Grudging AP Clarification on Israel’s Christians Falls Short

On September 6, 2015, the Associated Press, an influential wire service whose articles are reproduced around the world, published an article that misstated the facts regarding Israel’s Christian population. Areej Hazboun’s article, titled “Israel Christian schools striking over slashing of funding,” falsely reported that the population of Christians in Israel and the disputed territories had “gradually shrunk over the decades.”

Here is the passage in question:

Christians make up a small part of Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority. In the birthplace of Christianity, Christians are currently less than 2 percent of the population of Israel and the Palestinian territories. There are about 150,000 Christian citizens of Israel and about 50,000 Christians spread out in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Although they have not experienced the violent persecution that has decimated Christian communities elsewhere in the region, the population has gradually shrunk over the decades as Christians have fled conflict or sought better opportunities abroad.

While this passage accurately reported that Christians in Israel have not experienced the persecution Christians endure elsewhere in the Middle East, it fundamentally misstated the reality when it comes to the population of Christians in Israel and the disputed territories.

In fact, Israel’s Christian population has increased by more than 300 percent since the founding of the Jewish state. Its population of Arab Christians, specifically, has steadily increased over the years as well. Since 1999 it has increased by almost 20 percent; since 1949, it has increased by more than 270 percent. These numbers are clearly relevant to the story, which is about Arab Christians in Israel.

The story even got it wrong on a less relevant issue: The number of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There has been a decrease in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, from which Israel withdrew in 2005 and a small, but steady increase in the West Bank where Israel has maintained a presence since the Six-Day War.

The Clarification

In response to CAMERA correspondence, the AP issued the following clarification on Sept. 10, 2015:

JERUSALEM (AP) – In a story Sept. 6, The Associated Press reported that the Christian population of the Holy Land has shrunk over the decades. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the country’s Christian population has grown, albeit at a lower rate than the Jewish and Muslim populations, and in part with a boost by immigration from the former Soviet Union, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. But the Christian community has dramatically shrunk in percentage terms when compared to other religions. According to the Vatican, Christians constituted 10 percent of the Holy Land’s population before the war surrounding Israel’s establishment. Today, they are just under 2 percent of Israel’s population, according to official figures. The Vatican also estimates the Christian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be below 2 percent of the overall population. The Vatican and Christian experts say the community has suffered from a lower birthrate than other sectors as well as emigration by people fleeing conflict or seeking better opportunities abroad.

Christian Population in Israel

The AP’s clarification falls short on a number of levels.

First, it fails to provide readers with the actual numbers that demonstrate the undeniable growth of Israel’s Christian population, including specifically the Arab Christian population, since the founding of the Jewish state. By omitting the absolute numbers, the AP failed to give its readers the most basic (and relevant) facts they needed to understand the very issue editors are ostensibly clarifying.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, which tracks population data for the Jewish State reports that in 1949, there were 34,000 Christians living in the country. While the CBS did not break down this population by ethnicity, the vast majority of these Christians were Arab.

The Statistical Abstract for Israel issued on Sept. 10, 2015 (the same day the AP issued its clarification) reports that in 2014, there were 162,000 Christians living in the Jewish State. That’s an increase of 376 percent. The 2014 survey (which has been available for much longer than the 2015 survey) reports that in 2013, the Christian population of Israel totaled 159,000.

Arab Christians in Israel

The original article, however, did not deal with all of Israel’s Christians, but with its Arab Christians. But here too, there has been a substantial increase. This increase has been documented by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, which has been tracking the population of Arab Christians in the Jewish State for over a decade. Here are the numbers compiled from annual CBS surveys:

1995 — 101,400

1996 — 102,400

1997 — 104,100

1998 — 105,700

1999 — 107,700

2000 — 110,000

2001 — 112,200

2002 — 113,700

2003 — 115,000

2004 — 116,500

2005 — 118,000

2006 — 119,400

2007– 120,900

2008 — 122,500

2009 — 121,400

2010 — 122,600

2011 — 124,100

2012 — 125,600

2013 — 127,100

2014 — 128,600

Aside from a slight decrease in the Arab Christian population between 2008 and 2009, this population has increased every year since 1995. Over the past 20 years for which there is data, the increase of the Arab Christian population in Israel has been approximately 27 percent. By way of comparison, the U.S. population increased by 22 percent during the same period of time (from 279 million in 1995 to an estimated 325 million today. No one in their right mind would portray this as a decrease.

But the increase since 1948 is even more astounding. Given that most of the 34,000 Christians living in Israel in 1949 were Arabs
, this population has increased by an astonishing 278 percent, at least.

No other country in the Middle East has experienced a similar increase in its indigenous population of Christians. In fact, they have suffered catastrophic losses.

Palestinian Christians in Gaza and the West Bank

The number of Christians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was irrelevant to the story, which was about Arab Christians living in Israel. Nevertheless, they were referenced in both the original article and in the clarification, which predictably, did not provide any hard data about the actual number of Christians, but only trafficked in overall percentages. This obscures an important point: A decline in the Christian population in the West Bank that took place under Jordanian control was reversed in the years after the Six-Day War.

This point was evident in statistics compiled in a 2012 report compiled by the Diyar Institute, an anti-Israel propaganda organization headquartered in Bethlehem.

In 1961, the Jordanian Census reported that there was a total of 45,000 Christians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Israeli Census taken in 1967 indicates that there were 40,000 Christians in these areas, yielding a decline of 5,000. This decline was reversed under Israeli control.

In 2008, the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, an anti-Israel organization, pegged the Christian population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem at 48,000—an increase of approximately 8,000 people from the low in 1967.

This increase more than offsets the decrease that has taken place in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which has never had many Christians and where forced conversions have been reported.

All of this prompted the Diyar Institute—no friend of Israel—to report in 2012 that the number of Palestinian Christians “has grown ever so slightly in the past 50 years.” It made this statement in its 2012 text, “Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, Facts, Figures and Trends,” edited by Rania Al Qass Collings, Rifat Odeh Kassis and Mitri Raheb.

Percentages Versus Actual Numbers

Another problem with the clarification is that downplays the substantial growth of Israel’s Christian population by reporting that the Christian population has grown at “a slower rate” than Israel’s Jewish and Muslim populations and as a result, has “dramatically shrunk in percentage terms when compared to other religions.”

By this logic, one could argue that Israel’s Jewish population is also shrinking because the country’s Muslim population has grown at a faster rate. But no one really doubts that it has increased.

In its effort to argue that the article got it wrong on the picayune facts but still got the larger narrative right—that it got it “really” right even if it got it wrong “technically”—AP relied on a shopworn technique of emphasizing how the population of Christians in Israel and disputed territories has declined as an overall percentage of the total population. It’s a technique used by Sojourners in 2013, by National Geographic in 2009, and by 60 Minutes in a notoriously dishonest segment it broadcast in 2012.

Yes, the percentage of Arab Christians as a proportion of Israel’s population has declined since 1948, but that is the result of an increase in the country’s Jewish and Muslim populations.

According to the Statistical Abstract of Israel for 2013, there were 1.1 million Jews and 113,800 Muslims living in Israel in 1950. At the end of 2014, there were approximately 6.2 million Jews and 1.4. million Muslims living in the country. (The population of the two groups increased by 463 and 1130 percent respectively.)

These numbers go a long ways toward explaining why a growing Christian population is declining as a proportion of Israel’s total population. As fast growing as it is, the two other groups in the country are growing at an even faster rate. This does not mean that Christians are in decline in the Jewish state.

Russian Christians

Another problem with the clarification is that it introduces the topic of Christians from the former Soviet Union to suggest that the increase in Israel’s Christian population is more the result of immigration than from natural increase in the indigenous Arab Christian population.

But as detailed above, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics has distinguished between Arab and non-Arab Christians since the late 1990s, so the reference to Christians from the former Soviet Union is irrelevant and distracting.

“Lower Birthrate”

Also, in reporting that Christians have “suffered from a lower birthrate than other sectors” the AP fails to acknowledge that Arab Christian enjoy comparative higher levels of education in Israel and also marry later than Muslim counterparts. Both of these factors contribute to lower birthrates.

On a related issue, it is interesting to note that the original AP article makes no reference to the higher rates of matriculation enjoyed by Arab Christians in Israel. In December 2013, The Times of Israel reported that Israel’s Arab Christians “are more likely than any other Israeli community to succeed on their matriculation exams.” Given the subject, it seems to be a relevant fact worthy of inclusion.)

The Context

Beyond the more narrow issue of AP’s inaccurate and deceptive statistics, the article failed to acknowledge that the rights enjoyed by Christians (and other religious and ethnic minorities) in Israel simply do not exist in other parts of the Middle East.

The original story was about Arab Christians protesting government policies regarding school funding in Israel. It is a political fight over resources in which Christians are pressing their case vigorously and with a high degree of freedom.

The original article reported a nonexistent decline of the Christian population in Israel, thereby lumping the Jewish state—where minority Christians are free to fight for more resources
from the government—in with other countries in the Middle East where Christians are being ethnically cleansed. This is simply misleading.

Despite the controversy over school funding in Israel, two prominent Christian leaders, Fr. Gabriel Nadaff and Shadi Khaloul are expressing support for Israel and are encouraging Christians to join the Israeli military to defend the rights they enjoy in the Jewish state, rights Christians (and other minority groups) simply do not have in the Middle East.

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