tells how Jesus was himself the victim of persecution so it seems particularly timely to launch this review at this season.” The irony is that with more than 600 Israeli military checkpoints across the land traversed by Mary and Joseph as they made their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem, if they had to do the same journey today, they would be unlikely to be able to do so.

The Foreign Secretary’s review should be welcomed around the world by anyone and everyone concerned with injustice and persecution. It is right that Christians and other minority groups should be protected and we all have a duty to speak out when this isn’t happening. However, if the review team follow the lead of Jeremy Hunt and his predecessors in only looking at such unacceptable persecution when the threats are made by Muslims, but keep quiet about the oppression of Palestinian Christians by the State of Israel, then the Bishop of Truro will himself be guilty of a massive injustice. He must do justice to Palestine’s invisible Christians, and resist the inevitable political pressure to protect Israel from criticism.

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

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