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Catholic Order Offers Sabeel Narrative in Chivalric Garb


The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is a Catholic lay order founded during the Crusades to protect Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land from Muslim violence. Today, the order is dedicated to promoting the welfare of Christians in the Holy Land and to supporting the works of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. According to this video, the order enjoys the support of 27,000 members throughout the world and has donated more than $60 million to Catholic schools, orphanages, health clinics and other institutions that help Christians and Muslims in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The order is comprised of connected and well-to-do Catholics who are able to afford the substantial entrance fee required of new members and who are able to sustain the annual oblation required of existing members. In addition to supporting Christians in the Holy Land, the order places a great emphasis on its ceremonial regalia as can be seen here and here.

New Grand Master in 2011

With the appointment of Cardinal Edwin O'Brien as the order's Grand Master in August, 2011, Pope Benedict sent a clear message that the welfare of Christians in the Holy Land was of prime importance to the Vatican. Prior to his appointment, Cardinal O'Brien was serving as Archbishop of Baltimore, the premier (or first) archdiocese established in America, and was expected to remain in this post until his retirement.

At a press conference announcing his new post, Cardinal O'Brien admitted that his new appointment came as a shock and represented a sacrifice for a man who expected to spend the rest of his career in Baltimore. O'Brien reconciled himself to his transfer after concluding that his new appointment, (which came less than four years after he was appointed Archbishop of Baltimore), underscored just how important the post was to the Vatican. “To remove a resident bishop of a major diocese to a task such as this shows the priority the Holy Father has and that I better have in my life,” he said.

John Allen, a journalist who covers the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter, heralded O'Brien's appointment as Grand Master of the order with a call for the organization to advocate more effectively for Christians in the Middle East. “Here's hoping O'Brien brings the same ‘tell-it-like-it-is' style to his new job as pro-Grand master of the Equestrian order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem because embattled Christians of the Middle East desperately need a real political heavyweight to take up their cause.” O'Brien's new post, Allen wrote, “could become the ‘tip of the spear' for a far more concentrated and effective global response to the realities facing Christians in today's Middle East.”

Allen left no doubt that Islamist violence against Christians in the Middle East was one of the “realities” that he hoped the order would confront under O'Brien's leadership. In his piece, he referred explicitly to Egypt where Christians “are afraid that the democratic promise of the Arab Spring will give way to an Islamic theocracy dominated by Salafists, who openly describe Christian Churches as ‘mafias harboring weapons and sinners.'” Allen continued:

In some ways, Egypt, could turn into a replay of Iraq, which was itself home to a large Christian community estimated at roughly two million prior to the first Gulf War in 1991. Today the best guess is that perhapts 400,000 Christians remain, meaning that Iraq has lost roughly two-thirds of its Christian population in the arc of just two decades.

Unfortunately, it appears that Allen's hopes that the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre would become an effective advocate for Christians in the Middle East under O'Brien's leadership are in vain.

The “tell-it-like it is” approach that Cardinal O'Brien used in public issues prior to his appointment as the order's Grand Master has not trickled down to the organization's leadership in North America.

Sabeel Message in Chivalric Garb

A close examination of the information broadcast by the Order to its members in North America about the status of Christians in the Holy Land indicates that the organization is afflicted with an obsession with Israel and an inability or unwillingness to tackle Islamist violence against Christians head-on.

In other words, the organization is telling the same story offered by Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center and its supporters in the United States.

This sad reality is particularly evident in a video about the status of Christians in the Holy Land produced by Jeff Abood, education master of the Cleveland section of the order's North Central Lieutenancy. (The order's members in the U.S. are divided into nine different regions or “lieutenancies.”)

Abood, who also serves as the coordinator for Friends of Sabeel North America in Ohio, has produced a Powerpoint presentation which he gave to the North Central Lieutenancy of the Order at its meeting in Indianapolis in September. A video of this presentation, posted on the Order's U.S. website, is rife with factual misstatements, material omissions and distortions all of which serve to portray Israel in an unfairly harsh light.

For example, in the presentation, Abood falsely reports that Qassam rockets are “non-exploding.” (More about this below.) To make matters worse, Abood goes out of his way to downplay well-documented Muslim hostility toward Christians in the Holy Land. (Again, more about this below.)

Population Distortions

The premise of Abood's presentation is that the Christian population in the Holy Land – which includes Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, is declining and that this decline is the result of Israeli policies.

Like other commentators on this subject, Abood reports that the percentage of Christians in the overall population is declining, but fails to inform his audience that in absolute numbers, the Christian population in the Holy Land has actually increased since Israel's creation in 1948.

In the video, Abood states “Since 1948, the Christian population has gone historically from around 18 percent to less than two percent today – actually probably closer to about one and a half percent now. So we're going to look at why they're leaving.”

With this statement, Abood obscures a number of important facts.

First, he fails to report to his viewers that Israel's Christian population has in fact, increased since its founding. Here are the numbers:

In 1949, there were 34,000 Christians living in Israel. The vast majority of them were Arab.

At the end of 2011, there were approximately 155,000 Christians living in Israel. Of this total population of Christians, 125,000 were Arab, or indigenous to Israel.

In other words, Israel's population of indigenous Christians has increased by 91,000 over the past six decades – a remarkable increase in a region where Christians are being oppressed and driven from the region on a daily basis.

Christians in West Bank, Bethlehem

Abood also fails to report that the population of Christians in the West Bank, which was declining under Jordanian rule, has increased since Israel took control of the West Bank after the Six Day War in 1967.

Here are the numbers for Christian population for the entire West Bank compiled by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) in a 2011 report:

1945

1961

1967

1995

2006

2007

59,160

45,849

42,494

51,563

48,800

51,710

The number of Christians in Bethlehem (both the city and the district), have also increased slightly since Israel took control of the West Bank in 1967. The JCPA reports that “In Bethlehem City, the Christian population dropped under Jordanian rule. Since 1967, it as grown by 11% on the city and by 56% in the district.” Here is a breakdown of the numbers compiled by the JCPA:

Year

Bethlehem (City)

Bethlehem (District)

1945

6,490

14,800

1961

7,246

15,234

1967

6,405

14,406

1995

6,799

20,487

2007

7,140

22,440

The numbers, compiled from a number of sources – including Palestinian organizations such as Sabeel Ecumenical and Liberation Theology Center and the Diyar Institute – indicate that the population of Christians in the West Bank declined under Jordanian rule, recovered for a while under Israeli rule, and then started to decline after Yassir Arafat took control of the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s. The population started to recover again in the years after his death.

Abood's False Premise

These numbers, taken together, undermine the entire premise of Abood's presentation – that the Palestinian Christian population is “declining” because of Israeli policies. Overall, the trend under Israeli control is one of increase, not decrease.

Yes, the percentage of Christians as part of the entire population of the Holy Land is declining, but this is due in large part to the growth of the Muslim and Jewish populations in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

How can Abood deprive his audience of these basic facts in good conscience? The raison d'Ítre of the order's existence is to help the Christians in the Holy Land, and yet nowhere in his presentation does he even tell his fellow members how many Christians there are in this area!

How can this be? How can this be?

Islamist Hostility Toward Christians Downplayed

In the video, Abood asserts “one of the biggest misnomers about this is that Christians are leaving the Holy Land because of the Muslims and that's not true.” He also states that

Holy Land relations are good between Christians and the Muslims and you can tell by over the last fifteen hundred years the population has always been a stable percentage of the population. It has only been the last 60 years that this has really begun to decline. And even today, many of the elected leaders, Palestinian leaders are Christians. Many of them are mayors of the large cities and towns and they are elected because they enjoy a wide base of support even though Christians are the minority.

In addition to reaffirming his distorted narrative about the population of Christians in the Holy Land, Abood also offers a rosy image of Christian-Muslim relations in Palestinian society. In fact, Palestinian Christians have been the target of violence at the hands of Muslim extremists in the Holy Land for at least the past decade.

A few examples:

In 2005, more than a dozen homes in the West Bank town of Taybeh were burnt to the ground by a Muslim mob. This act of arson was perpetrated by Muslims outraged over a romantic affair between a Christianman and a Muslim woman.In an article linked to above, Ha'aretzreported 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.

More recently, on August 20, 2012, Christians living in a housing project in Bethpage built by the Latin Patriarchate were attacked by Muslim youths. You can see articles about the attack here and here.

In July 2012, Christians protested against forced conversions in the Gaza Strip. UPI reported in July 2012 the following:

Christians in Gaza protested the abduction of a young man, saying he is being forced to convert to Islam by an armed group, a Greek Orthodox official says.
 
The protesters staged a sit-in Monday outside a Gaza church, alleging a Christian man and two girls recently had been kidnapped, the Palestinian news agency Ma'an reported Tuesday.
 
Archbishop Alexios said Ramiz al-Amash was kidnapped by an Islamist group Saturday after attempts were made to convert him to Islam. The archbishop said al-Amash was also prevented from calling his family. "The young man's parents went to the police to lodge a complaint about the kidnapping of their son, but it [police] did nothing," Archbishop Alexios told the Palestinian news agency.
 
"There are some groups trying to persuade young Christians to convert to Islam. They abduct them away from their parents and their families. They threaten them," he said.
 
The archbishop said al-Amash's family contacted the kidnappers and the mother was permitted to see her son who was surrounded by gunmen and then taken away, Ma'an said.
 
Some 3,000 Christians live in the Gaza Strip.

Khaled Abu Toameh, an Israeli Arab who has been quite critical of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, wrote about this episode in an article published in July 2012 available here.

And in 2007, a Palestinian Baptist minister Rami Khader Ayyad, whose bookstore had been firebombed by Islamists, was murdered by unknown gunmen. The Christian Post reported the following about the attack:

Witnesses and security officials associated with the Executive Force of the Islamic group Hamas told the Sun that Ayyad – who was the director of Gaza's only Christian bookstore – was publicly beaten a few blocks from his store before being shot to death.
 
The witnesses reportedly said they saw three armed men, two of them wearing masks, beat Ayyad repeatedly with clubs and the butts of their guns while accusing him of attempting to spread Christianity in Gaza. The witnesses said that after the three men beat Ayyad, they all shot him.
 
In light of all these acts of Muslim-on-Christian violence, it should come as no surprise that Church officials – Catholic and Protestant – contradict Abood's assessment that Holy Land relations between Christians and Muslims as “good.”

Testimony From Custos Contradicts Abood's Story

For example, 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. Chiesa quoted Fr. Pizzaballa as follows:

“What do you mean by difficulties between Israel and the Vatican? We Christians in the Holy Land have other problems. Almost every day – I repeat, almost every day – our communities are harassed by the Islamic extremists in these regions. And if it's not the members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, there are clashes with the 'rubber wall' of the Palestinian Authority, which does little or nothing to punish those responsible. On occasion, we have even discovered among our attackers the police agents of Mahmoud Abbas or the militants of Fatah, his political party, who are supposed to be defending us.”

In its coverage of this story Father Pizzabella's remarks, The Telegraph (London) 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."

Palestinian Evangelicals Contradict Abood's Story

Evangelical Protestant leaders have also spoken about Islamist hostility toward Christians. Attendees at The Christ at the Checkpoint Conference organized by Bethlehem Bible College in March of 2012 heard similar testimony. At this conference, Evangelical leaders acknowledged that Muslim hostility toward Christians is a problem.

Pastor Nihad Salman, who serves as a pastor in Beit Jala, testified 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 the following at the same conference: "There are pressures. There is discrimination. The dhimma system is a system of discrimination. We do not deny that."

After the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference, similar testimony was offered by with Rev. Steven Khoury, a Baptist minister who preaches in both Israel and the West Bank including at his father's congregation, the First Baptist Church of Bethlehem, which has been firebombed numerous times over the years. Rev. Khoury reported thatthere is a sense among Christians in Bethlehem that anti-Christian animus has gotten worse in the city over the past few years. “People are always telling them, ‘Convert to Islam. Convert to Islam. It's the true and right religion,'” he said.

In light of this testimony – some of it coming from a high-ranking Catholic official – Abood's description of relations between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land as “good” is simply untenable.

Downplays Rocket Attacks

Abood also downplays the physical threat and psychological impact of rockets fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip.

In his presentation, Abood reports that Qassam rockets are “non-exploding.”

This is simply false.

Qassam rockets, which have been fired into Israel on a regular basis since 2001, carry explosive warheads and do explode. In an August 2009 report, Human Rights Watch stated that the warhead of a Qassam rocket “consists of a metal shell containing an explosive made from urea nitrate, found in fertilizers, and TNT. The fuse comes from a small arms cartridge.” HRW also stated in this report that the rockets have a maximum range of 10 kilometers and carry a payload of “up to 20 kilograms.”

Moreover, Abood makes no reference to other rocket designs such as the Grad rocket, which can carry a warhead of up to 28 kilograms. HRW reports that one version of the Grad rocket “can be augmented with a blast fragmentation warhead containing 4,000 steel balls, which can be lethal over a radius of about 100 meters.”

In addition to falsely reporting that Qassam rockets are “non-exploding,” Abood cites an unnamed report from the Israeli organization B'Tselem that indicate that Palestinian rockets kill “two to three people a year.” He continues:

So one important thing to remember about the violence is that it's a very small percentage of what happens there, which is one of the reasons why tens of thousands of pilgrims can go safely every year to the Holy Land because the violence is so isolated, even though it makes the headlines all the time.”

The number of deaths caused by rockets fired from the Gaza Strip provided by Abood is incorrect. Below are the correct figures of deaths caused by rockets from the Gaza Strip for the past few years. (The figures are provided by the IDF)

2006: 9 killed, 371 injured.
2007: 10 killed, 578 injured.
2008: 15 killed, 611 injured.
2009: 2 killed, 11 injured
2010: 5 killed, 35 injured.
2011: 3 killed, 81 injured.
2012: 6 killed, 284 injured

Minimizing the number of deaths (and omitting the injuries altogether) is bad enough, but Abood's description of the violence against Israel as a “small percentage of what happens here” and as “isolated” is outrageous and irresponsible.

More than one million Israelis live within range of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. These Israelis have been terrorized for years as a result of rockets and mortar rounds being launched from the Gaza Strip. These rockets are fired from territory controlled by Hamas, an organization that has repeatedly declared its intention to destroy Israel, a fact that Abood does not mention during the presentation.

The violence is not “isolated” as Abood describes it. Children living in places like Ashkelon (population 118,000), Sderot (pop. 21,000) are experiencing nightmares because of the rocket attacks. The Human Rights Watch report cited above says the following about these rocket attacks:

The rocket attacks have caused civilian casualties and property damage. Civilian structures damaged in recent attacks include a kindergarten, a synagogue and private homes. An Israeli early warning siren system, which gives civilians roughly 10 to 45 seconds to find cover in prepared shelters, depending on their distance from the launch site in Gaza, has undoubtedly limited the number of civilian casualties. However, the repeated attacks have, over months and even years, taken a psychological toll on the population in areas close to Gaza. The laws of war prohibit attacks the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population. Because of the rocket attacks, thousands of people have moved away from frequently targeted areas such as Sderot municipality. (Emphasis added.)

Abood's failure to acknowledge this reality is inexcusable and unjust.

Conclusion

These are just some of the problems with Abood's presentation, which is not the only bit of evidence indicating the organization has allowed itself to be used to attack Israel. A look at the websites for the organization's lieutenancies indicates that the organization has embraced the Sabeel narrative about Israel lock, stock and barrel.

The issue facing the leaders of Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is this: Do they want their organization to be used to “tell it like it” is when addressing issues of importance to Christians in the Holy Land, or do they want their time, energy and money used to attack Israel with misinformation and to downplay Islamist hostility toward Christians in Palestinian society?

What will they choose?


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