Christianity is close to extinct in the Middle East.
The only place in the region where Christians are free, and indeed thriving, is the Jewish state.
In contrast, a new study, highlighted at the Telegraph, warns that “Christians suffer greater hostility across the world than any other religious group” and quotes estimates that “between half and two-thirds of Christians in the Middle East have left the region or been killed in the past century.”
Yet, like a holiday ritual, Harriet Sherwood, in the spirit of Phoebe Greenwood’s ugly Guardian piece last year (‘If Jesus were to come this year Bethlehem would be closed’, Guardian, Dec. 22, 2011) chose to advance, as if by rote, a predictable Christmas tale of Israeli oppression against Christians.
Sherwood’s piece, Bethlehem Christians feel squeeze of settlements, avoids entirely any context about the comparative treatment of Christians in the Middle East, and myopically obsesses on the putative threat to Christians posed by Israeli “settlements” in the Jerusalem region.
In the birthplace of Jesus, the impact of Israeli settlements and their growth has been devastating.
Sherwood then allows the following quote by Mahmoud Abbas to go unchallenged:
For the first time in 2,000 years of Christianity in our homeland, the Holy Cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem have been completely separated by Israeli settlements, racist walls and checkpoints.
First, as CAMERA pointed out in response to Bob Simon’s 60 Minute piece:
Maps provided by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nations, B’tselem, and the PLO all indicate that the security barrier is located to the north and west of the city, and does not completely surround Bethlehem.
Further, all Sherwood would have needed to do was visit the site of the Palestine Visitor Information Center, where she could have found the following helpful information:
Most of the travellers arrive to Bethlehem via Jerusalem.
Bus no. 21 runs from the Arabic Bus Station at the Damascus Gate (“Bab el-’Amoud”) in East Jerusalem via Beit Jala to Bethlehem. The average trip length is 40 minutes and costs 7 NIS.
The Palestine Visitor Information Center helpfully suggests other bus routes, the option of driving, or even, for the physically ambitious, a walking route.
There’s no warning on their site reflecting Abbas’s claim that the two Biblical cities are cut off.
The city is further hemmed in by the vast concrete and steel separation barrier, bypasses connecting settlements with Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and Israeli military zones. With little room to expand, it is now more densely populated than Gaza, according to one Palestinian official.
The Palestinian official was lying.
According to the PA’s own statistics, Bethlehem’s population density is 3,383 person/km, while the density of Gaza is higher at 4,603 person/km. It should also be noted that Gaza is not even in the top 50 of most densely populated places on earth. (If the PA official was comparing Bethlehem to Gaza City, as opposed to the entire Gaza strip, naturally the disparity in density would be even greater).
Sherwood then turns to economic issues, writing:
The wall already snakes around most of Bethlehem, its 8m-high concrete slabs casting a deep shadow, both literally and metaphorically. At the Christmas Tree restaurant, where there are almost no takers for the “Quick Lunches” on offer, business has slowed to a standstill since the wall blocked what was once the main Jerusalem-Bethlehem road. Scores of shops along the closed-off artery have shut down altogether.
…the lack of routine access has had a dire impact on businesses and employment rates.
The suggestion that Bethlehem is economically depressed is another profound distortion, as the city has been experiencing an economic boom over the last few years, with the number of tourists (and hotel stays) having dramatically increased over the last few years.
In fact, the narrative advanced in Sherwood’s passage was contradicted by Sherwood herself, in a piece published a couple of days earlier (Dec. 21), ‘No room at the inn – but Bethlehem’s popularity is a boon to Palestinians‘, where she wrote:
Tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists are expected to visit the birthplace of Jesus over Christmas. All of the West Bank city’s 3,700 hotel rooms are likely to be filled, with thousands more visitors making day trips from nearby Jerusalem.
This year has seen a 20% growth in the numbers of visitors to Bethlehem compared with the previous year, and officials hope for a further rise in tourism to Palestine next year. The biggest number of tourists – more than a quarter – come from Russia.
Officials are heartened by the increasing number of visitors who are opting to stay in hotels in Bethlehem rather than just making the trip from Jerusalem. The number of overnight stays is expected to reach 1.5m by the end of this year.
The city is planning to increase the number of hotel beds, offer improved packages and invest in marketing and promotion…
Undeterred, Sherwood continues:
Bethlehem has one of the highest rates of unemployment of all West Bank cities, at 18%, says Vera Baboun, who was elected as its first female mayor in October. “We are a strangulated city, with no room for expansion due to the settlements and the wall.”
However, according to the PA’s own statistics, any suggestion of a causation between the security fence and unemployment in Bethlehem is not supportable. In 2002 for instance, two years before the fence’s completion in 2004*, the unemployment rate was higher (at 20%) than the current rate. Inexplicably, unemployment in Bethlehem actually dropped in 2005 and 2006 to 13.4 and 13.7% respectively. So, at the very least, unemployment figures for Bethlehem don’t seem at all to correspond with the fence’s construction history.
Sherwood’s narrative then descends even further with the following passage:
In a booklet to mark Christmas 2012, Kairos Palestine, a Christian alliance, says: “Land confiscation, as well as the influx of Israeli settlers, suggest that there will be no future for Palestinians (Christian or Muslim) in [this] area. In this sense, the prospect of a clear ‘solution’ grows darker every day.
However, Kairos, as CAMERA has documented, is certainly not a group dedicated at all to “peace, love and understanding”.
A 2009 Kairos document calls the Israeli “occupation” a “sin against God,” and characterizes Palestinian acts of terror as “legal resistance.”
The document also states that if “there were no occupation, there would be no resistance, no fear and no insecurity.”
As CAMERA asked in response to such specious occupation causation:
Really? Then why did the rocket attacks against Israel increase after it withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005?
More importantly, the Kairos quote insidiously suggests something of a policy of ethnic cleansing (Israel’s “solution”) of both Muslims and Christians in the West Bank, a suggestion which is matched in sheer malice by the demographic lie. Here are a couple of population facts:
- The population of Christians in Bethlehem and surrounding area has increased since 1967 (when Israel took control of the West Bank), which (as CAMERA noted) stands in “contrast to the decline of the Christian population in the West Bank when it was under Jordanian control.”
- The Christian population in Israel proper has risen from 34,000 in 1948 to over 150,000 today.
Additionally, as Akus noted in a post last Christmas, the Church of England, for instance, is quite aware of the demographic realities for Christians in the Middle East. A report by the Church noted the following:
While Christians have fled from areas controlled by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, in Israel their numbers have grown rapidly. The Statistical Abstract of Israel 2008 reports that Israel’s Christian population grew from 120,600 in 1995 to 151,600 in 2007, representing a growth rate of 25 per cent — a rate faster than the growth of the country’s Jewish population.
That the place in the Middle East where the population of Christians is growing just happens to be the sole country where Islamism is not a serious threat is essential to understanding the fate of Christianity in that part of the world – context about the contrasting religious freedom, tolerance and democratic values in the Middle East which Harriet Sherwood’s reports on the region do not provide.
Finally, the report linked to in the first sentence of this post concluded that the “lion’s share” of persecution faced by Christians arises in countries where Islam is the dominant faith”. Specifically, the reports adds, “the most common threat to Christians abroad is militant Islam“, and further argues that oppression against Christians in Muslim countries is often ignored because of a fear that criticism will be seen as “racism.”
Such religious bigotry – in places like Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and elsewhere - includes physical violence, attacks on churches, forced conversions, and the imposition of Sharia law.
Moreover, is it really even debatable that the antagonist in Sherwood’s Christmas tale, Israel’s security fence, was only necessitated by terror attacks launched largely by adherents to the same brand of radical Islamism which has prompted so many Middle East Christians to flee?
While truly fearless crusading dailies would boldly tackle the real cleansing of Christians from Arab lands as the result of Islamist militancy, my blog CiF Watch does not monitor a broadsheet which engages in such truly courageous journalism.
We monitor the Guardian.
(*Fence construction information obtained from Dany Tirza who served as the IDF’s chief architect for the Security Fence.)