05/07/2014 07:48 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2014

Israel's Christian Problem

On Easter Sunday, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry -- a Dutch diplomat -- joined a procession to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the hill called Golgotha in Jerusalem. On the way, Serry and the procession came upon an Israeli police blockade. "A precarious standoff ensued," Serry later said, "ending in an angry crowd pushing their way through."

What Serry experienced had been documented in a 2009 paper from the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem called Kairos Palestine. "Religious liberty is severely restricted," wrote the church leaders. "The freedom of access to the holy places is denied under the pretext of security. Jerusalem and its holy places are out of bounds for many Christians and Muslims from the West Bank and Gaza strip. Even Jerusalemites face restrictions during the religious feasts. Some of our Arab clergy are regularly barred from entering Jerusalem."

In 2012, the US State Department noted, "Strict closures and curfews imposed by the Israeli government negatively affected residents' ability to practice their religion at holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem."

The Israeli authorities denied the incident, saying that it was a "non-event." Israel's envoy to the United Nations went one step further. Ambassador Ron Prosor wrote to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon to accuse Serry of taking "disruptive steps that exacerbated tensions on the ground." Prosor, who has made it a habit of making accusations against UN officials, wrote, "It is unfortunate that a UN official abused his position and the UN platform to express personal opinions." Serry's experiences repeat those of thousands of Palestinians who are often blocked from access to their holy places. Israel makes pilgrims apply for permits, which many say are often not provided or are sometimes disregarded.

A few days before Easter, Ambassador Prosor wrote that Israel is the only Middle East state that is a friend of Christians ("The Middle East War on Christians," Wall Street Journal, April 16). Prosor's essay came at a time when the Israeli Knesset attempts to distinguish between Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims. A draft law proposed by Yariv Levin (Likud-Yisrael Beitenu) suggests that Palestinian Christians are "non-Arabs." "My legislation," Levin said in January, "will award separate representation and a separate frame of reference to the Christian public, distinguishing them from Muslim Arabs." As Levin put it to Maariv, "We and the Christians have a lot in common. They are our natural allies, a counterweight against the Muslims who want to destroy the state from within."

As Levin's bill moved through the Knesset, the Israel Defense Forces put out a call for Palestinian Christians to enlist in the armed forces. A Haaretz editorial ("A Draft Intended to Sow Dissent," April 24) noted, "It is hard not to suspect that the state's distinction among the various non-Jewish citizens is really intended to sow discord among Israeli Arabs, who are already neglected and discriminated against by the state, whether by law or in the course of daily life."

The Justice and Peace commission of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land strongly criticized Levin's law, asserting that it "states that Christian Palestinians are Christians and not Palestinians." It is, they suggest, part of a policy to drive a religious wedge in Palestinian society.

In 2012, CBS's 60 Minutes ran an important program called "Christians of the Holy Land." Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem, told reporter Bob Simon that the West Bank "is becoming more and more like a piece of Swiss cheese where Israel gets the cheese that is the land, the water resources, the archeological sites. And the Palestinians are pushed in the holes behind the walls." One of those walls almost completely surrounds Bethlehem -- as the Banksy cartoon depicts it, Mary and Joseph cannot make it to the town for the birth of Jesus because the Separation Wall blocks them.

Israel's ambassador Michael Oren telephoned Jeff Fager, head of CBS News, complaining that Simon was doing a "hatchet job." Oren -- prefiguring Prosor's Wall Street Journal essay -- said that it was "completely incomprehensible" that CBS was doing a story on Israel's treatment of Palestinian Christians when "Christian communities throughout the Middle East are being oppressed and massacred."

Rather than address the statements in the Kairos Palestine document, Ambassador Oren suggested that it accused "us of crimes that would be, I think, historically associated with anti-Semitism." What did the Kairos document allege? Drawing on a body of human rights organization and UN reports, the Kairos document criticized the Separation Wall, settlements, checkpoints, and political prisoners - in sum, "the Israeli disregard of international law and international resolutions."

What perhaps rattled the Israeli authorities was a reference to South Africa. The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches hoped that their report would "receive strong support, as was the South Africa Kairos document launched in 1985." Church leaders in the black township of Soweto put together the 1985 document, which both criticized the apartheid state and opened up a debate in the Christian community on its passivity over apartheid. It was the South African version of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963) for the US Civil Rights movement.

In his Wall Street Journal essay, Ambassador Prosor notes, "Nations that trample on the rights of their people sow the seeds of instability and violence." This is correct. It applies to Israel as much as anywhere.

Ambassador Prosor's attempt to silence UN envoy Serry did not stop him. On April 29, Serry went before the UN Security Council and suggested that Israel has to make a choice, either to seriously commit to a two-state solution or live with the current one-state (which John Kerry, in a private moment, warned could become "an apartheid state with second-class citizens"). Serry said that the window for the peace process has not closed, something that the Israeli government should welcome, not shun.