Commentary Magazine


Topic: Christians

Welcoming the Pope with Lies About Israel’s Christians

I’m a longtime fan of the Wall Street Journal. But I confess to mystification over why a paper with a staunchly pro-Israel editorial line consistently allows its news pages to be used for anti-Israel smear campaigns–and I do mean smear campaigns, not just “critical reporting.” A classic example was its assertion in an April 7 news report that Israel had agreed “to release political prisoners” as part of the U.S.-brokered deal that restarted Israeli-Palestinian talks last summer. The Journal was sufficiently embarrassed by this description of convicted mass murderers that it issued a correction in print, yet the online version still unrepentantly dubs these vicious terrorists “political prisoners.”

A more subtle example was last week’s report titled “On Middle East Visit, Pope Will Find a Diminished Christian Population.” While Israel is the glaring exception to this Mideast trend, reporter Nicholas Casey elegantly implies the opposite in a single sentence that’s dishonest on at least three different levels: “Syria has seen an exodus of nearly half a million Christians, and in Jerusalem, a population of 27,000 Christians in 1948 has dwindled to 5,000.”

First, while Casey never says explicitly that Jerusalem’s shrinking Christian population reflects the situation in Israel as a whole, it’s the obvious conclusion for the average reader–especially given the juxtaposition with Syria, which implies that both countries are treating their Christians similarly and thereby causing them to flee. This impression is reinforced by the only other statistic he gives about Israel: that Christians have declined as a percentage of the total population.

The truth, however, is that Israel’s Christian population has grown dramatically–from a mere 34,000 in 1949 to 158,000 in 2012, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. That’s an increase of almost fivefold. And while Christians have fallen as a share of the total population, that’s mainly because they have significantly lower birthrates than either Israeli Jews or Israeli Muslims.

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I’m a longtime fan of the Wall Street Journal. But I confess to mystification over why a paper with a staunchly pro-Israel editorial line consistently allows its news pages to be used for anti-Israel smear campaigns–and I do mean smear campaigns, not just “critical reporting.” A classic example was its assertion in an April 7 news report that Israel had agreed “to release political prisoners” as part of the U.S.-brokered deal that restarted Israeli-Palestinian talks last summer. The Journal was sufficiently embarrassed by this description of convicted mass murderers that it issued a correction in print, yet the online version still unrepentantly dubs these vicious terrorists “political prisoners.”

A more subtle example was last week’s report titled “On Middle East Visit, Pope Will Find a Diminished Christian Population.” While Israel is the glaring exception to this Mideast trend, reporter Nicholas Casey elegantly implies the opposite in a single sentence that’s dishonest on at least three different levels: “Syria has seen an exodus of nearly half a million Christians, and in Jerusalem, a population of 27,000 Christians in 1948 has dwindled to 5,000.”

First, while Casey never says explicitly that Jerusalem’s shrinking Christian population reflects the situation in Israel as a whole, it’s the obvious conclusion for the average reader–especially given the juxtaposition with Syria, which implies that both countries are treating their Christians similarly and thereby causing them to flee. This impression is reinforced by the only other statistic he gives about Israel: that Christians have declined as a percentage of the total population.

The truth, however, is that Israel’s Christian population has grown dramatically–from a mere 34,000 in 1949 to 158,000 in 2012, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. That’s an increase of almost fivefold. And while Christians have fallen as a share of the total population, that’s mainly because they have significantly lower birthrates than either Israeli Jews or Israeli Muslims.

Second, even his statistics on Jerusalem are dubious. Since he doesn’t source them, it’s not clear how Casey arrived at his figure of only 5,000 Christians nowadays. But the most recent figure published by Israel’s internationally respected statistics bureau, in 2013, put the city’s Christian population at 14,700 as of the end of 2011. It is, to say the least, highly unlikely that after remaining stable at about that level for 44 years (more on that in a moment)–decades punctuated by repeated wars, vicious terrorism and deep recessions–the Christian population would suddenly plunge by two thirds in a mere two years at a time of strong economic growth and very little terror.

Third, while Jerusalem’s Christian population has undeniably plummeted since 1948 even according to Israel’s statistics, Casey neglects to mention one very salient point: The entirety of that decline took place during the 19 years when East Jerusalem–where most of the city’s Christians live–was controlled by Jordan rather than Israel. By 1967, when Israel reunited the city, Jerusalem’s Christian population had fallen by more than half, to just 12,646, from Casey’s 1948 figure (which does roughly match other available sources). Since then, it has actually edged upward, to 14,700.

Throw in the de rigueur innuendos that the Palestinian Authority’s declining Christian population is mainly Israel’s fault, and Casey’s verbal Photoshop job is complete: The one country in the Middle East whose Christian population is growing and thriving–a fact increasingly acknowledged by Israeli Christians themselves–has been successfully repackaged to the average reader as a vicious persecutor that is driving its Christians out.

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Why Won’t Western Churches Condemn Muslim Oppression of Christians?

The news of how Christian communities in Syria are being forced to purchase their lives by signing treaties of submission to jihadi overlords is just one of the more recent reminders of the worsening plight of Christians in the Middle East. This is a subject that struggles to receive much comment from Western leaders, or apparently provoke much serious outrage in the general public. Naturally, Christian groups and media outlets do periodically go through the motions attempting to draw some attention to this matter. Yet among some of the liberal churches, the alleged oppression of Palestinian Muslims by the Jewish state seems to keep them far too busy to devote much time to campaign about the genuine oppression of Christians by Muslims.

In some sense, the precarious predicament of Christian communities in the Middle East is somewhat more complicated than it may appear. In both Iraq and Syria, the Baathist regimes co-opted the Christian community into supporting what were already minority-run states. In Syria in particular, it made sense for the Assads’ Alawite minority to enlist the help of Christian communities in maintaining power over the Sunni majority. The disintegration of these regimes has naturally left Christians exposed to the resentments of the wider populace. Nevertheless, the most extreme and sustained violence against the region’s Christian minorities is primarily coming from radicalized and emboldened Islamist terror groups. From the Copts in Egypt, to the Christians under Hamas in Gaza, to the state-sanctioned oppression in Iran, to the sporadic attacks on Christians in Pakistan, the same extremist Islamic forces are at work.

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The news of how Christian communities in Syria are being forced to purchase their lives by signing treaties of submission to jihadi overlords is just one of the more recent reminders of the worsening plight of Christians in the Middle East. This is a subject that struggles to receive much comment from Western leaders, or apparently provoke much serious outrage in the general public. Naturally, Christian groups and media outlets do periodically go through the motions attempting to draw some attention to this matter. Yet among some of the liberal churches, the alleged oppression of Palestinian Muslims by the Jewish state seems to keep them far too busy to devote much time to campaign about the genuine oppression of Christians by Muslims.

In some sense, the precarious predicament of Christian communities in the Middle East is somewhat more complicated than it may appear. In both Iraq and Syria, the Baathist regimes co-opted the Christian community into supporting what were already minority-run states. In Syria in particular, it made sense for the Assads’ Alawite minority to enlist the help of Christian communities in maintaining power over the Sunni majority. The disintegration of these regimes has naturally left Christians exposed to the resentments of the wider populace. Nevertheless, the most extreme and sustained violence against the region’s Christian minorities is primarily coming from radicalized and emboldened Islamist terror groups. From the Copts in Egypt, to the Christians under Hamas in Gaza, to the state-sanctioned oppression in Iran, to the sporadic attacks on Christians in Pakistan, the same extremist Islamic forces are at work.

The latest events in Syria specifically concern the Christian communities in the province of Raqqa, which is currently under the control of the militia forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an Islamist group which claims association with al-Qaeda. There the leaders of the community faced either forced conversion to Islam or death if they did not agree to sign a treaty of submission, which forbids them from practicing their faith openly. By imposing this treaty ISIS is following orthodox Sharia practices, which compel Christians in Islamic society to live in a subservient state of dhimmitude. Nor was the convert-or-die threat an empty one. In the past year alone, 1,213 Christians were murdered in Syria in what were recorded as killings motivated by the victims’ religion.

All of which, one might have thought, would be of great concern to churches in the West. Clearly many of these congregations have a strong sense of social conscience and are no strangers to activism and campaigning. Yet, in the case of several of the liberal churches, the campaign of choice is not one to support their beleaguered and persecuted coreligionists in the Islamic world; instead they have set upon the campaign to demonize the Jewish state, incidentally the only place in the entire Middle East where the number of Christians is actually growing.

As Jonathan Tobin has written about here, the Presbyterian Church USA has not only seen attempts to pass boycott motions within the church, but most recently the Presbyterians’ Israel Palestinian Mission Network has released a study guide that is fiercely anti-Zionist. Similarly, the Methodist Church in Britain has witnessed an ongoing controversy over its moves to issue a boycott of Israel. And of particular prominence this year was the move by St James’s Church in London to mark the Christmas festivities by erecting a graffiti-covered 26-foot-high replica of Israel’s security barrier. Reportedly this stunt cost the congregation over $50,000. Presumably no more worthy or needy cause could be thought of at the time.

While both Malcolm Hoenlein, the long-serving head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks have both publicly expressed outrage at the persecution of the Middle East’s Christians and called for action to prevent its continuation, it seems that the same passions have not been stirred among certain liberal Christian congregations in the West. Apparently they reserve their sense of righteous indignation primarily for expressing opposition to the Jewish state’s efforts to defend its civilians from Islamic terrorism.  

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Ignoring the Line from Saturday to Sunday

In explaining his staunch support for Israel, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper frequently cites the lessons of history: that those who make Jews “a target of racial and religious bigotry will inevitably be a threat to all of us.” The truth of that statement is visible throughout the Islamic world today, where countries that first got rid of their Jews are now turning in vicious fury on their Christians. Yet many Christian churches seem blind to the connection.

Christianity is currently the world’s most persecuted religion, and the heart of that persecution is the Islamic world. Churches have been attacked in Iraq, Egypt and Libya, among other countries; Christian ministers have been assassinated; and thousands of ordinary Christians have been killed. In Iraq, fewer than 500,000 Christians are thought to remain, down from 800,000 to 1.4 million a decade earlier (estimates vary widely). In Egypt, about 100,000 Coptic Christians have fled just in the last few months. This isn’t a new development; scholars estimate that “between a half and two-thirds of Christians in the region have left or been killed over the past century.” But it has accelerated greatly in recent years.

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In explaining his staunch support for Israel, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper frequently cites the lessons of history: that those who make Jews “a target of racial and religious bigotry will inevitably be a threat to all of us.” The truth of that statement is visible throughout the Islamic world today, where countries that first got rid of their Jews are now turning in vicious fury on their Christians. Yet many Christian churches seem blind to the connection.

Christianity is currently the world’s most persecuted religion, and the heart of that persecution is the Islamic world. Churches have been attacked in Iraq, Egypt and Libya, among other countries; Christian ministers have been assassinated; and thousands of ordinary Christians have been killed. In Iraq, fewer than 500,000 Christians are thought to remain, down from 800,000 to 1.4 million a decade earlier (estimates vary widely). In Egypt, about 100,000 Coptic Christians have fled just in the last few months. This isn’t a new development; scholars estimate that “between a half and two-thirds of Christians in the region have left or been killed over the past century.” But it has accelerated greatly in recent years.

There’s a clear line running from the disappearance of the Islamic world’s Jews in the mid-20th century to today’s accelerated persecution of Christians. When these Jewish communities still existed, they were the favorite target on which enraged Muslim mobs could vent their fury: See, for instance, the pogroms in Baghdad, Cairo and Tripoli in the 1940s. But in the years after Israel’s establishment in 1948, all these Jewish communities either were driven out or fled.

For a while, the Jews of Israel served as a substitute: Arab regimes launched three full-scale wars against Israel, provided bases and funding for Palestinian terrorists, whipped up anti-Israel sentiment through state-owned media, and encouraged anti-Israel demonstrations, thereby channeling popular discontent away from themselves. But while anti-Israel (and anti-Jewish) outbursts are still common in Arab countries, Israel’s insistence on growing and thriving despite these efforts made it an unsatisfactory target for mobs who actually wanted to see their victims suffer.

So, stymied on the Jewish front, they increasingly turned to the next target on their list, which had the advantage of being nearby and vulnerable. As the old Islamic taunt puts it, “First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.”

Yet rather than understand, as Harper has, that the same religious intolerance and dysfunctional political culture is behind both anti-Israel sentiment and the persecution of Christians–and that consequently, if Israel disappeared tomorrow, this victory would only provide a tailwind for the war against the “Sunday people”–many Christian churches seem to think the solution is to win the Muslim world’s love by joining the anti-Israel onslaught: See, for instance, the disgraceful report published by the Church of Scotland earlier this month, which said that Christians shouldn’t support Jewish claims to the Land of Israel on either biblical grounds or “as a compensation for the suffering of the Holocaust”; a similar document issued by a Catholic bishops’ synod; or the Presbyterian Church’s Israel Palestine Mission Network, which has pushed resolutions equating Israel with apartheid and vocally supports the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement.

The truth is that Muslim persecution of Christians won’t end until the Islamic world abandons the fantasy that others–whether it’s Israel, Christians or the West–are at the root of their problems. Yet by adopting the Muslim habit of blaming Israel for all the region’s ills, Christian churches are actively feeding that fantasy. And they are thereby ultimately encouraging their own coreligionists’ persecution.

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A Response to Elvis Costello

As I noted last week, Elvis Costello, with great fanfare and sanctimony, decided to boycott Israel. A response was penned by Assaf Wohl, for whom I think some sort of award should be named that celebrates those who debunk and undo Israel-bashers. (Alan Dershowitz, Elliott Abrams, and Sen. Joe Lieberman have lifetime-achievement awards and so won’t eligible.) Wohl wrote a “Dear Costello” letter that must be read in full. Here’s a sample:

I attempted to understand the reasons you referred to in your cancellation notice. You addressed the “humiliation of Palestinians civilians in the name of national security,” and I wonder what you meant. Perhaps you’re referring to the roadblocks and fence we built in order to prevent suicide bombers from exploding in our buses and coffee shops. The dramatic decline in Palestinian massacres, from an average of one a day to almost nil may indeed be humiliating for them, as you noted.

Or maybe you referred to Operation Cast Lead. If that’s the case, you are in fact condemning us for deciding to put an end to eight years of rocket attacks targeting our kindergartens. If you think this is demagoguery, please go ahead and check the timers which the “humiliated” terrorists set for the rockets. They were aiming for the hours where our children head to kindergarten and to school.

And on the democracy front Wohl, explained:

You refer to human rights, Costello, while ignoring the fact that Israel is a democracy. You should look into the State of Israel’s attitude to minorities, compared to our neighbors whose side you took. Let’s see how long it will take before you’re decapitated, should you aim to lead a Gay Pride Parade in Gaza or Hebron. Are you aware of the state of Christians in the Gaza Strip, or the state of women’s rights there? Your silence on these matters attests to the honesty of your claims. You should also ask yourself why all these “humiliated” people would love to get an Israeli ID card. If we’re so bad to them, why are they infiltrating Israel in every possible way?

This deliciously exacting letter is precisely what defenders of Israel need to do on a consistent basis. Whether the gibberish is coming from the White House, from J Street, from feeble-minded “artists,” or from the legions of Israel-haters on the left or right (who are sounding remarkably similar — is Andrew Sullivan saying anything that Pat Buchanan doesn’t?), Israel’s defenders need to consistently and robustly respond. The war to delegitimize and slander the Jewish state succeeds when the accusations are not rebutted.

So yasher ko’ah, Assaf Wohl. And I welcome future nominees.

As I noted last week, Elvis Costello, with great fanfare and sanctimony, decided to boycott Israel. A response was penned by Assaf Wohl, for whom I think some sort of award should be named that celebrates those who debunk and undo Israel-bashers. (Alan Dershowitz, Elliott Abrams, and Sen. Joe Lieberman have lifetime-achievement awards and so won’t eligible.) Wohl wrote a “Dear Costello” letter that must be read in full. Here’s a sample:

I attempted to understand the reasons you referred to in your cancellation notice. You addressed the “humiliation of Palestinians civilians in the name of national security,” and I wonder what you meant. Perhaps you’re referring to the roadblocks and fence we built in order to prevent suicide bombers from exploding in our buses and coffee shops. The dramatic decline in Palestinian massacres, from an average of one a day to almost nil may indeed be humiliating for them, as you noted.

Or maybe you referred to Operation Cast Lead. If that’s the case, you are in fact condemning us for deciding to put an end to eight years of rocket attacks targeting our kindergartens. If you think this is demagoguery, please go ahead and check the timers which the “humiliated” terrorists set for the rockets. They were aiming for the hours where our children head to kindergarten and to school.

And on the democracy front Wohl, explained:

You refer to human rights, Costello, while ignoring the fact that Israel is a democracy. You should look into the State of Israel’s attitude to minorities, compared to our neighbors whose side you took. Let’s see how long it will take before you’re decapitated, should you aim to lead a Gay Pride Parade in Gaza or Hebron. Are you aware of the state of Christians in the Gaza Strip, or the state of women’s rights there? Your silence on these matters attests to the honesty of your claims. You should also ask yourself why all these “humiliated” people would love to get an Israeli ID card. If we’re so bad to them, why are they infiltrating Israel in every possible way?

This deliciously exacting letter is precisely what defenders of Israel need to do on a consistent basis. Whether the gibberish is coming from the White House, from J Street, from feeble-minded “artists,” or from the legions of Israel-haters on the left or right (who are sounding remarkably similar — is Andrew Sullivan saying anything that Pat Buchanan doesn’t?), Israel’s defenders need to consistently and robustly respond. The war to delegitimize and slander the Jewish state succeeds when the accusations are not rebutted.

So yasher ko’ah, Assaf Wohl. And I welcome future nominees.

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