On Thursday, December 21, four British prelates will arrive in Bethlehem on a pilgrimage of solidarity with the dwindling Christian population in that most holy city. Unlike the Magi, who came bearing gifts in search of the Christ child, these visitors will likely be bearing a political message: The Israeli security wall must go. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor told Christianity Today in Britain that Bethlehem is “blocked in” and that the pilgrimage developed in response to Israeli security measures there. There will almost certainly be little or no recognition of the role that Islamic extremists have played in undermining the indigenous Christian community in the Holy Land.
Accompanying the Catholic archbishop of Westminster will be the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Dr. Rowan Williams; primate of the Armenian Church of Great Britain, Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian; and the Free Churches moderator, the Reverend David Coffey. They will first meet in Jerusalem with the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, the Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal, who has called Israeli security measures part of a strategy of ethnic cleansing designed “to break the backs of the Palestinian people.” The agenda includes a meeting with Dr. Victor Batarseh, Catholic mayor of Bethlehem, who publicly blames the construction of the 30-foot security wall and the check points for the demise of the Christian population of Bethlehem. Batarseh, formerly of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, has now settled into an uncomfortable alliance with Hamas. He believes that Hamas can be moderated if it is brought into the political system.
Midway through this century, Christians comprised about 80 percent of the population of Bethlehem. Christians now make up less than 15 percent of the town. This is a trend that mirrors the Christian flight throughout the Palestinian Authority. However, this exodus began long before Israeli checkpoints and the security wall. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of the Christian population fled during the time when Jordan occupied the West Bank. The Christian population under the Palestinian Authority has suffered from a negative growth-rate and now number less than 50,000, or about 2.4 percent of the population.
In fact, the Christian population throughout the Middle East has been in rapid decline. In 1900, Christians comprised 20 percent of the population of the Middle East; now, they are less than 2 percent. While the Muslim population has expanded rapidly in Europe and the U.S., Christians in the Middle East have experienced a negative population-growth rate. The only country noting a positive growth rate for Christians is Israel.
In Israel proper, the Christian population in 1948 was 34,000. Christians now number 146,000, or 2.1 percent of the total population. Projections are that by 2010 the Christian population in Israel will reach 163,000, reflecting an average yearly growth-rate of 1.9 percent. Among non-Jewish students in Israel, the rate of high school graduation is highest for Christians. Employment rates for Israeli Christians remain much higher than for their fellow believers in the Palestinian territories.
Christian residents of Bethlehem and its suburb, Beit Sahour, have faced severe economic hardship since power was transferred to the Palestinian Authority, which is now led by a Hamas government. The unemployment rate in Bethlehem is 65 percent. Continual marginalization of Christians has increased tensions, making Christians feel even more vulnerable to their Muslim neighbors. Christians report that Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Death threats, warnings for Christian women to veil, and extortion to gain land are sadly part of the landscape for Bethlehem’s Christians.
Unfortunately, the Arab Christian leadership threw in its lot with radical Palestinian politicians a long time ago. Now the successors of those radical politicians are religious extremists who are driving Palestinians into a society ordered by Islamic law. The truth is in the numbers as more Christians flee the area, leaving behind homes and businesses that have been in their families for generations. Mosques now exceed Christian churches by a margin of 15 to 10 in the town where Jesus was born.
The leader of Hamas on the Bethlehem municipal council, Hassam El-Masalmeh, told Wall Street Journal reporter Karby Legget that Hamas will reinstitute the jizya tax. Traditionally, the jizya was imposed upon non-Muslim men as a compact. By paying the tax they submit to living as inferiors under Islamic rule. The tax is one of the rules applied to dhimmi peoples — non-Muslims conquered by jihad; it creates a discriminatory system between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Hamas official added that everyone is welcome to live in Palestine as long as they agree to live under Islamic rule.
The well-meaning prelates who want to support the Christians of Bethlehem should not do so by following the lead of highly politicized Arab Christian leaders who blame Israel for their suffering. Speaking to Western audiences, the prelates seem to understand the problems caused by radical Muslims. Last Christmas, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor preached to parishioners during Midnight Mass about how sad it is that violence has caused the “little town of Christ’s birth to be corralled.” Earlier this year, the cardinal told an audience of the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies that there is a vital principle of “sacred hospitality,” which is central to the relationship between Christians and Muslims. He said, “Where Christians are being denied their rights, or are subject to sharia law, that is not a matter on which Muslims in Britain should remain silent. Where religious rights of minorities are disrespected in the name of Islam, the face of Islam is tarnished elsewhere in the world. The main obstacle to that dialogue is the failure, in a number of Muslim countries, to uphold the principle of religious freedom. Dialogue assumes the freedom to witness.”
In November, the archbishop of Canterbury addressed the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in Rome and boldly raised the question of what exactly citizenship means for a non-Muslim living in a Muslim society. Archbishop Williams argued, “We cannot collude with an interpretation of Islamic political identity whose effects for Christians have sometimes been lethally oppressive.”
These religious leaders, while speaking in Oxford and Rome, can identify the dangers that Islamic extremism create for Christian minorities. Calling a spade a spade, even if it causes certain Christian clergy and Christian Arab politicians to squirm, must be the highest priority for the British prelates on their upcoming pilgrimage to the site of the first Christmas.
Wise men coming from the West should bring gifts of wisdom, courage, and concrete commitments of support for their brothers and sisters in Christ. Christians in the Holy Land badly need these gifts. What they don’t need is a basket full of politically correct platitudes.
– Rev. Keith Roderick is Washington representative for Christian Solidarity International and secretary general of the Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights.