Pope Benedict XVI's journey through Jordan, Israel and the West Bank prompted Ethan Bronner, Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times, to report on the declining Christian population across the Middle East. But his May 12 story, "Christians in Mideast Losing Numbers and Influence," misleads on crucial facts about this troubling trend among Palestinian and Israeli Christians. (The article also appeared May 13 in the International Herald Tribune.)
First, while the Christian population is diminishing throughout the Middle East, including the Palestinian areas, the opposite is true in Israel a key fact Bronner inexplicably ignores.
Second, contrary to Bronner's article, Palestinian Christians are not emigrating simply because of the "economy, economy, economy," but largely as a result of systematic Muslim persecution. Again, Bronner neglects this significant factor directly related to the topic of his story.
The thrust of the Times story is that all societies in the Middle East are inhospitable to Christians, who have little future anywhere in the region. Sadly this is true in the Muslim-dominated nations surrounding Israel but it's not the case in Israel itself.
The Situation Across the Mideast
As Bronner notes, the Christian population throughout the Middle East has been declining for decades. In 1914, Christians constituted 26.4 percent of the total population in what today is Israel, the Palestinian areas, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, while by 2005 they represented at most 9.2 percent (Phillipe Fargues, "The Arab Christians of the Middle East: A Demographic Perspective," in Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East, Andrea Pacini, ed, Oxford University Press, as cited in Justus Reid Weiner's Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.)
The Ignored Exception
The exception to this regional trend is Israel, where the Christian population has thrived.
As documented in the Central Bureau of Statistics' Statistical Abstract of Israel 2008 (Chart 2.2), in the last dozen years, Israel's Christian population grew from 120,600 in 1995 to 151,600 in 2007, representing a growth rate of 25 percent. In fact, the Christian growth rate has outpaced the Jewish growth in Israel in the last 12 years! In 1995, there were 4,522,300 Jews in Israel, and in 2007 there were 5,478,2000, representing a growth rate of 21 percent 4 percent less than the Christian population grew during the same time.
Since 1949, when there were 34,000 Christians in Israel, the population has grown 345 percent.
Why does Bronner shy away from pointing out this key information? He does at one point note Israel's exceptionality on a related point, stating:
The Middle East is now, of course, overwhelmingly Muslim. Except for Israel, with its six million Jews, there is no country where Islam does not prevail. This includes Lebanon, where Christians now amount to a quarter of the population, and the non-Arab countries of Iran and Turkey.
The fact that the only growing Christian population in the Middle East exists in the sole country in which Islam does not prevail is essential to understanding the fate of Christianity in that part of the world.
In the second paragraph, Bronner gives an apparently inflated statistic for the declining percentage of Christians in the "Holy Land," which today is generally understood to mean Israel and the Palestinian areas. He writes:
But as Pope Benedict XVI wends his way across the Holy Land this week, he is addressing a dwindling and threatened Christian population driven to emigration by political violence, lack of economic opportunity and the rise of radical Islam. A region that a century ago was 20 percent Christian is about 5 percent today and dropping.
If the "region" that Bronner is referring to is the Holy Land, or Israel and the Palestinian territories, which a century ago was under Turkish control, then 20 percent is too high. According to early census data, drawn from British census figures for 1922 and 1931, the percentage of Christians in Mandate Palestine for those years was 9.6 percent and 8.8 percent respectively. Moreover, going back even earlier, works very sympathetic to the Christian Palestinian position indicate that in 1894 the Christian proportion in what would become Mandate Palestine was just 13.3 percent (Phillipe Fargues, "The Arab Christians of the Middle East: A Demographic Perspective," in Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East, Andrea Pacini, ed, Oxford University Press).
The Palestinian Areas
Bronner correctly reports that consistent with the regional trend, the Palestinian Christian population is drastically declining, but he minimizes a major contributing factor: Muslim persecution of Christians. Thus, he writes:
Among Palestinians, Islam is also playing an unprecedented role in defining identity, especially in Gaza, ruled by Hamas. Benedict's arrival in Jerusalem on Monday prompted a radical member of the legislature in Gaza to call on Arab governments not to greet him because of his contentious remark in 2006 regarding the Prophet Muhammad.
The West Bank Palestinian leadership, more secular, tries to include Christians to ward off separatist sentiments and stop the population decline. It has been a losing battle. In 1948, Jerusalem was one-fifth Christian. Today it is 2 percent.
Rafiq Husseini, the chief of staff of President Mahmoud Abbas's office, said of the exodus of Christians: "It is a very negative thing if it continues to happen. Our task, from the president downwards, is to keep the presence of the Christians alive and well."
In Bethlehem, where the Church of the Nativity marks where Jesus is said to have been born, Christians now make up barely a third of the population after centuries of being 80 percent of it. Emigration is the first option for anyone who has the opportunity, and there are large communities of Christian emigres throughout the West to absorb them.
"Economy, economy, economy," said Fayez Khano, 63, a member of the Assyrian community, explaining the reasons for the continuing exodus while cutting the olive-wood figurines in his family workshop on Manger Street. Mr. Khano's three adult children live in Dublin, and since business is slow he and his wife are about to go to Dublin for six months.
But anti-Christian activity on the part of Palestinian Muslims is not limited to radical politicians speaking out against the Pope. As Muslim Palestinian/Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh wrote a few days ago on the Hudson Web site:
Christian families have long been complaining of intimidation and land theft by Muslims, especially those working for the Palestinian Authority.
Many Christians in Bethlehem and the nearby [Christian] towns of Bet Sahour and Beit Jalla have repeatedly complained that Muslims have been seizing their lands either by force or through forged documents. . . .
Moreover, several Christian women living in these areas have complained about verbal and sexual assaults by Muslim men.
Over the past few years, a number of Christian businessmen told me that they were forced to shut down their businesses because they could no longer afford to pay "protection" money to local Muslim gangs.
While it is true that the Palestinian Authority does not have an official policy of persecution against Christians, it is also true that this authority has not done enough to provide the Christian population with a sense of security and stability.
In addition, Christians continue to complain about discrimination when it comes to employment in the public sector. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority 15 years ago, not a single Christian was ever appointed to a senior security post. Although Bethlehem has a Christian mayor, the governor, who is more senior than him, remains a Muslim.
Why doesn't Bronner mention the Muslim theft of Christian lands? The reported involvement of Muslim employees of the Palestinian Authority in the theft of Christian lands contradicts the PA official quoted by Bronner who insists that the population decline is negative and that the authority is determined to stop it. Why does Bronner likewise ignore any other specific examples of Muslim intimidation of Palestinian Christians sexual harassment, demands for "protection" money, and job discrimination? Why does he make do with the vague, euphemistic statement that "Islam is also playing an unprecedented role in defining identity?" Land dispossession is an unusual way of "defining identity."
You don't have to be a Muslim or Palestinian journalist like Abu Toameh to find information on the Muslim harassment of Christians. Harry de Quetteville reported Sept. 9, 2005 in the Daily Telegraph (London):
Christians in the Holy Land have handed a dossier detailing incidents of violence and intimidation by Muslim extremists to Church leaders in Jerusalem, one of whom said it was time for Christians to "raise our voices" against the sectarian violence.
The dossier includes 93 alleged incidents of abuse by an "Islamic fundamentalist mafia" against Palestinian Christians, who accused the Palestinian Authority of doing nothing to stop the attacks.
The dossier also includes a list of 140 cases of apparent land theft, in which Christians in the West Bank were allegedly forced off their land by gangs backed by corrupt judicial officials. . . .
The alleged attacks on Christians have come despite repeated appeals to the Palestinian Authority to rein in Muslim gangs.
A spokesman for the Apostolic Delegate, the Pope's envoy to Jerusalem, said nothing had been done to tackle the problem. "The Apostolic Delegate presented a list of all the problems to Mr [Yasser] Arafat before he died," he said. "He promised a lot but he did very little."
In the offices of his tiny Christian television station in Bethlehem, Samir Qumsieh said this week that Christian appeals to Mr Arafat's successor as Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, had also gone unheeded.
"At least Arafat responded," he said, "Abbas does not answer our letters."
Like Abbas, the New York Times has been indifferent to the Muslim persecution of Christian Palestinians. Back in 2004, the Times also misreported the major reason for the Christian Palestinian exodus.