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Response to Patrick Martin’s column “Christians in the Middle East: Last one please blow out the candle”

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Response to Patrick Martin’s column “Christians in the Middle East: Last one please blow out the candle”, Globe and Mail, May 23, 2014

Dear Mr. Martin,

In your May 23 article “Christians in the Middle East: Last one please blow out the candle,” you write that the Christians of Palestine face a different threat” – not from radical Islam, but from poverty that results from an Israeli occupation that has “made life hell” for them. Though you acknowledge in your article that radical Islam presents a threat to Palestinian Arabs “to some degree,” you provide no examples, and lay the blame for the hardships faced by these people primarily on the Israeli occupation.

Yet the eyewitness testimony of Palestinian Christians themselves demonstrates the real “hell” that West Bank and Gaza Christians endure – a hell whose fires are stoked not by the Israeli occupiers, but by the PA, by Hamas, and by their thugs.

Justus Reid Weiner is an international human rights lawyer, a member of the Israeli and New York bars. He became aware of the many crimes against Christian Arabs under the PA and Hamas in 1998, when a Christian lay pastor said to him, “You’re a human rights lawyer, what are you doing for the Christian Arabs?”

When Weiner replied that he was doing nothing because he didn’t know about their problems, the pastor responded, “Let me send you some people to interview and once you’ve done that make up your mind.” (Weiner is now indeed doing something about the problems of these persecuted Christians:  I heard him tell their story last fall at the University of Toronto, and I would suggest you interview him at Hebrew U. He is a rigorous, objective scholar.)

What followed was a litany of stories of persecution by Hamas and the PA – of intimidation, of land theft, of extortion, of church bombings, of employment discrimination – and of crimes against Christian women, including forced marriages and kidnappings. Persecution of converts to Christianity was particularly severe. Weiner’s informants were noticeably fearful of speaking to him, and in his report on these abuses he was careful to protect their identities. If you haven’t heard their stories, it is because the victims are terrified of speaking out.

You can read Weiner’s report, “Palestinian Crimes against Christian Arabs and Their Manipulation against Israel” on the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs http://jcpa.org/article/palestinian-crimes-against-christian-arabs-and-their-manipulation-against-israel/. Allow me to highlight a few of the salient points.

·         Dhimmitude: In Islam, Christians and Jews have an inferior status. In 2006, Hassan El-Masalmeh, Hamas leader and member of the Bethlehem City Council, advocated implementing a tax on non-Muslims. This is legal under Islamic law. Not surprisingly, this creates a climate of fear – and flight.

·         Bethlehem is the most notable example. The city had an 80 percent majority in 1950. Today the city has a Muslim majority, with Christians comprising 15 percent of the population. Why? Is this really because of Israeli oppression? In fact, one trigger was Yasser Arafat. When the PA gained control of Bethlehem, he redrew the boundaries to ensure a Muslim majority in any elections, annexing thirty thousand additional Muslims and a few thousand Muslim Bedouins.  Arafat broke with tradition, appointing a Muslim governor to head this most Christian of cities.

  • Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren met with Bethlehem Christians in 1994, when the city was about to pass from Israeli to Palestinian hands. He reports that the priests were terrified to file a complaint over the spray-painting of graffiti reading “Hamas” on the walls of that sacred building. They feared for their lives.

·         Routine extortion: An Armenian-Christian jewelry-store owner from Jerusalem was taken into custody in Gaza and extorted – forced to hand over all his money and gold jewelry and beaten for more than six hours. After finally being freed, he complained to the PA and was told to speak to Arafat, but without the necessary connections he could not regain his property.

·         Kidnapping and seduction of Christian women: A Muslim man kidnapped a Christian girl from Bethlehem, claiming they wanted to get married. The girl’s family knew the man had a relative highly place in the PA police. The man took refuge in Hebron, and when a crowd of Christian men demonstrated for the girl’s freedom outside the kidnapper’s house, the police took his side against the demonstrators, injuring at least thirty-five Christian men. The woman was only released when the US Consulate in Jerusalem intervened (she held American citizenship).

·         Persecution of converts to Christianity: Najib (not his real name) took part in a Christian prayer session with German tourists. Following this, he was summoned by the Palestinian secret police and accused of collaborating with American and Israeli intelligence. He was forced to wear a sign reading “Najib the Christian,” told to “curse Jesus,” and warned that his life would be hell. He escaped and remained in hiding for three years in an Israeli settlement unti he gained asylum in Norway. Other converts have been murdered.

There are many, many more examples in Weiner’s report. All of these are consistent with the treatment of Christians in Egypt, in Lebanon, and in Syria, which are not under Israeli control. Yet your article exculpates the PA and Hamas of major responsibility for the flight of Christian Arabs.

The only part of this region where the Christian population is growing is Israel, where it has quadrupled since the birth of the state in 1948. Israeli Arab Christians are on average wealthier than Israeli Jews and better educated; their kids score higher on their SATs.

I have an Israeli Arab Catholic friend in Shfaram whose family fits that profile. Recently, in light of the disgusting “price tag” attacks against Arab Christians, I phoned her to express my revulsion at the harassment of her people by Israeli youths.

“Don’t worry, Marjorie,” was her answer. “Things are fine here. Here, we all get along.”

Israel may not be perfect for Christians, but my friend’s father put it this way to us: “Here – here it’s Gan Eden!” He has his own house, larger than most middle class Israelis’ apartments. He’s a school principal, his wife is a nurse, his brother owns a car dealership, his daughter is a curriculum coordinator for a Galilee school district.

It used to be like that for the Christians of Bethlehem, too, with their important religious history and lucrative foreign tourism – but the PA took over, to run the city with intimidation, extortion and corruption.

As Weiner found, you won’t hear the stories of persecution and corruption from the church hierarchy, who “put on their nice robes and hats, . . . keep touring the United States and . . . collaborate with the Muslim perpetrators of intimidation and violence.”

“In private a variety of Christians will tell you that they are suffering from the pressures by Muslims. In public these same people will berate Israel for the security fence and the occupation. It has become an old game and Israelis understand it. One wonders when foreign journalists and NGOs will finally start to understand it.”

That is my question for you, Patrick Martin. You’re a foreign journalist. I urge you to read Justus Reid Weiner’s exhaustive report, to interview him, and to follow up your recent article with something more complete. I would be interested to learn if Weiner’s article has caused you to rethink your position on Israeli responsibility for the hardships of West Bank Arab Christians.

Marjorie Gann, Toronto

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