National Geographic: Blaming Israel for Christian Decline

In its June 2009 issue, National Geographic demonstrated just how far it is willing to go to scapegoat Israel for suffering in the Middle East. The magazine also showed how far it is willing to go to downplay the role Islam played in contributing to Christianity’s decline in the region. In an article written by Don Belt, the magazine’s senior editor for foreign affairs, National Geographic portrays the departure of Christians from the Holy Land as largely a consequence of Israeli (and American) policies in the region. The article offers no honest description of the well-documented mistreatment of Christians at the hands of Muslim majority populations in the Middle East.


The Crusades


Belt’s efforts to whitewash the role Islamic conquest played in the decline of Christianity in the Middle East becomes obvious in the third paragraph of the article which states that “it was during the Crusades (1095-1291) that Arab Christians, slaughtered along with Muslims by the crusaders and caught in the cross fire between Islam and the Christian West, began a long, steady retreat into the minority.”


In reality, Arab Christianity began its “long, steady retreat” into minority status hundreds of years before the European crusaders ever set foot in the Holy Land. As Bat Ye’or and other commentators have documented, the process of forced conversion and subjugation of Christians in the Middle East began soon after the death of Mohammed in 632. Ye’or writes that after unifying the Arabian Peninsula under Muslim rule, Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s successor, brought war to non-Muslims, including Christians, outside Arabia. In her book The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Farleigh Dickinson Press, 1996) Ye’or writes:

Arab idolaters had to choose between death or conversion; as for Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, if they paid tribute and accepted the conditions of conquest, they could buy back their right to live, freedom of worship and security of property.
In 640 the second caliph, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, drove the Jewish and Christian tributaries out of Hijasz by invoking the dhimma (contract) of Khaybar: the land belonged to Allah and his Envoy and the contract could be broken at the discretion of the imam, the religious and political leader of the umma [Muslim religious community] and the interpreter of Allah’s will. Umar also invoked the desire expressed by the Prophet on his deathbed: “Two religions should not co-exist within the Arabian peninsula.” (Page 39)

While Ye’or is careful to explain that the subjugation of peoples and faiths was part and parcel of life in the Middle East at the time and that offering conquered peoples a chance to convert to Islam “curbed the barbarity of war,” she also makes clear that Christianity declined under Muslim conquest in the region conducted under the rubric of jihad, or holy war against non-Muslims.


Instead of acknowledging this history, Belt portrays early Muslim history as a time of tolerance, describing the Levant’s history of “coexistence between Muslims and people of other faiths, which dates from the earliest days of Islam. When the Muslim Caliph Omar conquered Syria from the Byzantine Empire around 636, he protected the Christians under his rule, allowing them to keep their churches and worship as they pleased.”


Here again, Belt ignores an inconvenient truth: that by the eighth century Arab Muslim rulers used indigenous Christian communities as both a source of income and forced labor (slavery) in the Middle East, a policy that contributed to the decline of Christianity in the region. (For a detailed description of this process, consult Bat Ye’or’s The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude, pages 100-140.)


Key passage


In one key passage, Belt lays out his agenda: Obscure the facts about where Christianity is growing in the Middle East (Israel), downplay and minimize the role Muslim extremism plays in marginalizing Christians in Palestinian society, and blame Western Christians for the misdeeds of Muslims in the region. In this passage, Belt writes:

For anyone living in Israel or the Palestinian territories, stress is the norm. But the 196,500 Palestinian and Israeli Arab Christians, who dropped from 13 percent of the population in 1894 to less than 2 percent today, occupy a uniquely oxygen-starved space between traumatized Israeli Jews and traumatized Palestinian Muslims, whose rising militancy is tied to regional Islamist movements that sometimes target Christians. In the past decade, “the situation for Arab Christians has gone rapidly downhill,” says Razek Siriani, a frank and lively man in his 40s who works for the Middle East Council of Churches in Aleppo, Syria. “We’re completely outnumbered and surrounded by angry voices,” he says. Western Christians have made matters worse, he argues, echoing a sentiment expressed by many Arab Christians. “It’s because of what Christians in the West, led by the U.S., have been doing in the East,” he says, ticking off the wars in Iraq Afghanistan, U.S. support for Israel, and the threats of “regime change” by the Bush Administration. “To many Muslims, especially the fanatics, this looks like the crusades all over again, a war against Islam waged by Christianity. Because we’re Christians, they see us as the enemy too. It’s guilt by association.”

The first problem with this passage is that it obscures the increase of the Christian population in Israel.


Belt is correct when he reports that the overall percentage of Christians in Israeli society has declined from what it was in the 1800s. Christians have become a smaller proportion of the population in Israel – not because they are leaving but because of the growth of Israel’s Jewish population. Israel is after all, the Jewish homeland. Despite this proportional decline, Israel’s Christian population has increased substantially in absolute numbers since its founding, a fact Belt does not acknowledge. As previous CAMERA analysis on this subject reveals, the population of Christians in Israel is currently increasing at a rater faster than that of Jews in Israel. Analyst Tamar Sternthal writes:

As documented in the Central Bureau of Statistics’ Statistical Abstract of Israel 2008 (Chart 2.2), in the last dozen years, Israel’s Christian population grew from 120,600 in 1995 to 151,600 in 2007, representing a growth rate of 25 percent. In fact, the Christian growth rate has outpaced the Jewish growth in Israel in the last 12 years! In 1995, there were 4,522,300 Jews in Israel, and in 2007 there were 5,478,200, representing a growth rate of 21 percent – 4 percent less than the Christian population grew during the same time.
Since 1949, when there were 34,000 Christians in Israel, the population has grown 345 percent.

Clearly, Israel’s population of Christians is growing substantially. Why does Belt omit this fact?


Another problem with Belt’s analysis is that it portrays Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as caught between two local parties – traumatized Israeli Jews and traumatized Palestinian Muslims – who are equally responsible for the suffering of Christians in Palestinian society. Numerous sources – which have largely been ignored or dismissed by the human rights and peacemaking communities in the West – have shown that the mistreatment of Christians in Palestinian society is rooted in a religiously-based ideology that calls for the subjugation of non-Muslims in Muslim majority society. For example, in 2005, Justus Reid Weiner invoked the phrase “imperfect citizenship” to describe the precarious position Christians endured in Palestinian society as a result of the Muslim influence on Palestinian governance and law. He writes:


As long as the religious factor influences the Muslim concept of citizenship, it will remain a particular problem for Christians, as Muslim culture only grants the rights and benefits of full citizenship to followers of Islam.


While Weiner reports that Muslim hostility toward Christians has increased since 9/11, the fact remains that the subjugation of Christians in the Middle East has roots much deeper than 9/11, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. support for Israel. Religious and ethnic minorities are badly treated throughout the Middle East and when it comes to human rights and civil liberties, Arabs, whether Christian or Muslim, enjoy more rights in Israel than they do in Arab-majority states throughout the region.


National Geographic’s attempt to blame the decline of Christianity in Palestinian society on Israel is also evident in the captions to the photos displayed along with the cover story.  Underneath a photo of barbed wired in the West Bank, a caption reads “Christian farmers lost their olive groves when Israelis built a fence around a settlement.” Another caption quotes a Christian in Bethlehem as saying “Under Israel occupation, normal life is impossible.”


Nowhere in the article is there any testimony about the harassment of Christians in Palestinian society. Nor is there any explanation why Israel built the security barrier and instituted checkpoints. The security barrier and the checkpoints were put in place for a reason which Belt cannot be bothered to a cknowledge – Palestinian terrorism. At what point will the Christians start holding terrorists responsible for the construction of the security barrier and the checkpoints in the West Bank?


Exaggerating Christian Influence


Belt also exaggerates the role Christianity plays in the Middle East, invoking the quote from a Syrian monk who says

… Muslims are us. This is the lesson the West has yet to learn and that Arab Christians are uniquely qualified to teach. They are the last, vital link between the Christian West and the Arab Muslim world. If Arab Christians were to disappear, the two sides would drift even further apart than they already are. They are the go-betweens.

Here Belt proffers a well-worn trope of Arab Christians serving as “go-betweens” between Muslims in the Middle East and Christians in the West. But Arab Christians have barely any influence among their Muslim brethren. Their main influence is on Christians in the U.S. and Europe.


For example, Bernard Lewis, in Semites And Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), offers a detailed narrative about how Christian churches in the Middle East and the governments of the countries in which they were located worked to dissuade the Vatican from removing the deicide charge (the notion that the Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Christ) from the theology of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s. Fortunately, these negative efforts failed to prevent landmark theological changes that have fostered improved Catholic-Jewish relations in the years since.


Another example of the “influence” of Arab Christians is the work of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. This organization has little, if any ability to constrain suicide attacks against Israel, but does condemn Israel to American audiences at numerous conferences. To be sure, the group’s founder, Anglican Priest Naim Ateek, condemns suicide bombings – in English – to audiences of Western Christians (people who are not likely candidates for perpetrating suicide attacks), but his influence over Hamas is minimal at best.


If Arab Christians are go-betweens, their influence is one way – from the Middle East to the West. Their ability to moderate political life and reduce violence in Muslim-majority countries in the region is miniscule.


Attacks on Palestinian Christians Omitted


While Belt acknowledges the hostility between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon in an extended interview with a Maronite Christian who worries about being outgunned by Shiite Militias, he fails to mention the mistreatment of Christians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by the Muslim majority. There is no lack of information on this subject, just a lack of Palestinian Christians willing to be quoted publicly about it. Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian Muslim journalist who has covered the problem extensively for the Jerusalem Post, recently wrote the following for the Hudson Institute:

Christian families have long been complaining of intimidation and land theft by Muslims, especially those working for the Palestinian Authority.
Many Christians in Bethlehem and the nearby [Christian] towns of Bet Sahour and Beit Jalla have repeatedly complained that Muslims have been seizing their lands either by force or through forged documents. . . .
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.
While it is true that the Palestinian Authority does not have an official policy of persecution against Christians, it is also true that this authority has not done enough to provide the Christian population with a sense of security and stability.
In addition, Christians continue to complain about discrimination when it comes to employment in the public sector. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority 15 years ago, not a single Christian was ever appointed to a senior security post. Although Bethlehem has a Christian mayor, the governor, who is more senior than him, remains a Muslim.

Toameh is not the only source of this type of information. Harry de Quetteville reported the following Sept. 9, 2005 in  The Daily Telegraph (London):

Christians in the Holy Land have handed a dossie r detailing incidents of violence and intimidation by Muslim extremists to Church leaders in Jerusalem, one of whom said it was time for Christians to “raise our voices” against the sectarian violence.
The dossier includes 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.
The dossier also includes a list of 140 cases of apparent land theft, in which Christians in the West Bank were allegedly forced off their land by gangs backed by corrupt judicial officials. . . .
The alleged attacks on Christians have come despite repeated appeals to the Palestinian Authority to rein in Muslim gangs.
A spokesman for the Apostolic Delegate, the Pope’s envoy to Jerusalem, said nothing had been done to tackle the problem. “The Apostolic Delegate presented a list of all the problems to Mr [Yasser] Arafat before he died,” he said. “He promised a lot but he did very little.”
In the offices of his tiny Christian television station in Bethlehem, Samir Qumsieh said this week that Christian appeals to Mr Arafat’s successor as Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, had also gone unheeded.
“At least Arafat responded,” he said, “Abbas does not answer our letters.”

Nowhere is any of this mentioned in Belt’s article, possibly because no one is willing to be quoted on these issues. Paul Merkley, author of Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001) reports that after the Oslo Accords, Palestinian Christians were very reluctant to publicly criticize the Palestinian Authority. On page 81 Merkley writes:

It is very difficult to get at all the truth about life for Christians under the Palestinian Authority. The official Palestinian press speaks of the unqualified enthusiasm for the new situation, which extends to the whole Christian community. Arab Christian spokesmen insist that relations between Christian and Muslim Palestinians have never been better. But there is a compelling body of evidence indicating that Christians are now facing many more obstacles to the free exercise of their faith than they ever endured under direct Israeli rule. Designated spokesmen for the various Christian communities all insist that they have no concern for the future of Christianity in a Muslim state.
The story is a bit different, Merkley reports, when one speaks to the lay members of the Christian community.
In my own conversations with Palestinian Christians who were not designated spokespersons for their church communities, I was told of abandonment of the ordinary Christians by the political opportunists who are leaders of their congregations. According to [Judith] Sudilosky [an Israeli journalist]: “Privately, Arab Christians will say what they dare not say publically: that most Christians would rather live under Israeli authority than risk living under another Moslem regime.” Yossi Klein Halevi quotes one of the few remaining Christian merchants in the Christian quarter: “Our leaders are liars: They tell the newspapers that everything is OK. But when Christians go to the market, they’re afraid to wear their crosses.” (Page 84).

Dubious Testimony


Belt does include testimony from a pseudonymous couple as they celebrate Easter, who like the leaders of the Palestinian Christian community, apparently say very little about the Muslim majority, but a lot about the hated state of Israel. Belt, who assigns them the names “Mark” and “Lisa,” reports the following:

This is the first Easter, ever, that Mark has been allowed to spend with the family in Jerusalem. He is from Bethlehem, in the West Bank, so his identity papers are from the Palestinian Authority; he needs a permit from Israel to visit. Lisa, whose family lives in the Old City, holds an Israeli ID. So although they’ve been married for five years and rent this apartment in the Jerusalem suburbs, under Israeli law they can’t reside under the same roof. Mark lives with his parents in Bethlehem, which is six miles away but might as well be a hundred, lying on the far side of an Israeli checkpoint and the 24-foot-high concrete barrier known as the Wall. 

Yes, it is sad that the couple cannot live together in Jerusalem. But it’s also unreasonable to expect that “Mark” would be given citizenship or residency based on his marriage to Lisa. Israel, like most other countries, including the United States, proffers residency and citizenship to foreigners after an extensive application process. Marriage alone does not guarantee the right to residency or citizenship, as Belt seems to suggest it should. If the couple were interested in living together, it is very likely “Lisa” could move to Bethlehem without any difficulty. Yes, she could very well lose her Israeli identification papers and the fact that she has not made that sacrifice indicates that Israeli residency, even for a Palestinian Christian is valuable enough to endure separation from her husband. Why? One likely reason is that as a Christian in Israel she enjoys rights that she would not enjoy in the Fa tah-controlled West Bank. Belt, however, fails to address any of this, but provides the reader with a narrative that portrays Israel as denying a married couple the right to live together.


Belt fails to provide his readers with an important part of the story. Prior to the Second Intifada, passage between Israel and the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was much easier than it is today. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians worked legally (and illegally) in Israel, and made up a significant part of the Israeli labor force. The suicide attacks which took place during the Second Intifada had a two-fold impact. First, they prompted Israelis to institute stricter security measures such as the security barrier and the checkpoints. Second, they reduced the numbers of Palestinian workers in Israel. In other words, what Belt is leaving out, is that Palestinian terrorism played a substantial role in making passage between Bethlehem and Jerusalem difficult for the married couple he is describing.


The contempt “Lisa” and her family have for Israel is revealed when Belt describes “Mark’s” washing the family car on Easter.

Right on cue, with a playful flourish, Mark squeezes the nozzle on the hose. Nothing comes out. He checks the faucet, squeezes again. Still nothing. So there he stands, empty hose in hand, in front of his kids, his neighbors, and a visitor from oversees. “I guess they’ve opened the pipes to the settlements,” he says quietly, gesturing to the hundreds of new Israeli housing units climbing up the hills nearby. “No more [water] for us.” Lisa is still trying to explain this to the kids as the car pulls away from the curb.
I hate the Israelis,” Lisa says one day, out of the blue. “I really hate them. We all hate them. I think even Nate’s [her son] starting to hate them.”

Given that Belt offers no evidence to suggest that he has confirmed for himself that “Mark” was unable to wash his car because water was being shipped to Israeli settlements, it is entirely possible that the event was staged for his benefit. It would not be the first time. Hamas staged “blackouts” in the Gaza Strip in 2008, and French filmmaker Pierre Rehov has documented in his movie The Road to Jenin how Palestinian officials encouraged sources to fabricate stories about delays at checkpoints for the benefit of Western journalists. And there is ample evidence to indicate that much of the footage broadcast from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is staged to portray Palestinians as suffering under the lash of Israeli oppression. (For more on this issue see Richard Landes’ website,


Regardless of what caused the apparent lack of water, Belt fails to report that Israel has been subject to a serious drought in the past few years. In January 2009, the Jerusalem Post reported that Israeli experts predicted a water shortage for the upcoming summer because of a lack of rainfall. Clearly, there is more to this story than Belt reports, but the car-washing episode was apparently too good to check. Belt himself reports the feelings of hate members of the family openly express for Israel, giving him good reason to question their story, but instead of doing his job as a journalist, he passes on their innuendo without challenge.
This highly distorted and deceptive rendition of Christian difficulties in the Middle East is not worthy of National Geographic.

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