The airwaves were filled this weekend, as they always are every Christmas, with stories about the plight of Christians in Bethlehem. The once-overwhelmingly Christian town has lost much of its non-Muslim population in recent decades, and most news stories which touched on the annual Christmas celebrations in the town usually included at least a line or two in which this is blamed on Israel.
But efforts to scapegoat the Jewish state for the plight of Palestinian Christians are an absurd and politically motivated slur that ignores the real problem: the rise of militant Islam which has made even the town Christians think of as the birthplace of their faith inhospitable for non-Muslims. As the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” protests elsewhere in the Middle East has made clear, the fate of religious minorities in countries where Islamist parties are on the march cannot be assured.
In recent months, those in the West who care about Middle East Christians – admittedly a minor concern even for most Christians — have been focused on Egypt’s Coptic minority, whose always-precarious existence has now been made more perilous by the victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of the fall of the Mubarak government. The same holds true for Christian sects elsewhere in the region where Islamic groups now hold more influence.
But the problems of Palestinian Arab Christians date in no small measure to the Oslo Accords. The peace deal placed control of the city in the hands of the Palestinian Authority. Though the supposedly secular Fatah Party controlled the PA, Yasir Arafat’s regime always tilted toward Islamic extremists in order to compete for their favor with his Hamas rivals. Though many Christians have always been among the most ardent Arab nationalists, there is little question that they have felt themselves squeezed out of any share of power or even control over their own neighborhoods. Many Christians have sensed that there was no future for them under the PA and emigrated. That, and not Israel’s security measures against Arab terror, is responsible for the decline of Christian Bethlehem.
It is no small irony that most mainline churches in this country tend to ignore the fact that Middle East Christians are under more pressure than ever from Muslim terror and intimidation and, instead, concentrate their fire on Israel, the one country in the region where freedom of religion is guaranteed to all faiths.