Concern expressed for plight of Christians in the Middle East

By agency reporter
June 9, 2010

Leaders of The Centre for Jewish-Christian Understanding have expressed "distress" over the decline of Christian presence throughout the Middle East.

In the last 50 years, the Christian populations in the region have dropped significantly, they say, and the trend has accelerated in the last 10 years.

However, Palestinian Christians contend the way the statistics have been compiled and analysed - and the uncritical stance towards Israel, which is commended for having more Christians than other states in the region.

The occupation of Palestinian lands is not mentioned. The reason there are more Christians in Israel now, other analysts point out, is to do with Asian domestic and manual labour - and the Palestinian Christian population being under immense pressure and steep decline.

The statement of concern has been signed by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Rabbi Eugene Korn, the American Director of CJCU, and David Nekrutman, its Executive Director.

They declare: "Christians were once a majority in Lebanon, but today they comprise only 30 per cent of all Lebanese. Four out of every five Maronite Christians have left the country. Assyrian Christians have left Iraq in large numbers, and a significant number of Coptic Christians are now leaving Egypt due to religious persecution. In Iran, Christian rights have been curtailed. There are no Christian citizens in Saudi Arabia, and American soldiers and foreign workers are barred from displaying their Christian faith in public. In many Middle East countries, Muslim conversion to Christianity is a capital offence.

"In the Palestinian territories (the West Bank and Gaza), Christians are declining dramatically. Bethlehem was always a Christian city. When Israel ceded authority of Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority in 1995, it was more than 60 per cent Christian. Today it is less than 20 per cent Christian. Many Christians having the means to leave are doing so. Ramallah too was once a Christian city, but today it has less than 7,000 Christians out of a total population of 25,500. There are only 3,000 Christians left in Gaza out of 1.5 million people, and more than 2,000 Christians have left Gaza since Hamas took control two years ago.

"Christians suffer from housing shortages in Jerusalem, as well as occasional discrimination and hostile behavior from Israelis. The Israeli government needs to work to ensure that these problems are solved for Israel to live up to its ideals of a democracy committed to protecting the rights of all its citizens independent of race or religion. Yet the Christian population of Israel continues to grow. There are approximately 120,000 Arab Christians and 30,000 non-Arab Christians citizens of Israel today, compared to 35,000-40,000 Christians when Israel was founded in 1948 — nearly a 400 per cent increase.

"In Jerusalem, Christians numbered 30,000 when Jordan conquered the ancient city in 1948. That number dwindled to 10,000 by the time Israel retook control in 1967. Today the number of Christians in Israeli Jerusalem is up to 15,000 but is again decreasing.

"So in the Holy Land, there are two different and opposite phenomena at work: A decline of Christians in Palestinian territories, and an increase of Christian population in Israel.

"The CJCUC is committed to Jewish-Christian harmony and the welfare of all people in the Middle East, particularly the Jewish and Christian minorities of the region. Their security and religious freedom are fundamental historic, democratic and religious rights, and their continued presence is important to prevent the Middle East from becoming an intolerant totalitarian region.

"In [the] light of the difficult plight of Christians throughout the Middle East, it calls on all people to work for Middle East peace and the security and rights of Christians in the region," the statement concludes.

But the interpretation of the situation is Israel-Palestine by the Centre for Jewish-Christian Understanding will be strongly criticised by other observers - not least because it fails to look at the impact of the blockade on Bethlehem and other territories, and seeks to suggest that the decline in Christian population is the fault of the Palestinian leadership.

"The statistics on offer here are deeply contentious, and to do with how the boundaries are drawn, especially," a seasoned Middle East commentator told Ekklesia.

It is widely recognised that the situation of the historic Christian communities in the Middle East is serious, and calls have been made by a range of global church leaders, including Archbishop of canterbury Rowan Williams, to support them.

A related problem in Israel-Palestine has been the activity of US and other missionary groups with a strongly pro-Zionist agenda and a lack of respect for indigenous Christians and the immense suffering they have undergone as a result of occupation and blockade.


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