A New York Times report on the exodus of Christians from Bethlehem and other historically Christian towns in the West Bank (A Sad New Carol: Go Ye From Bethlehem, Dec 23) omitted a major reason for this demographic change – official and unofficial Muslim discrimination against Arab Christians, amid a rising tide of Islamism in the Palestinian territories.
The Times cited instead:
Four years of violence, an economic free fall and the Israeli separation barrier have all contributed to the hardships facing Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem, one of the largest concentrations of Christians in the region.
While there’s no doubt that these are contributing factors, they are unlikely to be the major reason for the Christian exodus, which is clear if one stops to think that the Christian population is also dwindling in the rest of the Arab world. Obviously this pan-Arab phenomena has nothing to do with Israel, and everything to do with the fact that Arab Christians are made to feel unwelcome, or worse, in the Muslim countries of the Middle East.
It should also be mentioned that in contrast to the Muslim countries, Israel’s Christian population is growing rather than dwindling, and in recent years has been growing at the same rate as Israel’s Jewish population. For example, in the period 1995 – 2003 Israel’s Arab Christian population grew from 101,400 to 115,700, a growth rate of 14.1 percent. To put this in perspective, the US population in that period grew by just 11.8 percent.
Clearly, Palestinian Christians are not nearly so lucky as their Israeli counterparts. They, as the Times writes, do tend to be wealthier and better educated than their Muslim neighbors, but they have been victimized both by the Muslim-dominated Palestinian Authority, and by criminal Muslim gangs that are under the protection of the Palestinian Authority. For example, according to a recent Israeli report, the Palestinian Authority cooperated in the theft, by a Muslim family from Hebron, of land and an office building belonging to the Christian Comtsieh family of Bethlehem:
... the judicial system of the PA that operates in Bethlehem ... is plagued by irregularities and distortion of justice. Of note in this regard is the failure to provide protection to Christian land-owners, which Moslem migrants from Hebron are taking over. The following is one example. The Comtsieh family (a Christian family) has a plot of land with a building that serves as a business center in the city. Several years ago a Moslem family from Hebron took possession of the building and started to use it without permission. The Comtsieh family filed a claim with the judicial system and after long and arduous court hearings, the court ruled in the claimant's favor. However, the verdict was never enforced by the police and representatives of the family from Hebron later appeared with a new court verdict (signed by the same judge who ruled in the claimants' favor previously), canceling the previous verdict and ratifying the Hebron family's ownership of the property.
Beyond theft, there is also a great deal of violence by Muslims against Christians, as has been reported, for example, by the Boston Globe:
... details were emerging of a rampage of Palestinian Muslims against Christian shops and churches in Ramallah after a road-rage slaying last Thursday.
... police made no attempt to stop the mob, which besieged and damaged a widely respected youth center associated with the Boy Scouts of America after torching the Christian properties. Palestinian police and security agencies finally stepped in when the rioters moved on local churches.
... "The truth is this is a problem between Christians and Muslims," said one Christian businessman. "There is no security for us. Everyone is taking the law in his own hands.
... "This [accused] man's brother, they burned his house, his shops, his cars, and the police of Ramallah stood by and watched. This is the democracy of Palestine?" .. "The chief of security at Kalandia was in charge of this rampage," said a Muslim shopkeeper. "The mayor of Ramallah came, saw what was happening, and withdrew. I am a Muslim, but I condemn this. These are savage people."
"We do not have democracy; we do not have security," he said. "The fault is with our leaders and our society. We need to clean up our society." (Defendants Killed in Court; Mob Fears Grow in West Bank, Boston Globe, Feb 6, 2002)
For further details on the discrimination against Palestinian Christians by the Palestinian Authority, and by criminal gangs under the sanction of the PA, and the resulting exodus of the Christian population, see the JCPA report The Beleaguered Christians of The Palestinian-Controlled Areas.
In fairness to the Times, in addition to these serious lapses in the article there were also praiseworthy elements. For example, in pointing to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war as leading to an influx of Muslim refugees into Bethlehem, the article states clearly that the war was started by Arab states:
...the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, begun by Arab states in response to the founding of Israel, brought an influx of Muslim refugees to the Bethlehem area and signaled the start of a demographic shift.
Many other reports from the region have described the 1948 war as having “broken out” without accurately describing who started it and why.
That said, it was a major error by the Times, in an otherwise informative article, to completely omit a central factor in the Christian exodus from majority Muslim countries and regions – Muslim intimidation and violence.