A few weeks ago, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, wrote a pretty straightforward piece about Christians in the Middle East. The piece, titled “Israel and the Plight of Mideast Christians,” appeared in the Wall Street Journal on March 9, 2012.
Oren stated two obvious and undeniable truths. He said Christians living in the Middle East are suffering from Islamist violence and as a result they are fleeing the region, just as Jews fled Arab countries a few decades ago. Oren also stated that while Christians do sometimes encounter intolerance in Israel, Christians living in the Jewish state are safer there than they are anywhere else in the Middle East.
These two points are unassailable, but Oren’s piece sure did offend some people. After the piece was published in the Wall Street Journal, Oren was attacked by a number of Christians in the United States and the West Bank. He was accused of fomenting Islamophobia and ignoring the impact of Israeli policies on Palestinian Christians.
Apparently, talking about dhimmitude, or the status of Christians living in Muslim-majority countries, is out of bounds for the Israeli ambassador.
Interestingly enough, Palestinian Christians admitted that Islamist hostility toward Christians is a problem in Palestinian society. They made these statements at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference on March 6, 2012 – just a few days before Oren’s piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
Why is it that Oren is not allowed to say in the Wall Street Journal what Palestinian Christians told a roomful of people in Bethlehem just three days before?
Munther Isaac’s Response
One of the most notable condemnations came from Munther Isaac, the chief organizer of the one-sided Christ at the Checkpoint Conference that took place in Bethlehem in early March.
Isaac wrote a response to Oren’s piece. The article, which appeared in Sojourners on March 27, 2012, included the following passage:
To insist thatradical Islam is the primary struggle for Palestinian Christians undermines the sufferings of Palestinian Christians caused by the occupation, and labels these struggles as imagined and unreal. This is insulting. To blame the Muslims is an attempt to mask the injustices of the occupation. It is also an attempt to color the conflict with familiar Western “black and white” colors. This is the shameful goal behind Oren’s article: to stereotype Palestinians as radical Muslim persecutors of Christians, with Israel as the only ally for Christian Americans who are concerned for Christians in the East.
In this passage, Isaac mischaracterized Oren’s pretty in a rather convenient way. Oren never stated that radical Islam is “the primary struggle for Palestinian Christians.”
Instead, he said that Christians in Palestinian society suffer trauma as a result of Islamist hostility and that Christians elsewhere in the Middle East experience this trauma.
This may not be a story that Isaac wants told, but it really isn’t an arguable point. Even Isaac himself has to admit that that while radical Islam is not the “core” problem facing Palestinian Christians, it is still a problem.
This is a serious issue for Palestinian Christians. We are not saying that radical Islam is not a threat. We are not denying that there are some struggles that we face as a minority. We are not denying that there are some incidences in which Christians were attacked by radical Muslims, like in the death of Rami Ayyad in Gaza.
Isaac Contradicts Earlier Testimony
Interestingly enough, in his response to Oren’s piece, Isaac contradicted a statement he made on March 5, 2012 when he introduced Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference. During his introduction, he said, “Palestinian Christians have always enjoyed the support of the Palestinian leaders. We worship with freedom and exercise our rights like all Palestinians.”
So, on March 5, 2012, Isaac says that Palestinian Christians “have always enjoyed the support of the Palestinian leaders” and that they “worship with freedom and exercise [their] rights like all Palestinians.”
Then, in a piece published in Sojourners on March 27, 2012, he admits that there are some problems Christians “face as a minority.” He admits Christians are attacked and that one has been killed.
Palestinian Christians Admit Their Fears
There was another contradiction. On March 6, 2012 – the day after Isaac told a roomful of people that things are just fine for Christians in Palestinian society – three of his colleagues said otherwise.
In his presentation, Yohanna Katanacho stated that radical Islam has been a problem for Palestinian Christians. In fact, he displayed a slide on the screen at the front of the audience that read in part as follows: “We faced and face radical Islam as well as the Israeli occupation with the mind and heart of Christ for we are committed to Justice, peace and love.”
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 (“Sa
turday”), 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, “There are pressures. There is discrimination. The dhimma system is a system of discrimination. We do not deny that.”
So this is what we have been told:
On March 5, 2012, Munther Isaac introduces Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad and says that Christian rights have always been respected.
The following day, after Fayyad had left the building, three of Isaac’s colleagues – Yohanna Katanacho, Nihad Salman and Labeeb Madanat – contradict what Isaac said the night before. Katanacho does not do so as forcefully as the other two, who say they have endured discrimination and are afraid of Islamist violence, but he acknowledges there is a problem.
Then, on March 9, 2012, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren says Christians suffer from Islamist hostility in Palestinian society and in the rest of the Middle East. He says, in effect, what Salman and Madanat said three days previous.
Then on March 27, 2012, Isaac condemns Michael Oren for saying what his colleagues have already admitted. But even in his response to Oren, Isaac concedes that well, things aren’t perfect between Christians and Muslims in Palestinian society.
Whose testimony should we believe?
Should we believe Isaac – who contradicts himself?
Or should we believe the Israeli Ambassador and three Palestinian pastors who tell a different story?