A statement by Church leaders in Israel blames the decreasing Christian population on Jewish settlements and alleges violence carried out by Jewish extremists but a closer look reveals the real culprits.
Current Threat to the Christian Presence in the Holy Land
Christian leaders in Israel released a statement on December 13 titled, “Statement on the Current Threat to the Christian Presence in the Holy Land”.
“Throughout the Holy Land, Christians have become the target of frequent and sustained attacks by fringe radical groups. Since 2012 there have been countless incidents of physical and verbal assaults against priests and other clergy, attacks on Christian churches, with holy sites regularly vandalized and desecrated, and ongoing intimidation of local Christians who simply seek to worship freely and go about their daily lives,” the statement reads. “These tactics are being used by such radical groups in a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.”
This is an unprecedented statement from the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem about the future of Christians in the Holy Land.
— Archbishop of Canterbury (@JustinWelby) December 14, 2021
The statement goes on to praise the Israeli government for its commitment to “uphold a safe and secure hime for Christians in the Holy Land.” Without specifying any group for the aggression, the statement blames “local politicians, officials, and law enforcement agencies.”
Though no specific group is blamed, the statement accuses the “radical groups: of a specific crime:
“…Radical groups continue to acquire strategic property in the Christian Quarter, with the aim of diminishing the Christian presence, often using underhanded healings and intimidation tactics to evict residents from their homes, dramatically decreasing the Christian presence, and further disrupting the historic pilgrim routes between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.”
The statement was followed by an article published on December 19 in the Sunday Times co-written by Church of England head Justin Welby and Palestinian Anglican Bishop Hosam Naoum putting a name to the nefarious acquisition of property being due to “the growth of settler communities”.
“This crisis takes place against a century-long decline in the Christian population in the Holy Land. In 1922, at the end of the Ottoman era, the number of Christians in the Holy Land was estimated at 73,000; about 10 percent of the population. In 2019, Christians constituted less than 2 percent of the population of the Holy Land: a massive drop in less than 100 years.”
In a decidedly self-defeating and self-contradictory manner, the article notes that the Christian population in regions entirely under Israeli rule (i.e. inside the “green line) has actually grown, raising the question of who is actually to blame for the demographic Christian persecution claimed by the Church.
The article also praises Israel where “Christians enjoy democratic and religious freedoms that are a beacon in the region.” At the same time, the article focuses on the faceless “fringe radical groups” and “settler communities”
There is a problem but the real culprit is…
Honest Reporting, a media watchdog, responded to the accusations by citing a report by the global Christian charity Open Doors which, in 2019 published a report addressing the issue of the diminishing Christian population in Israel. The Open Doors report cited then-British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt in July. “The report found that the number of Christians in the Middle East has dwindled from 20% of the population a century ago to just 5% – most notably in the Palestinian territories, where they have dropped to below 1.5%,” Open Doors wrote, citing “Islamic oppression” as the main source of persecution. Open Doors added that “Islamic extremist militants are also present in the West Bank, causing Christians to fear being attacked,” and that the persecution is particularly brutal for converts to Christianity.
The report documented persecution and the resulting drop in population in areas under the influence of the Palestinian Authority and also in Gaza. But the situation of the Christians in Bethlehem has been the most dramatic. In 1947, Christians comprised about 85% of the city’s population. In 1995, the Oslo Accords gave control of Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority. In 2016, the Christian population of Bethlehem stood at 16%.
It should be emphasized that Jews are prohibited from living in or even entering these areas so the decrease in the Christian population cannot be blamed on “settler communities.”
Marie Sarah van der Zyl, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jew, responded to these accusations. While noting that any violence, including that carried out by Jewish extremists, is unacceptable, she rejected the claim that the drop in Christian population was due to “settler communities.
“In the past century, both in Israel’s heartlands and the West Bank, the demographics show that the Palestinian population has increased significantly,” she noted. “If the overall Palestinian population has greatly increased, but the Palestinian Christian population has significantly declined, then clearly there are more complex reasons than those raised in the article, which appeared to attribute this decline to Jewish settlers and the barrier built to halt the wave of terror attacks of the Second Intifada.”
She noted that the article in the Times contained a veiled reference to “the first Christmas” and an allusion to King Herod’s actions that could be understood as to be a blood libel.
“I found this reference troubling,” van der Zyl said, “because of the potential linkage which could be made between Christianity, Jews and the killing of children in any current context”.
Honest Reporting cited a 2019 report by Edy Cohen of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) which listed several incidents of Islamic violence targeting Christians and Christian holy sites. The BESA report noted that the cases had received little attention because they are “not connected to Israel.”
In a statement released on Monday night, the Israeli government made no reference to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s article, but said the Jerusalem Church leaders’ comments were baseless and “distort the reality of the Christian community in Israel”.
“Religious leaders have a critical role to play in education for tolerance and coexistence, and Church leaders should be expected to understand their responsibility and the consequences of what they have published, which could lead to violence and bring harm to innocent people,” it warned.
The statement also accused them of an “infuriating” silence over the plight of many Christian communities elsewhere in the Middle East.
Honest Reporting concluded with a remark showing deep concern for the Christians in Israel.
“Welby and Naoum are rightly concerned about the grim future of Christians in the birthplace of their religion,” it wrote. “But by steadfastly refusing to call out who is responsible for this oppression, they do a great disservice to those they should be protecting.”