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Middle East Issues





60 Minutes Smears Israel for Christian Exodus from Holy Land


Palestinian Christians, like other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East, are the target of mistreatment, harassment and in some instances, violent oppression at the hands of their Muslim neighbors.

Nevertheless, much of the media coverage about Palestinian Christians downplays Muslim hostility toward this community and falsely portrays Israel as the sole cause of its suffering.

The reality is Palestinian Christians cannot speak freely about the Muslim dominated environment in which they live. Their leaders often publicly condemn Israel while remaining silent about groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Occasionally, they might admit that Muslim hostility is a problem, but not very often and not very loudly.

It is safe for Palestinian Christian leaders to condemn Israel – a democracy that has a tradition of respecting religious freedom and human rights. It is not safe, however, for Palestinian Christians to condemn the misdeeds of their Islamist neighbors who regard Christians as infidels and obstacles to the creation of an Islamic state.

Journalists obviously have an obligation to dig into the underlying facts regarding the status of Christians in Palestinian areas.

This information is harder to obtain than anti-Israel comments from prominent Palestinian Christians. It is not, however, impossible to get testimony about Muslim oppression of Christians in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. For example, Khaled Abu Toameh has written about mistreatment of Christians by their Muslim neighbors, a problem that has gotten worse since Bethlehem and the surrounding towns have become hotbeds for Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

In a piece published by the Gatestone Institute in 2009 (when it was then called the Hudson Institute), Toameh reported that Christians have complained about acts “of intimidation land theft by Muslims, especially those working for the Palestinian Authority.” And if that wasn't enough, “several Christian women living in these areas have complained about verbal and sexual assaults by Muslim men.” Toameh also recounts hearing stories of shakedowns by Muslim gangs. He writes:

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.

This is however, not the story that Palestinian Christian leaders tell to Westerners. Toameh reports:

Ironically, leaders of the Palestinian Christians are also to blame for the ongoing plight of their people because they refuse to see the reality as it is. And the reality is that many Christians feel insecure and intimidated because of what we Muslims are doing to them and not only because of the bad economy.
 
When they go on the record, these leaders always insist that Israel and the occupation are the only reason behind the plight of their constituents. They stubbornly refuse to admit that many Christians are being targeted by Muslims. By not talking openly about the problem, the Christian leaders are encouraging the perpetrators to continue their harassment and assaults against Christian families.

This is an important story that journalists should highlight.

60 Minutes Dropped the Ball

Given the time and resources available to reporters and producers at 60 Minutes, it would seem reasonable to expect that they would be able to give viewers an accurate picture.

Apparently, it is simply a story they do not want to tell. This became evident during a segment that appeared on April 22, 2012. This segment, titled “Christians of the Holy Land” reported by Bob Simon and produced by Harry Radliffe, severely misinformed 60 Minutes viewers.

In the opening, Simon reports that the “one place where Christians are not suffering from violence is the Holy Land but Palestinian Christians have been leaving in large numbers for years.” He continues:

So many [are leaving], the Christian population there is down to less than two percent, and the prospect of holy sites, like Jerusalem and Bethlehem, without local Christians is looming as a real possibility.

In this passage, Simon is wrong on two issues.

Population deception

First, Simon reports the Christian population in the Holy Land is down to less than two percent but he deceives viewers in this statement. Yes, the percentage of the total is down due to an increased Muslim population, but the actual number is up in Bethlehem and the surrounding area since Israel took control of the West Bank. He also fails to report that this increased stands in marked contrast to the decline of the Christian population in the West Bank when it was under Jordanian control.

The numbers, compiled by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, reveal that in the late 1940s, there were approximately 60,000 Christians living in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza and that this population declined to approximately 40,000 just prior to the Six Day War in 1967. Today, there are approximately 52,000 Christians living in these areas.

Why did 60 Minutes deceive its viewers?

Muslim violence against Christians

Secondly, despite what Simon reports, Palestinian Christians have been the target of violence at the hands of Muslim extremists in the Holy Land. In 2005, more than a dozen homes were burnt to the ground by a Muslim mob. This act of arson was perpetrated in the village of Taybeh located in the West Bank by Muslims outraged over a romantic affair between a Christian man and a Muslim woman. Ha'aretz reported the following about the incident:

PA security sources said that the rampage was triggered by an incident last week in which a 23-year-old woman was killed by her relatives because they suspected her of carrying on a romance with a Christian man from Taybeh. The woman was quickly buried, but last Tuesday, the PA police exhumed the body for an autopsy.

Did Simon and Radliffe not hear about this terrible attack and the apparent honor killing that preceded it? In a four-minute video featured on 60 Minutes' website, Simon profiled the village of Taybeh, which the show billed as “The Last Christian village in the Holy Land.” Judging from this video, it's clear both Simon, and his producer Radcliffe spent some time in the town where the attack took place, but for one reason or another, this notorious act of arson was never mentioned in either the segment shown on television or the segment broadcast on 60 Minutes' website.

Simon also used a confrontation with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren as a pretext to downplay impact of Muslim hostility toward Christians. After Oren stated that the “major duress” felt by Palestinian Christians was coming from Muslims, Simon introduced Zahi Khouri, a Palestinian Christian businessman (he owns a Coca-Cola franchise). Khouri dismissed Oren's assessment as a “Great selling point. Easy to sell to the American public.”

Khouri continues: “I'll tell you I don't know of anybody and I probably have 12,000 customers here. I've never heard that someone is leaving because of Islamic persecution.”

Did Simon really expect to get Khouri, a prominent businessman with a lot to lose – and exactly the type of person who would be forced to pay the protection described by Khaled Abu Toameh in the piece referenced above – to admit to problems with the Muslim majority in Palestinian society in an on-camera conversation with two other people sitting next to him? Is this what passes for investigative reporting at 60 Minutes?

When Woodward and Bernstein got information about the misdeeds of the Nixon Administration from Deep Throat, an anonymous source, they spoke to him in secret in the bowels of an underground parking garage.

Judging from the public testimony offered by pastors speaking at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference held in March 2012, Simon may not have had to go to such lengths to get the story.

At this conference, two pastors spoke openly about the problems Simon downplayed in his report. As detailed in a recent CAMERA analysis, Pastor Nihad Salman, who serves as a pastor in Beit Jala, testified in more detail to the concerns Christians in the West Bank have regarding Muslim hostility toward Christians. After speaking about the impact of high unemployment on Christians in the West Bank, he said that because Christians comprise only one or two percent of the population in the territory, they are affected psychologically.

You are afraid. And we have many times when people are afraid of what is happening in the Arabic Spring. Will the Muslims you know, take over? If it is true or not true. Whatever the outcome of that... what will happen? Will after Saturday come Sunday? So this is the type of thing that makes Christians want to run away.

The reference to Saturday and Sunday is to a well-known proverb in the Middle East about Muslim hostility toward Jews (whose day of rest is on Saturday) and Christians (whose day of rest is on Sunday). The question Pastor Salman is asking is, given that Islamist groups are coming to power across the region ("Arabic Spring") and having already persecuted and expelled their Jews ("Saturday"), will these Arab countries now increase their persecution of Christians ("Sunday")?

And another Palestinian pastor, Labeeb Madanat, who works for the Bible Societies in Israel and Palestine said at this conference, "There are pressures. There is discrimination. The dhimma system is a system of discrimination. We do not deny that."

More recently, this writer interviewed Steven Khoury, assistant pastor at The First Baptist Church in Bethlehem in a piece that was published in The Algemeiner. Khoury reported that anti-Christian animus has gotten worse in the Bethlehem over the past few years. Khoury said, “People are always telling [Christians], ‘Convert to Islam. Convert to Islam. It's the true and right religion.'”

Such testimony is not new. In 2005, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Land for the Roman Catholic Church, acknowledged publicly that Palestinians Christians were suffering from acts of oppression by their Muslim neighbors.

In its coverage of the story the Telegraph reported that things had gotten so bad that Church leaders compiled a "dossier" of 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."

According to the Telegraph, "The dossier includes a list of 140 cases of apparent land theft, in which Christians in the West Bank were allegedly forced off their lands backed by corrupt judicial officials."

The Telegraph also reported about the activism of Samir Qumsieh, a prominent Palestinian Christian leader in the West Bank:

Mr Qumsieh said he was trying to repair relations between Palestinian Christian and Muslim communities, convening a meeting attended by members of both faiths in Bethlehem last week.
 
But he said that the Christian community was faced with "very brutal" adversaries. "A criminal mafia and Islamic fundamentalists work together," he said. "Their interests met to take our land away." He said that one man had lost his finger in one land dispute which turned violent and that a group had attacked and injured a Greek orthodox monk at a 5th century monastery outside Bethlehem.
 
The dossier currently in Church hands details far worse allegations of violence, notably the torture and murder of two Christian girls in 2003 after they were deemed prostitutes. A post mortem examination reportedly proved they were virgins.

Why is it that Simon relied on Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren for testimony about Islamist hostility toward Christians when Christians themselves are talking about it? And why did he work so assiduously to discount Oren's testimony? Evidently, Simon was not interested in the truth about the status of Christians in Palestinian society but instead was more interested in scoring a cheap shot at Oren's expense.

Promoting Anti-Israel Propaganda as Peacemaking

Simon passed off the Kairos Document as an honest attempt by Palestinian Christians to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He did this by reporting that in 2009, a group of Palestinian Christan pastors “did something unprecedented. They published a document called Kairos, criticizing Islamic extremism and advocating non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation which they called a sin against God.”

The Kairos Document, a statement issued by a group of Palestinian Christian pastors in 2009 is not the document of peace, love and understanding that Simon indicates it is.

Yes, the document does call on Muslims to “reject fanaticism and extremism” but does not mention groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad that espouse Islamist ideology.

And while it calls the Israeli “occupation” a “sin against God,” it characterizes Palestinian acts of terror as “legal resistance.” A Christian group, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace declared the use of the word “resistance” to describe terrorism “repugnant.”

The document also states that if “there were no occupation, there would be no resistance, no fear and no insecurity.” Really? Then why did the rocket attacks against Israel increase after it withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005?

The Kairos Palestine document is so hostile and one-sided, that it was denounced as “supersessionist and antisemitic” by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2010. Simon acknowledged none of this in his reporting.

(For more analysis about the Kairos Document, please go here, here and here.)

Raheb No Peacemaker

Simon also presented of Lutheran Pastor Mitri Raheb from Bethlehem as a peacemaker to his audience despite the fact that he has been roundly criticized for use of some very bothersome rhetoric at the 2010 Christ at the Checkpoint Conference. At this conference, Raheb declared the following:

… Israel represents Rome of the Bible, not the people of the land. And this is not only because I'm a Palestinian. I'm sure if we were to do a DNA test between David, who was a Bethlehemite, and Jesus, born in Bethlehem, and Mitri, born just across the street from where Jesus was born, I'm sure the DNA will show that there is a trace. While, if you put King David, Jesus and Netanyahu, you will get nothing, because Netanyahu comes from an East European tribe who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages.

Raheb's assertion that Benjamin Netanyahu is not really connected to the land of Israel but is instead a descendent of an “East European tribe” that “converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages” is an anti-Semitic canard that has a long career.

The notion that European Jews aren't really Jews, but instead descendants of the “Khazars” who converted to Judaism is a shopworn trope often used to deny the connection between modern day Jews and the land of Israel. Raheb's use of this rhetoric prompted New Testament Scholar Malcom Lowe to issue the following critique:

Even if Raheb's claims about the ancestry of himself and Binyamin Netanyahu were true, he would be putting them at the service of a shameless racism. But, of course, he also has not the slightest evidence to support those claims. He knows nothing of Netanyahu's ancestry. And he himself, for all he knows, may be descended from Greek pilgrims or from Europeans who arrived with the Crusaders, as I have pointed out elsewhere. As for DNA, had he taken the trouble, Raheb could have found that genetic studies on Jews have shown that European Jews are genetically much more closely related to Jews in the Middle East, and even to some non-Jews there, than to non-Jewish Europeans.

Did Simon or Radliffe, the producer, look into Raheb's background before presenting him as a peacemaker?

Basic Facts and biased omission

Simon descended into outright propaganda about Israeli security measures when he asserted that the concrete security barrier “completely surrounds Bethlehem, turning the ‘little town' where Christ was born into what its residents call ‘an open air prison.'”

In fact, the security barrier does not “completely surround” Bethlehem, because if it did, it would be cut off completely from the rest of the West Bank. It isn't.
 
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. This is a favored lie of anti-Israel propagandists. Simon worked on this program for months, spending time in Bethlehem. He could see for himself the barrier doesn't encircle the town. If he can't be trusted to get the facts straight on something as obvious as this, it's hardly surprising he got so much else wrong.
 
Simon also reports that for Palestinians, “leaving Bethlehem is a struggle” and that going to Jerusalem means going through an Israeli checkpoint, which can take hours, and that in some instances, they are not allowed to enter Israel at all.
 
Simon's expectation that Palestinians living in the West Bank should have easy access to Jerusalem is unrealistic. Palestinians have been in an effective state of war with Israel for decades. During the Second Intifada, Palestinian terrorists were responsible for the deaths of more than 1,000 Israeli civilians and weapons are found at checkpoints on a regular basis.

It is simply unreasonable for Simon to expect that it would be easy for Palestinians to enter into Israel under these conditions.

Simon's most obnoxious moment came when he complained about the Ambassador calling his boss, Jeffrey Fager, head of CBS news and executive producer of 60 Minutes about the segment before it aired. Simon stated that he has been doing his job a long time and that “he's never gotten a reaction before from a story that hasn't been broadcast yet.”

This is newsworthy? Christians are being murdered in Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria and Simon's scoop – his big reveal before he signs off – is that Oren called his boss to complain about a story that hasn't aired yet?

This is simply outrageous. Simon and his producer, Harry Radliffe failed to treat the subject they were covering with the seriousness it requires.

They owe the American people an apology for their journalistic misdeeds.


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