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


Elliott Abrams

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?