While it is accepted that ambassadors speak for and defend their country's policies, Michael Oren's March 12 Wall Street Journal article, "Israel and the Plight of Mideast Christians" exploits a real issue, the fears and plight of Christians in some Muslim countries, to engage in a cynical and distorted piece of propaganda. In recent years, as Oren correctly notes, attacks against segments of Christian communities by militant Muslims have threatened the security, churches and lives of Christians from Nigeria and Egypt to Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia. While often rejected by the majority of citizens, religious freedom is indeed under siege. Iraq is a strong case in point.
As Oren observes, "Since 2003, 70 Iraqi churches have been burned and nearly a thousand Christians killed in Baghdad alone, causing more than half of this million-member community to flee." The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the International Organization for Migration, and the United Nations have reported that due to the scale of violence against Christians, more than half of Iraq's Christians have fled the country since the U.S. led invasion in 2003. Oren's piece fails to point out that intimidation, violence and terrorism by extremists has not been just limited to Christians, but has affected nearly every segment of Iraqi society.
Regrettably, Oren takes a tragedy and uses it as a backdrop for a deceptive piece of anti-Palestinian propaganda, attributing the changes in Christian demographics to religion rather than Israeli domestic and economic policies and presenting Israel as a resplendent safe haven for Arab and Palestinian Christians: "Under Israeli auspices, [Bethlehem's] Christian population grew by 57 percent. But under the Palestinian Authority since 1995, those numbers have plummeted. Palestinian gunmen seized Christian homes -- compelling Israel to build a protective barrier between them and Jewish neighborhoods -- and then occupied the Church of the Nativity, looting it and using it as a latrine. Today, Christians comprise a mere one-fifth of their holy city's population."
Michael Oren, the ex-academic, plays with statistics and ought to know better. While under Israeli occupation Bethlehem's Christian population grew by 57 percent, it was not because of Israeli policies but as a consequence of the natural growth rate of the city during the period in question. In fact, Bethlehem's growth rate was much greater than 57 percent over the period (general population increased from 8,000 to 21,000 around a 250 percent increase), so the percentage of Christians were, in fact, likely to have decreased. Second, simply stating that Christians today comprise a mere 20 percent of Bethlehem's population does not provide any context nor consider what other factors (lower birth rate, Israeli enforced political, economic, and travel restrictions, etc.) are at work. Oren might want to talk to Christian leaders, many of whom are on record, of the devastating impact that Israeli policies have had on the lives and livelihood of Palestinian Christians as well as Muslims as a catalyst for emigration.
Oren's most curious obfuscation was his statement that "In a December 2010 broadcast, Hamas officials exhorted Muslims to slaughter their Christian neighbors. Rami Ayad, owner of Gaza's only Christian bookstore, was murdered, his store reduced to ash. This is the same Hamas with which the Palestinian Authority of the West Bank recently signed a unity pact."
The fact is that Rami Ayad was murdered in October 2007, 3 years prior to the supposed death exhortation by Hamas officials in December 2010. At the time of his murder, extremists were indeed taking advantage of the breakdown in public order caused by the infighting between Fatah and Hamas. However, few neutral observers suspected the killing was officially sanctioned by Hamas. Hamas condemned it as a "murderous crime", sent a delegation to the funeral, and publicly vowed to protect the Christian community, a picture greatly at odds with that painted by Oren.
The 2010 broadcast Oren refers to was a 1 minute religious music video of unknown origin which appeared on official Hamas TV. Though outrageous and inexcusable, it was not an exhortation by "Hamas officials... to slaughter their Christian neighbors" but a religious music video on Al-Aqsa TV which was pulled after a single or handful of showings.
Perhaps Ambassador Oren might have gotten a different perspective if he spent some time listening to what Christians actually say. A report published by U.S Catholic ("Silent flight: Christians leave the Holy Land") noted,
Christians once comprised 30 percent of the population of Jerusalem. Today Christian Arabs are a mere 1.5 percent. Israeli policies discourage the "natural expansion" of Christian families and communities. It is difficult for Christians (and likewise Muslim Arabs) living under Israeli jurisdiction to receive permits for home building, ownership, or expansion. Christian churches, schools, and other institutions similarly face a range of structural and unspoken obstacles to future growth even as illegal Jewish settlements are subsidized by an array of government policies -- and ultimately U.S. tax dollars.
Within Israeli society walls rise against the opportunity and advancement of Christian Arabs even as actual walls break up their communities and harass transit in the West Bank. Top leadership within the Israeli government itself has become nakedly hostile to Israel's minority citizens and communities under its technical jurisdiction in the West Bank.
Follow John L. Esposito on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johnlesposito