Mainline Churches vs. Israel

by Elliott Abrams

Churches hostile to Christianity’s one friend in the Middle East are losing members.

In July, Christian leaders in Egypt refused to meet with Secretary of State Clinton, and several thousand demonstrators in Cairo criticized what they saw as U.S. accommodation of the new Muslim Brotherhood government and abandonment of moderates and Coptic Christians. The devastation of the ancient Christian community in Iraq is well known. Christians in Gaza face pressure from Hamas to convert to Islam. Christians in Lebanon live under a permanent threat from Hezbollah, and their population and political influence are declining. Christians in Syria fear for their future if Islamist influence grows because of the war there. In all the Arab world, the Christian population has dramatically dwindled.

The exception to the decline of Christian populations in the Middle East is Israel, where the number of Christians has grown from 34,000 in 1948 to 155,000 today. So one would not be surprised if American Christians asked Congress to be more attentive to the fate of their coreligionists in the Middle East and to be appreciative of Israel’s treatment of Christians.

In fact, leaders of several prestigious denominations — the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, and the United Church of Christ (UCC) — as well as of the National Council of Churches have done the opposite. In a letter to Congress, they recently asked it to reduce military aid to Israel and denounced that country’s human-rights record. The leaders expressed their “grave concern about the deteriorating conditions in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories which threaten to lead the region further away from the realization of a just peace.” What those deteriorating conditions are, especially for Christians, is a mystery. The letter is silent on the deteriorating and truly dangerous conditions for Christians in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.

Leading Jewish organizations have reacted with anger and have noted that this letter makes a mockery of a long history of interreligious cooperation and consultation. The Rabbinical Assembly’s comment was particularly strong:

We find these tactics to be disrespectful of channels of communication that have been constructed over decades, and an essential declaration of separation from the endeavor of interfaith consultation on matters of deep concern to the Jewish community. Indeed, we find this breach of trust to be so egregious that we wonder if it may not warrant an examination on the part of the Jewish community at large of these partnerships and relationships that we understood ourselves to be working diligently to preserve and protect.

Note that signers of the letter to Congress were not joined by leaders of some larger Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. In that regard, it is also worth noting that in the U.S. in the first decade of this century, the denominations represented by the signers declined precipitously — the ELCA, 18.2 percent; PC(USA), 22 percent; Methodist, 4 percent; and the UCC, 24.4 percent. Does spending so much energy on foreign-policy issues, and particularly on such unpopular causes as attacking Israel, help explain why these churches continue to lose members?

Their letter to Congress contains a brief appendix elucidating why they think conditions are deteriorating. There we learn of restrictions on movement in the West Bank, though not of the many ways in which the Netanyahu government in recent years has loosened those restrictions. There is no mention, for example, of the recent steps by the government of Israel to assist the Palestinian Authority as it faces a financial crisis. We learn of Israel’s “comprehensive blockade” on Gaza but not that Gaza has a border with Egypt — or that it is still not fully open. We are told that Israel killed thousands of unarmed Palestinian civilians but not that the churches rely for this information on data provided by anti-Israel NGOs or left-wing Israeli groups.

Those statistics show that a suspicious preponderance of the casualties are young males, hardly a cross-section of the unarmed Palestinian population. This too is an old story: NGOs claim a high number of civilian casualties, while the government of Israel claims that a high percentage of those wounded or killed were combatants. In one famous example, Hamas after the 2008–9 Gaza conflict admitted to numbers far closer to Israel’s official figures than to those of the NGOs. Of this issue the churches’ letter says nothing, simply accepting the numbers that critics of Israel supply.

It is unlikely that the churches’ letter will affect the level of aid to Israel. As the Gallup organization stated this year after doing additional polling, “Americans continue to show decidedly positive views toward that nation. As nations throughout the Middle East undergo tumultuous change, perhaps making the region more politically unstable, Americans still appear to see Israel as important, with large majorities viewing it favorably and many more giving their sympathies to the Israelis than to the Palestinians.” Congress votes aid to Israel primarily because Americans support Israel. Christians United for Israel, an organization founded only in 2006, now has one million members (ten times the membership of AIPAC).

But the letter will affect cooperation between the signatory organizations and the Jewish community, as the reactions of major American Jewish organizations already demonstrate. And it will affect the willingness of the United States to come to the defense of beleaguered Christian communities in the Middle East, for some of the Christian groups that might be expressing concern and solidarity and demanding action are instead spending their time denouncing Israel.

It is a sad story, the latest chapter in the unending hostility to Israel that has marked several of the mainline Protestant denominations and that seems of greater importance to their leaders than does the fate of their fellow Christians in the Middle East.

— Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration and deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.