When Pope Francis visited the Holy Land in May, he wasn’t there as an emissary to the Muslims or to the Jews in the area. He visited political and religious leaders of both groups, but he was there to minister to the Christians in the region who are caught between Muslim groups like Hamas and Israeli leaders — neither of whom have the welfare of Christians at the top of their respective agendas.
About 80 percent of the Christians in Israel are Arab and ethnically linked to Palestinian Muslims rather than to Israeli Jews, and many live in areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Francis’ goal was to lend support to Christians in the area — who are mostly, but not entirely, Catholic or Orthodox Christians — while not putting them in any more danger from the Muslims around them.
Israel has no policy of persecution against Christian residents, but the ongoing conflict with Palestinian Muslims in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — Israel has just conducted air raids in response to rocket attacks from Hamas-led Gaza on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — leaves the Jewish state little time or incentive to worry about the small group of Christians in its borders.
The unrest also throws suspicion on Arab or Palestinian Christians, which can cause difficulties of its own. At Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar, when Orthodox flooded into Jerusalem’s Old City for the annual lighting of the Paschal fire, a Washington Post article cited reports that Israeli police officers barred some Palestinian Christians arriving with some high-level diplomats for a procession to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
According to a statement published in the article, Robert H. Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said, “A precarious standoff ensued ending in an angry crowd pushing their way through.”
A spokesperson said the envoy and his companions were held in place for a half-hour before the police retreated.
Serry called on “all parties to respect the right of religious freedom, granting access to holy sites for worshipers of all faiths and refraining from provocations not least during religious holidays.”
Many of the 50,000 or so Orthodox and Catholics living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip need permits to travel to Jerusalem around Easter and other religious holidays, and some claim those permits were not always forthcoming or timely.
A Pew Research article from just before Francis’ visit said that while the number of Christians in the Middle East in general grew from 1.6 million to 7.5 million between 1900 and 2010, the much larger growth in the non-Christian population meant they were a smaller percentage of the total.
The same piece also said that “Christians faced religious harassment in a greater share of countries in the Middle East and North Africa than in any other region in 2012 (the most recent year for which data are available).”
Most of the conflicts in the Middle East today are among Muslims, or between Muslims and Israel, with Christian populations caught in the middle. Lacking serious political or economic power, their situation is not a huge priority for Western leaders (except Pope Francis, of course).
Also, the notion that Christianity is a powerful and entrenched force in the West (a notion that may be increasingly at odds with reality, especially in Europe) makes it hard for some in the media to even conceive of Christians as a persecuted and oppressed minority.
But ultimately, the Christians of Israel, who make up about 2.1 percent of the population, are part of a nation that does not seek their destruction. This has led some Christians to believe that throwing in their lot with Israel is preferable to living in Muslim-dominated lands.
According to an April 22nd article in the Jerusalem Post, Christian Arab youths in Israel, who are exempt from the country’s policy of mandatory military service in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) for young men and women, have begun to receive voluntary enlistment notices if they are nearing the age of 17. Before this, Christians could serve in the IDF, but it was entirely on their own initiative.
Greek Orthodox priest Father Gabriel Nadaf of Nazareth, an advocate of Christian Arab enlistment, told the Post, “This is a change in what has been the status quo until now, and is a crucial step in improving the ability of the Christian community to integrate into Israeli society, with the rights and obligations that come with such a process.”
He also told the Post, “Together with our Jewish brothers, we have a joint fate in this land, because whatever happens to the Jews here will happen to us. We therefore need to contribute to the defense of this country along with the Jews.”
Opponents of this move see it as a ploy by Israel to weaken Palestinian solidarity by splitting the Christian Arabs from the Muslims.
In a post at MEM (MiddleEastMonitor), translated from the original at AlJazeera.net, Ali Badwan said, “The Israeli army’s efforts reached a major point of tension when it began to call on Palestinian Christians to enlist and participate in the army, which later led to an outcry among the members of the Palestinian community, who refused to serve and participate in the siege of Gaza and attacks on the West Bank and Jerusalem.
“Many Palestinian Christians have stated that they refuse to provide the Israeli army with more human capital and manpower, because they refuse to participate in subjugating their own people,” he stated.
Although the situation of Arab Christians in Israel and the Palestinian Territories could be vastly improved, a look at the devastation of Christian populations in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq may answer the question of whether these people would be better joining hands with Israel than Palestinian Muslims.
Unfortunately, some Western Christians are making the situation even more complicated.
In a July 8 piece for Charisma News, Latino Evangelical leader Sam Rodriguez decried the recent decision by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA to divest itself of holdings in American companies doing business in Israel, in a show of support for Palestinians (a move that has been widely criticized, even by Presbyterian pastors).
Wrote Rodriguez, “We urge our fellow Christians in the strongest possible terms, to resist this native movement, especially as our Arab Christian brothers and sisters suffer under regimes — most notable in this case Hamas, supported by Iran, that opposes the very existence of Christianity and engages in religious persecution.”
“Our belief that both Jews and Arabs carry the ‘Imago DEI,’ the image of God, prompt us to repudiate the BDS” — meaning boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel — “movement and any all [sic] efforts to amplify the message of hate, intolerance and anti-Semitism,” he continued. “Silence is not an option.”