Bethlehem Conference Promotes Submissive Dhimmi Narrative

If the testimony offered at the Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) Conference last month in Bethlehem is reliable, Christianity is a religion that allows – and encourages – its adherents to malign the Jewish homeland while behaving in a submissive manner toward Muslim extremists who are oppressing and killing Christians in Muslim- countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.

This isn’t to say that speakers at last month’s conference in Bethlehem didn’t talk about the violence Christians have suffered at the hands of Islamists or Muslim governments throughout the world.

They talked about it at length.

Attendees heard from Colin Chapman, CATC’s go-to scholar on Islam, about the long history of Christianity’s decline in the Middle East, largely, but not entirely, as a result of the rise of Islam in the region.

Chapman described in some detail, the anti-Christian and anti-Jewish passages in both the Koran and the Hadiths. He spoke about how some, but not all, Muslims, put more credence in the violent passages of the Koran because they came later in Muhammad’s career and therefore abrogate the earlier, more peaceful passages of Islam’s holy book.

And Chapman reported that while Muslims in minority situations do not express a desire to establish an Islamic state, “it’s hard to deny that a basic instinct in the minds of most Muslims is, in the words of Kenneth Cragg, ‘Islam must rule.’”

It didn’t stop there.

CATC Conference director Munther Isaac was particularly harsh in his assessment of what’s going on in Syria, where Christians are being beheaded and survivors forced to pay a jizya or special tax for the privilege of keeping their heads on their shoulders.

“Religious and sectarian violence is at a rise in this part of the world,” Isaac said. We are all troubled and disgusted by the barbaric massacres we see in Syria today. Muslims kill Christians simply because they are Christians.” Isaac even reported “Muslims even kill Muslims if they do not belong to the same sect. You see the violence of Sunni versus Shiite.”

Another speaker, Joseph Cumming, spoke about the ethnic cleansing of Christians from Iraq since 2003.

His Grace Bishop Angaelos from the United Kingdom talked about the destruction of churches and the murder of Coptic Christians by radical Muslims in Egypt. He displayed harrowing photos depicting the aftermath of these attacks.

William Wilson, president of Oral Roberts University summed up what is happening to Christians in the Middle East during his Tuesday, March 11, 2014 his talk at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference as follows:

We’re meeting at this conference during a time Christianity is under attack throughout the Middle East. We’ve heard tonight of thousands of our brothers and sisters are being persecuted and dying for their faith just miles from here. Religious freedom is under attack globally especially in this part of the world. Middle Eastern Christians are suffering under the hands of radical fundamentalists and are experiencing this attack in acute ways. In many places the Arab Spring, not in every place, but in many places, the Arab Spring has turned into the Christian Winter.

But instead of holding Muslims directly accountable for the violence they perpetrated, speakers directed their ire at Israel, its Christian supporters and at Christians in both the West and the Middle East who have allegedly failed to be loving enough to Muslims who oppress and murder Christians. The conference gave its audience a heavy dose of magical thinking in which authentic expressions of Christian love toward Islamists could bring about peace and justice.

Munther Isaac was one speaker who did condemn Islamist violence directly. But even he used the problem of Islamist violence against Christians – and the theology used to justify it – as a pretext to justify the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, as if there is some sort of equivalence between Jewish and Islamic behavior and theology toward outsiders.

He also put forth a “share-the-land” theology that sounded a lot like a one-state solution. In Isaac’s view the main obstacle to the peace that would be brought about by adhering to this theology was not Islamist hostility toward non-Muslims, but the “occupation.”

In sum, CATC organizers and speakers used the growing concern over Islamist violence against Christians in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia to fuel disdain toward Jewish sovereignty and the force used to protect it in the region.

Blaming Jews and Christians for the actions of Muslims is pretty irrational, but that is the logic of the “narrative” offered last month’s “peacemaking” conference organized by Bethlehem Bible College, a non-denominational Protestant school located just a few minutes by foot from the Church of the Nativity located on the site where Christian tradition reports that Jesus was born (and where St. Jerome produced the Vulgate Bible). It was the third such conference organized by the school with the first taking place in 2010 and the second taking place in 2012.

Dhimmi Narrative

The message offered at this conference is not a true representation of Christianity, but it does have precedent. The story told at the 2014 Christ at the Checkpoint Conference mimics attitudes of denial, self-blame and humiliation embraced by Christians, Jews and other religious minorities living as dhimmis in Muslim-majority environments for the past 1,400 years.

Here some background is necessary. The word “dhimmi” is derived from dhimma, an Arabic word for what has been characterized as a “treaty of protection” historically offered to non-Muslims whose countries have been conquered by Muslim rulers.

This treaty or pact accorded non-Muslims limited protection from violence, but only if they acknowledged Muslims as their social superiors and showed proper deference toward Islam and its adherents. In some instances, dhimmis were required to wear stars denoting that they were not Muslims and were not allowed to build or repair churches that had fallen into disarray. The sociological status – and psychology – of people who have lived under this treaty is described as dhimmitude.

If non-Muslims agitate for freedom and equality, they lose the protection afforded by the dhimma pact and arouse great hostility on the part of their Muslim neighbors and governments. Historically, this hostility manifested itself in great acts of violence against Christians during the collapsing Ottoman Empire where huge numbers of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians were murdered in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These massacres took place after these groups advocated for their freedom and
equality in the 1870s.

In The Lost Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died (2008, HarperCollins Ebooks), scholar Philip Jenkins writes that “The savagery of Muslim regimes must be understood as a manifestation of the shock and outrage they felt at the resistance of peoples they had come to view as natural inferiors.” (Colin Chapman quoted from this section of the book during his talk.)

The dhimma pact and the implicit threat of violence associated with it had a real impact on non-Muslims. In her book, Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide (2002, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press), Bat Ye’or writes:

The law required from dhimmis a humble demeanor, eyes lowered, a hurried pace. They had to give way to Muslims in the street, remaining standing in their presence and keep silent, only speaking to them when given permission. They were forbidden to defend themselves if attacked, or to raise a hand against a Muslim on pain of having it amputated. Any criticism of the Koran and Islamic law annulled the protection pact. In addition, the dhimmi was duty bound to be grateful, since it was Islamic law that spared his life.

In sum, dhimmi communities, who have suffered terribly under various manifestations of Islamic supremacism over the centuries, have learned to downplay the suffering they have endured and remain silent about its causes, much like an abused housewife learns not to say things that offend her violent, abusive husband for fear of provoking more violence. The problem is not with the abuser, but with those who draw attention to the abuse.

For example, Franz Werfel, an Austrian Jew, was burned in effigy in 1935 by Armenians living in Turkey after the publication of his book, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (2012, Verba Mundi). This book offered a fictionalized account of Armenian villagers successfully defending themselves from an impending massacre at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1915.

Edward Minasian author of Musa Dagh (2007, Cold River Studio) writes “A history of prejudice and persecution under Turkish rule had cowed the Armenians there into obedience on the premise of self-preservation.”

Quoting a translation of an article published in the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, Minasian reports that a group of Turkish Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul “placed a photo of Werfel and a copy his book on a pile of wood shavings before a large crowd of Armenians” and a prominent Armenian journalist set them on fire while the choir of a local church and students “sang the Turkish national anthem.” The Cumhuriyet article reports that a prominent Armenian made the following speech “to an ever-increasing crowd”:

Citizens, the Turkish Armenians, who learned from the newspapers that a book had been written, full of slander against the noble Turkish nation, decided to strongly condemn the courage of this insolent man without a country and who has, for purely personal interests, capitalized on the name of the Armenians.
We wish to make it public to the world that the fate of those who try to create trouble is death, and this we did by burning the photo and the book, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, by the cursed Franz Werfel, who has plotted against our sacred country. By this action, the Turkish Armenians have actually proved their hearty attachment to this glorious country, which has been turned into a paradise by Ataturk, our great President of the Republic, and in which country they have lived a brotherly life for the first time in hundreds of years. Down with those who use their tongues and hands against Turkey.”
In the name of the Turkish Armenian intellectuals, Ashot Kecyan and Aram Arslan expressed these same sentiments in a telegram to the Ministry of the Interior. (Minasian, 113-114)

Sadly, Palestinian Christians have shown similar obsequiousness to the Palestinian Authority at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference.

Such are the effects of dhimmitude.

Dhimmitude Out of the Closet

As much as Palestinian Christian clergy want to deny it, dhimmitude is a problem in the communities they lead, just as it is in the rest of the Middle East. Colin Chapman described the problem during his talk about the prospects of Christianity’s survival in the Middle East.

Two years ago, when I was teaching a course on Islam at a master’s program at Bethlehem Bible College, one of the group summed up her feelings about her Muslim neighbors: ‘We’re wounded.’ A Lebanese Christian said to me some years ago, ‘We fear them and despise them at the same time.’ These words may not express the feelings of every Christian in the Middle East and there are good historical reasons why many do feel this way.
But wherever there is hurt or fear or arrogance in our hearts, do we not need to ask the Holy Spirit to work through our fears and prejudices? If Jesus was able to change the attitude of his Jewish disciples toward Samaritans, can he not change our attitudes toward Muslims today?”

This wasn’t the last time Chapman called on Christians to work on their attitudes toward Muslims. During the question and answer period, when Chapman was asked if Palestinian Christians had failed to “engage Muslim society,” he told the following story:

When I was first teaching this course at Bethlehem Bible College two and a half years ago, I wanted to take the whole class to have tea with the imam at the mosque which is just two minutes from the college. Am I allowed to say that some of the students were very reluctant to do so and needed quite a lot of persuasion? In the end, I’m glad to say all of them came and we had a pleasant hour in the salon of the imam beside the mosque. […] I simply wanted to say that I understand the legacy of fourteen hundred years of difficult relations living as dhimmis under Islam. I understand that, but I also think that we Christians in this part of the world have got to reach out to Muslims as human beings, as friends, as neighbors and find new ways of relating to the
m. (Emphasis added.)

Chapman was not the only speaker to chide Christians for their failure to be sufficiently loving and kind to Islamists. Rev. Joseph Cumming, a missionary who has worked in the Muslim world as a development worker offered a similar message.

I want to conclude with asking the question that I think this conference is really all about. It’s the question of what Jesus would do in relation to Islamic governments, Islamic states, Islamist political movements. What attitude would Jesus have, what questions would Jesus ask?
When Christians think about Muslims and when Christians think about Islamic governments, do we primarily think about how to avoid being persecuted by them?
Do we primarily think about how to avoid being killed by Islamist militants?
Or on the contrary do we perhaps ask how we can show our Muslim neighbor the love of Jesus Christ?
How can we share with our Muslim neighbors Jesus’ message of grace and forgiveness?
I think you’ll agree many Christians are focused on the first two questions … and actually Jesus would have us focus on the last two questions.

In the context of what has happened – and what is happening – in the Middle East, Chapman and Cumming’s chiding of Christians for not being friendlier to their Muslim neighbors is akin to blaming the victim of domestic abuse for not doing a better job connecting to his or her abuser.

Yes, reaching out to Muslims as human beings is important, but at some point, Christians have a right, and an obligation to challenge them about what is happening to Christians in their societies.

No, not every Muslim abuses or oppresses Christians. And principled Muslims are struggling against the problem of anti-Christian violence. But given the history of Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East, who really needs to work on “finding new ways of relating” to their neighbors – Christians or Muslims? In the abstract, one can reasonably assert that both communities need to address the problem of prejudice but where is the problem of prejudice more urgent in the concrete world?

Intermarriage Ducked

While Chapman was more forthcoming about the impact of Islam on Christianity in 2014 than he was in 2012, he still found it necessary to stay quiet about a troubling aspect of Christian Muslim relations in Palestinian society – intermarriage between Christians and Muslims. When asked about the issue he ducked it: “I think I would say as somebody coming from outside, ‘I wouldn’t dare to answer something as specific as that,’” he said to applause and laughter.

How convenient. Citing a 2000 study of 120 mixed marriages in Palestinian society, by Abe Ata, a Palestinian Christian, Rev. Dr. Mark Durie, an Anglican priest and scholar who resides in Australia, reports the following in his 2010 book, The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom (Deror):

The overwhelming pattern, in 96 percent of cases, is that Christian women are marrying Muslim men. Usually the children are raised as Muslims, and more often than not the wives convert to Islam. All this is in conformity with the Sharia [which prohibits non-Muslim men from marrying Muslim women and does not allow Muslims to convert to other religions].
What is remarkable is that although this fundamental asymmetry is foundational for understanding Palestinian mixed marriages, it is rendered almost invisible in Ata’s book. Not until the final few pages is the religious gender imbalance acknowledged clearly. In its suppression of the contribution of the Sharia to Palestinian mixed marriages, Ata’s work is a breathtakingly consistent exercise in denial.

Maybe the asymmetry that Durie highlighted has been reduced in the 14 years since Ata’s book was published, but it’s unlikely. Chapman had good reason to duck the question because answering the question would expose the power imbalance between Muslims and Christians in Palestinian society.

In sum, there was a substantial emphasis on the evils of Christian prejudice toward Muslims in the Middle East, but Israel was the ultimate target of the conference’s obloquy.

The Logo Same as It Ever Was

One of the conference’s most obvious, and pernicious, methods of anti-Israel demonization is its logo. The logo, which was displayed on a banner behind every one of the speakers during the five-day conference, just like it was at the last conference, depicted a cross at the front of a church building juxtaposed with a guard tower from Israel’s security barrier in the West Bank. In the foreground on a new version of this logo – displayed on folders and bookmarks distributed to attendees – were two Palestinians, a man wearing a keffiyah and a young boy, planting a tree.

The message given by this logo – which is becoming a brand as recognizable as the Nike swoosh or Coca-Cola logo – is that the Israeli-built security barrier is an obstacle to God’s purposes for humanity in the Middle East, but that the Palestinians continue to do God’s will by laboring for a better future for themselves and their neighbors despite what those mean, exclusivist, wall-building Israelis have done to them.

In this “Israelis are mean, Palestinians are nice,” narrative offered by Christ at the Checkpoint, Palestinians are like Jesus who spread his gospel of hope in the midst of the Roman occupation of the Holy Land, which today is embodied by the modern state of Israel and its security barrier.

Lies About the Security Barrier

Given that the security barrier plays such a central role in the narrative offered at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference, it seems reasonable to expect that the barrier would be described accurately. Wrong.

Qustandi Shomali, a professor at Bethlehem University, Vera Baboun, mayor of Bethlehem, and Sami Awad, executive director of Holy Land Trust, all falsely claimed tha
t the security barrier completely surrounds Bethlehem. The wall does not encircle the city, but separates it from Jerusalem, the scene of numerous terror attacks during the Second Intifada.

Baboun offered her version of this lie from the podium on the first night of the conference, while Qustandi offered it in a video shown during the conference. Awad said it repeatedly in a promotional video for the Holy Land Trust shown on the last day of the conference:

Today Bethlehem is a city that is completely surrounded by walls and fences. The wall just completely engulfs the city. Living in the wall is like living in a big prison where you are deemed guilty and that’s why you live in this prison. Every day we see the wall. It’s very big and very ugly, completely surrounding us, completely engulfing us. (Emphasis added.)

What makes Awad’s falsehood so troubling is that it was displayed to the attendees at the conference three days after this writer complained to him about Baboun and Shomali’s utterance of this falsehood.

It took some wrangling, but during the conversation, which took place the evening of March 11, 2014, Awad acknowledged that the security barrier does not completely surround Bethlehem. He admitted it.

But three days later – on March 14, 2014 – Awad appeared in a video, produced by the organization he directs, Holy Land Trust, falsely stating that the barrier completely surrounds the city. To be sure, the video was produced before the start of the conference, but it’s not as if Awad didn’t know the truth when he made the video.

He lives and works in Bethlehem.

One also has to wonder about the involvement of Porter Speakman, Jr., CATC media director and the producer of the 2010 movie, With God on Our Side in broadcasting these lies about the barrier.

The CATC 2014 program describes Speakman as “producing several short films for the conference.” In tweets responding to a challenge about his role in producing the videos, Speakman said he did not make the Holy Land Trust (Awad) video and that he never “met” Shomali. But not having “met” Shomali does not absolve Speakman from his responsibility for producing a video that includes a falsehood. It could have been left out of the version shown to the audience. Speakman included it.

Why Not Tell Truth About Qalqilya?

In order to understand why this lie is so offensive, it also helps to know that there is, in fact, a city in the West Bank – Qalqilya – that is surrounded by a wall, which received little, if any attention at the conference.

Why is it that the speakers did not tell the truth about Qalqilya but instead chose to lie about Bethlehem?

The answer is simple: Jesus was not born in Qalqilya, but in Bethlehem. This is crucial. The fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem is was one of the factors that helped draw people to the conference. During the worship service held on the morning of Tuesday, March 11, 2014, the first full day of the conference, they were asked to thank God that “Christ was born just a few minutes from here.”

In sum, the conference combined a lie – that the Israelis have built a security barrier completely surrounding Bethlehem – with a theological understanding of the city as the city of Christ’s birth, the place where God chose to become incarnate.

The combination of this lie about the barrier with the theological understanding of Bethlehem has undeniable echoes of the age-old Christian doctrine that the Jewish people are an obstacle to God’s purposes. It’s as if the Israelis are trying to either stop Mary and Joseph from entering the city so that she can safely give birth to the infant Jesus, or as if the Israelis are trying to keep the infant Jesus trapped in the city itself.

Barrier Defended

One speaker, Oded Shoshani, a Jewish-born Israeli who serves as a pastor at a Messianic Jewish congregation (King of Kings in Jerusalem), provided a direct and vocal response to the ongoing efforts to demonize Israel and its security barrier. During his talk, he told attendees that he was sure they had seen the wall and the security fence, which he acknowledged was “an unpleasant reality for the Palestinian people.”

He then said that any effort to promote justice and peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians must be rooted in truth and in an effort to arrive at the truth, Shoshani asked a number of “what if?” questions about the conflict. After asking what would have happened if Palestinians and the Arab nations had not attacked Israel in 1948 and 1967, Shoshani reminded attendees about the violence that preceded the barrier’s construction:

What if the Palestinian people would have not sent dozens of suicide bombers between the years 2000 and 2005, killing almost 1,200 Israelis? These bombs were aimed at civilians, women and children, [killing] 1,200, twice the occupancy of this hall, which is about 600 I’m told. These bombs also injured some 8,000 Israelis and that’s why the fence and the wall was built. It wasn’t built with a huge massive financial expense for the sake of oppressing the Palestinian people. It was built for the defense of the people of Israel.

Shoshani then reminded the audience that many suicide bombers were caught before they exploded, saving many other Israeli lives. “So in light of the abovementioned historical data, just facts what should Biblical justice in the land of Israel […] look like? My understanding of Biblical or Godly justice [is that it] should be comprehensive, that it’s not one-sided.” Some members of the audience responded with disdain to Shoshani’s defense of the barrier.

Jonathan Kuttab, who moderated the question and answer period after Shoshani’s talk, asked how he could give the barrier credit for reducing suicide attacks. There are many breaches in the wall and people sneak through it all the time, he said.

“The answer is very simple and very short,” Shoshani said. “Statistics. Between 2000 and 2005, almost twelve hundred Jews were murdered by suicide bombers. After 2005, the numbers dropped by something like 99 percent.”

Kuttab, interrupted, reporting that Palestinians say that this reduction is due to other reasons that have nothing to do with the wall, which people still manage to get through. The reduction is because Palestinians stopped doing suicide bombings or that maybe Israeli intelligence is capturing would be terrorists better, “but not the wall,” he said.

Shoshani responded by reminding the audience that most of the barrier is made up of a fence. He also acknowledged that some terrorists are
caught by Israeli intelligence after they have gotten through the barrier. Shoshani ended his defense of the barrier by reiterating his point that the reduction of suicide attacks demonstrated the wall’s efficacy.

Shoshani’s statements about the barrier are backed up by statements made by leaders of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in 2006, 2007 and 2008 that the barrier made it much harder to perpetrate suicide attacks against Israel.

The discussion between Kuttab and Shoshani took place, against repeated and false assertions that the barrier completely surrounds Bethlehem.

One has to wonder why Awad, Qustandi and Baboun made such reckless and easily contradicted statements about the security barrier encircling. Why did Awad allow the Holy Land Trust video to be broadcast on the last day of the conference, which included a statement he admitted wasn’t true just a few days before?

To answer this question, it is important to remember that Christians are in a precarious position in Palestinian society. This is particularly true for Evangelical churches, which operate at the sufferance of the Palestinian Authority, which has yet to recognize their legitimacy.

Rights of Churches Under PA – The Real Story Comes Out

The precarious social position of Evangelical churches in the West Bank was revealed at the opening of the conference, when Munir Kakish, the leader of the Council of Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land called on the Palestinian Authority to recognize Evangelical churches and accord them their civil rights. “As a religious group, we are still unable to practice our basic civil rights, to issue marriage certificates, register our church properties in the name of the church, or even open bank accounts to manage the churches’ financial affairs,” he said.

Before and after complaining about the lack of rights for Evangelical Churches under the PA, Kakish affirmed Evangelical support for Palestinian leaders in an obsequious manner.

Before his complaint, Kakish said, “We have full confidence in our beloved Mr. Mahmoud Abbas our president and our Prime Minister Dr. Rami Hamdallah who have been [informed] about our council and our plea […] for recognition.”

And after complaining about the lack of Evangelical rights, Kakish said, “We are Palestinian citizens who give our allegiance to the President and the Palestinian state. We are hopeful that President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority will grant us this recognition. We fully support the policies of our president and the prime minister and the government.”

These are not the words of a leader demanding an end to the injustice suffered by the community he serves.

These are the words of a dhimmi bowing and scraping before his betters.

Story Has Changed

Kakish’s 2014 plea for more rights contradicts with what attendees were told at the 2012 CATC conference.

When introducing Salaam Fayyad, then Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority to the audience at the 2012 Christ at the Checkpoint conference, organizer Munther Isaac said Palestinian Christians “have always enjoyed the support of the Palestinian leaders” and that they “worship with freedom and exercise [their] rights like all Palestinians.”

Isaac was speaking from the same podium that Munir Kakish spoke from two years later. (Go here to watch a video of Dr. Isaac’s introduction of Fayyad at the 2012 conference. And for a transcription of the obsequious manner in which Dr. Isaac introduced Fayyad at this conference, go here.)

To make matters even more confusing, during his 2014 talk Isaac contradicted what he said in 2012 when he said that Palestinian Christians “have fought for years against this unjust Islamic dhimma law that treated Christians and Jews as second-class citizens as [a] different category.”

In 2012 Isaac says Palestinian Christians enjoy their rights and in 2014, he says that his community has been fighting “for years against an unjust dhimma law that treats Christians as second-class citizens.”

So who was telling the truth? Munther Isaac, who said in 2012 that Palestinian Christians “worship with freedom” and exercise [their] rights like all Palestinians” and who contradicted himself two years later? Or Kakish, who in 2014 said that Evangelical churches cannot even open bank accounts in the West Bank or Gaza Strip?

Kakish probably, because his call was affirmed in opening remarks offered by Rev. Geoff Tunnicliffe, General Secretary of the World Evangelical Alliance. “We would request again official recognition of our churches here,” he said to applause, adding that he would be making the same request to Israeli officials the week after the conference.

Here, some background is necessary. Both the Palestinian Authority and Israel administer churches according to the “millet” system inherited from the Ottoman Empire. It should be noted that while Evangelical churches are not officially recognized under this system in Israel, Evangelical Christians are accorded much greater freedom to operate than they are in the Palestinian Authority.

Article four of the Constitution of the Palestinian National Authority approved by Palestinian leaders in 2003 states quite clearly that “Islam is the official religion in Palestine” and that “The principles of Islamic Shari’a shall be the main source of legislation.” In other words, when and if a Palestinian state is created, it will be a Muslim, or Islamic state.

Kakish’s call for recognition and demand for rights under the Palestinian Authority is a continuation of a controversy that erupted after the 2012 conference, as documented in a 2012 article by CATC organizer Munther Isaac and Porter Speakman, Jr. media director for CATC.

A few days after the 2012 conference, Isaac and Speakman responded to reports about First Baptist Church in Bethlehem being denied the right to operate in the West Bank.

While the initial reports about First Baptist included an inaccuracy – that First Baptist had been “shut down” (when in fact it had not been) – there was in fact something to the story, which this writer addressed in an article published in the Algemeiner, a few days after the 2012 conference.

The underlying story was this: First Baptist Church, like other Evangelical churches, was denied the rights it needed to operate freely in Palestinian society, just like Kakish said two years later. So why did Isaac tell people that everything was fine in 2012?

Christian Muslim Relations in Palestinian Society

After Kakish admitted to the problems associated with the fractured citizenship accorded to Evangelicals in Palestinian society, conference organizers and speakers still worked to put a positive spin on relations between Christians and Muslims in Palestinian society.

Here, it is useful to remember what speakers said at the 2012 CATC conference. At the previous conference, two pastors – Labeeb Madanat and Nihah Salman – acknowledged that Sharia and Muslim hostility toward Christians do play a role in how Christians think about their future in the Holy Land. And why shouldn’t they given what has happened to Christians living in Muslim-majority environments in the Middle East?

Madanat and Salman’s statements were somewhat contradicted in a video showed the first full day of the conference, in which Lutheran Pastor Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, citing a 2008 survey, said that Christians who do leave Palestinian society do not leave because of problems with Muslims but because of a lack of economic opportunity. “Less than one percent said they are leaving because of religious extremism.”

Right after Raheb’s statement, the video quotes Rasha Mukarker, an employee at the Bethlehem Bible College who says:

The relationship between Christians and Muslims in Palestine is not always a rosy one. However, it is one of respect. Although tensions sometimes arise between both communities, but this is not a result of systematic discrimination against us. It’s sometimes as a result of daily normal problems that may occur between minorities and majorities.

This is an ambiguous, contradictory statement that exhibits two competing impulses – to acknowledge the obvious problems between Christians and Muslims in Palestinian society and then downplay these very problems. This late in the game, there really isn’t any doubt that there are serious problems with Christian-Muslim relations in Palestinian society.

As reported in previous CAMERA articles, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Land for the Roman Catholic Church, acknowledged publicly in 2005 that Palestinians Christians were suffering from acts of oppression by their Muslim neighbors. Chiesa quoted Fr. Pizzaballa as follows:

Almost every day – I repeat, almost every day – our communities are harassed by the Islamic extremists in [the Holy Land]. 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, 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 toThe 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.” This dossier was never released.

People who challenge Palestinian Christian leaders with this information, will hear that these are isolated incidents that do not add up to systematic discrimination and that as outsiders, they are “speculating” about what is really going on in Palestinian society.

How do they respond to Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab Muslim who works as a reporter for The Jerusalem Post? Was Toameh “speculating” about Christian-Muslim relations when he wrote the following in the Gatestone Institute in 2009?

Many Christians in Bethlehem and the nearby [Christian] towns of Bet Sahour and Bet Jalla have repeatedly complained that Muslims have been seizing their lands either by force or through forged documents.
In recent years, not only has the number of Christians continued to dwindle, but Bethlehem and its surroundings also became hotbeds for Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters and members.
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.

Toameh writes that it is an exaggeration to assert that Christians are leaving Palestinian society only because of Islamist oppression, because economics and political uncertainty do play a role in Christians departing Palestinian society. But he also chided Palestinian Christian leaders for their refusal to address the problem of Islamist oppression publicly:

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.

Rev. Dr. Mark Durie, author of the previously mentioned book, The Thir
d Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom
(Deror 2010), writes “It is a difficult and painful reality that Middle Eastern ‘dhimmi clergy’ play a strategic role in preventing the international community from understanding the suffering of Christians living under Islam, and its foundation in the dhimma. By embracing a culture of denial, dhimmi Christian leaders use their positions of leadership to promote the cause of the Islamists to the West.”

Durie reports these dhimmi Christian leaders are accorded unwarranted credibility by outsiders, especially those from the West. Durie concludes:

This is debilitating to the West, because for a Western Christian to take up the cause of the persecuted church they must expose the denial and deception which is at the heart of dhimmitude, and this includes challenging the account being given by ‘dhimmi’ Christian spokes people. Many do not like to do this, not only because it seems rude and confrontational, but also because the West has taught itself to feel guilty. So Western Christians remain silent too.

Muslim Violence Against Christians in Middle East

The impact of Western guilt on how Westerners speak about Islamist violence against Christians was particularly evident in the talk given by the previously-mentioned Rev. Joseph Cumming. Cumming, who spoke at the conference on the night of Tuesday, March 11, 2014 is pastor of the International Church at Yale University and former president of the national Federation of NGO’s in Mauritania.

At the beginning of his talk, Cumming said that he and his wife had spent much of their adult lives in Mauritania, where apostasy from Islam has been punishable by death since the early 1980s. He spoke of having his house ransacked for Bibles by the Mauritanian government and of being arrested and held in a room in sight of an electric prod used to torture people by the Mauritanian police.

He spoke of his Muslim friends being tortured, apparently in this same room, because of their friendship with him – a Christian.

Cumming also spoke of being beaten nearly to death by a mob of “militants” in Mauritania before three unarmed police offers intervened and saved his life.

“I had lost consciousness as they were beating me and [the police officers] heroically pulled me out and saved my life,” Cumming said. “I don’t even know the names of those policemen, but I owe them a debt of gratitude.”

It’s understandable that Cumming is grateful to the police officers who saved his life. Anyone would be. But at the same time, it is important not to forget that the police officers that saved the pastor’s life are part of the same security apparatus that tortured his friends because they were friendly with a Christian – Cumming himself.

After recounting the misdeeds of Islamist movements and governments in Muslim-majority countries throughout the Middle East, Cumming reported that this violence is connected to Israel. “It affects Muslims’ feelings toward Christians, toward the Christian faith and even toward Jesus Christ himself,” he said.

When we speak about Islamist extremist movements, a large part of what is driving radicalization in many Muslim communities is anger over the Israel-Palestinian conflict. And if had time, I could give you example after example after example where American or Israel have committed some act of war or act of violence toward Palestinians and the reaction of Islamist extremists has been to kill Arab Christians in response – as if somehow Iraq’s Christians in a church in Baghdad were to be blamed for what Israel did in Bethlehem today.
But that is the reality we have to understand – that when Christians in the West are supporting an occupation which Muslims see as unjust, some Muslims, but not all, not even most, but some will react against that by taking out their hostility on innocent Arab Christians.

The logic implicit in Cumming’s statement is that if Israel did not exist, Islamists would not be mistreating Christians in Baghdad. How then, does Cumming explain the centuries of Muslim violence against Christians in the Middle East that Colin Chapman, CATC’s resident expert on Islam, acknowledged during his talk earlier in the day that Cumming gave his? Violence against Christians was part of life in Muslim countries in the Middle East long before Israel was created.

A similar line of reasoning can be used to explain the violence against Cumming’s friends who were tortured in Mauritania. If Rev. Cumming never went to Mauritania to work for a relief and development organization, his Muslim friends would not have been beaten for associating with him. If Mauritanians are going to be beaten for befriending Christians who visit the country, maybe the responsible thing for Rev. Cumming and other Christians to do is to stay in the U.S.

Such an argument is irrational, because the ultimate responsibility for the practice of torture in Mauritania resides with the government officials who torture their citizens, just as the ultimate responsibility for anti-Christian violence in Muslim-majority countries lies with the Islamists who perpetrate it. It does not reside with Israel or its supporters, and not with the Christian victims of the abuse, who as reported above, Cumming chided for not being more Christ-like toward Islamists. Apparently, Cumming’s time in a Muslim-majority environment has impaired his ability to see Islamist violence for what it is and place the blame for it where it belongs.

In his talk, Cumming confessed a sin of his own – that of referring to Muslim countries as what they are – Muslim countries.

When President Obama first came to office, he said he wanted to launch a constructive engagement with Muslim countries and Arab Christian intellectuals in the Middle East said, “Wait a minute, when you use the term Muslim countries, you erase our existence, you act as though Christians didn’t exist. If you call my country a Muslim country, then you’re not acknowledging that there are Christians here too and so Arab Christians prefer this term “citizenship” which describes equal rights and responsibilities which all people have regardless of whether they’re Muslim, Christian, or Jewish or whatever….
So I’m trying to learn to correct my speech. I slip sometimes but instead of saying Muslim countries perhaps say Muslim-majority countries just as my country America is not a Christian country although some people claim it is, it’s not a Christian country it’s a Christian majority country, the majority of the population are Christians, but that doesn’t make it a Christian country.

This is another effort to place the blame where it doesn’t belong. While CAMERA often uses the phrase “Muslim-majority co
untries,” Cumming’s assertion that calling such countries Muslim is wrong because it undermines the rights of non-Muslim minorities ignores an important fact: Many these countries themselves have approved constitutions where Islam is the state religion and primary source of legislation.

A few examples:

The constitution of Mauritania, where Cumming worked, declares Islam to be the state religion, and that the president must be a Muslim. The first article of the constitution reads: “Mauritania is an indivisible, democratic, and social Islamic Republic.”

The constitution of Maldives states that Islam is the religion of the state and that “no law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted.”

More to the point, the constitutions of two countries where Christians are being notoriously mistreated – Iraq and Egypt – both declare Islam to be the state religion.

The Egyptian constitution declares “Islam in the religion of the state,” and that “the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation.

And the Iraqi constitution states, “Islam is the official religion of the State and is a foundation source of legislation.”

Even the constitution of Syria, which is ruled by an Alawite regime, whose members are regarded as apostates by many Muslims, states “The religion of the President of the Republic is Islam; Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.” (President Assad is an Alawite, but some Shiite and Sunni scholars have declared the Alawite religion an Islamic faith.)

In light of these documents, it is clear that the problem Cumming and Arab Christians worry about – the erasure of Christian ethnicity in Muslim countries – resides not with Westerners who fail to use the phrase “Muslim-majority” when referring to the countries in which they live. The problem resides with the people who write and affirm the constitutions that declare Islam to be the state religion. It is these people, and the constitutions they write, and affirm, that present the problem to Christian minorities, not outsiders from the West.

Munther Isaac’s Talk

Munther Isaac, vice academic dean (and choir director) at Bethlehem Bible College who recently received his Ph.D. from the Oxford Center for Mission Studies in Great Britain spoke on the night of Thursday, March 13, 2014. Isaac’s 30-minute talk encapsulated the message given at the CATC conference. His message was that yes, Muslims have been killing Christians in the Middle East. But the real problem resides with Christians who are not Christ-like enough in their relations with Muslims and with Israelis who refuse to share the land with Palestinians.

Isaac did criticize Palestinian society for its shortcomings. “Many Palestinians today dream of a land without the Jews. Some even continue to call for the Jews to be driven out to the sea. And some continue to encourage suicide attacks that I am ashamed to utter. And it comes from religious people, people I call preachers of hate.”

And while he asserted that he is troubled by the route of the security barrier (which thankfully, he did not say “surrounds Bethlehem”), he said the barrier is “only a reflection of a deeper and harsher reality. In Palestine and Israel today we simply do not like each other.”

Isaac Stumbles

Sadly, Isaac was unable to maintain this self-critical and irenic tone throughout his talk. First off, he told an antisemitic joke – rooted in the parable of the Good Samaritan – that took advantage of an age-old trope about Jews and money. (CAMERA first drew attention to this joke here.)

And to make matters worse, the Christ at the Checkpoint’s website has issued an evasive response, that reads in part as follows:

Anyone who listens to the talk will clearly recognize that this lighthearted remark was about how children view religious leaders in general – NOT Jewish leaders – and that Isaac’s critique in that context was focused on Christian conference-goers in particular (like his audience). Furthermore, the stereotype associating Jews with greed is more of an American stereotype than a Palestinian stereotype and may be more reflective of the blogger’s own prejudices and background.

This response falls short of the appropriate apology that a responsible religious leader would offer because it obscures two important issues. First, it elides the Jewish identity of the “religious” leaders in the parable of the Good Samaritan. These leaders are Jewish, no matter how much Isaac and his defenders want people to overlook this.

Two, the CATC response evasively reports that the joke was told in a Palestinian context, where the trope of “greedy Jews” is allegedly not operative. But the joke was was told by a Western-educated religious leader (who had studied in the U.S. and Great Britain) and it was told to an audience of Evangelicals most of whom came from the United States – where CATC organizers have admitted the trope about greedy Jews is operative.

None of the evasions offered in the CATC’s response are effective in hiding these facts, all of which point to an obvious conclusion – Isaac should never have told the joke.

No to Israel as a Jewish State

Also in his speech, Isaac affirmed the Palestinian Authority line that it should not acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state because this would undermine the rights of non-Jews in Israel.

Israel continues to insist that we Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state as a pre-condition to any peace agreement. I must admit that I have a serious problem with this and I speak here as a Christian, because I am against any religious state to begin with. In addition this is such an exclusive way of defining a state especially when you remember there are at least 1.5 million non-Jews who live in this land and who by the way have been living in this land for hundreds, if not thousands of years way before the modern state of Israel was created. To insist on a Jewish state is, in essence, to deny and remove 2,000 years of world history in this land. And please understand what I’m saying. I’m not denying any Jewish attachment to this land or Israel’s right to exist or Israel as a place where Jews can live in safety.
I’m simply against having a monopoly over this land and using any exclusive language. I do not care how you try to justify this, you say Jewish and democratic but for me the moment you insist on defining the state of Israel as a Jewish state, you begin drawing this big circle where Jews are in and others are out.
And by the way, I am also against the notion that the Palestinian Authority, though is not an Islamic state, regards Islam as the official religion in Palestine, because this also qualifies me as a second-class citizen. We should not be characterized as a religious minority that needs protection. [Note, here Isaac again contradicts what he said in 2012.]

Here, Isaac’s rhetoric isn’t about affirming the rights of Israeli-Arabs, but about stymieing the effort of Jews to exercise their right to self-determination in the face of Islamic imperialism, which has been the norm for centuries.

According to traditional Muslim theology and jurisprudence, Jews are to live as dhimmis under Muslim rule. Moreover, any territory previously governed by Muslim rulers should not be acceded back to non-Muslims. Consequently, Jewish sovereignty and freedom is simply contrary to the Islamic nomos, or sense of order, (as it was under Christianity for many centuries, and may still be in some quarters of the religion).

By insisting that Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state, Israeli leaders are seeking assurances that this theological view of Jews as dhimmis will not prove decisive in how the newly formed country will treat Israel.

Given the suffering historically endured by Jews and Christians under Islam (and the violence currently directed at Christians today in Muslim countries), this seems entirely reasonable.

But instead of acknowledging that the onus is really on Muslim leaders to demonstrate that they can live in peace with non-Muslim others, Isaac directs his ire at Israel, as if the Jewish state – the one country in the Middle East where the indigenous population of Christians is growing – abuses its non-Jewish citizens in the same manner that Muslim countries abuse their non-Muslim citizens.

This is the height of moral stupidity. The CATC’s outrage should be directed at Islamic oppression of non-Muslims (and Muslims) not at the successful effort of Jews to escape it and defend against it.

What motivates this moral stupidity? Envy? Possibly. With Israel’s creation in 1948, Jews have been able to achieve what Palestinian Christians have not: Freedom, dignity and sovereignty. Israeli Jews do not have to scrape and bow in front of Muslim leaders the way Palestinian Christians have at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conferences.

Can Isaac and the rest of the speakers at the CATC conference name one other religious or ethnic minority in the Middle East – aside from the Armenians – that has been able to achieve this?

Surely not Palestinian Christians.


The 2014 Christ at the Point Conference raises an important question: Can Christians talk about their fellow Christians being murdered in Muslim countries throughout the world without somehow blaming the Jewish state?

Or is the Christian obsession with the Jews and their homeland – and fear of Islamist oppression – so overpowering that they must always steer the conversation back to Israel?

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