Rifat Odeh Kassis Attacks Archbishop of Canterbury

Rifat Odeh Kassis, a Palestinian Christian who has made a career of attacking Israel while on the payroll of human rights and Christian organizations, has picked a fight with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest-ranking bishop in the Anglican Church.

Kassis assailed the Archbishop for remarks he made during an appearance on BBC television on June 14. During his appearance on “The World at One,” Archbishop Williams stated the obvious – Christians living in the Middle East are frightened of Muslim extremism and that they are subject to a form of ethnic cleansing, particularly in Iraq. “The level of pressure there now is extreme and death threats to individuals, to Christian leaders, continue,” the Archbishop said. (A transcript of the Archbishop’s comments can be found here.)

The Archbishop’s forthright comments were too much for Kassis, who for the past two years has worked to promote the Kairos Palestine Document issued by Palestinian Christian leaders in Dec. 2009.

In a letter released from Bethlehem on June 18, Kassis accused Archbishop Williams of getting it wrong about the impact of Muslim extremists on Christians in Palestine. A close look at what the two actually said is particularly instructive.
Here is the relevant portion of what Archbishop Williams said about Christians in Bethlehem:
Archbishop […]: The fact that Bethlehem, a majority Christian city just a couple of decades ago, is now very definitely a place where Christians are a marginalised minority. We want that to be a little bit higher on people’s radar.
We want the public profile of the situation of Christians there to be better known. And we see that as of course part of a general hope to raise the profile of Christians in the region.
Martha Kearney [BBC Interviewer]: Would you see what’s happening in Bethlehem as another example of what you’ve described as ethnic cleansing? [Note: Archbishop Williams had previously spoken about attacks against Christians in Iraq.]
Archbishop: It’s not ethnic cleansing exactly because it’s been far less deliberate than that I think. [Emphasis added.] What we’ve seen though is a kind of Newtonian passing on of energy or force from one body to another so that some Muslim populations in the West Bank, under pressure, move away from certain areas like Hebron, move into other areas like Bethlehem. And there’s nowhere much else for Christian populations to go except away from Palestine.

Here is Kassis’ response:

Your inaccurate and erroneous remarks cite Muslim extremism as the greatest threat facing Christians in Palestine, and the primary reason for our emigration. Your statements about Bethlehem are particularly faulty and offensive especially when you say that the movement of Muslims into the Bethlehem area, where space is limited, is forcing Christians to leave.

In his response, Kassis defends Muslims in Bethlehem against a charge of extremism that Archbishop Williams did not level.

At no point did the Archbishop accuse Palestinian Muslims of extremism. He did say Muslim extremism was a problem in Iraq and suggested that it has gotten worse in those areas where now falling dictatorial regimes used to keep it in check, but he did not mention Palestinian Muslims. In fact, he stated the decline of Christians in Bethlehem was not the result of ethnic cleansing. He said, “It’s not ethnic cleansing exactly because it’s been far less deliberate than that I think.”

It is Kassis, not Archbishop Williams who introduces the issue of extremism on the part of Palestinian Muslims. Why would Kassis, a Christian, defend his Muslim countrymen from a charge that was not leveled?

Elsewhere in the letter, Kassis rails against Israel, stating that it is the security barrier and the occupation that is causing Christians to emigrate.
On this score, it’s interesting to note that the real decline in the Christian population in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem has not taken place under Israeli rule since 1967, but took place under Arab rule. Here the statistics are quite clear. In 1945 there were just under 60,000 Christians living in these areas; in 1967, there were under 43,000. In 2007, there were more than 50,000. To be sure, the proportion of Christians as a percentage of the total population of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem has declined, but this is largely due to the substantial increase of Muslims living in these areas. And despite all this, Kassis rails in his letter about Christian and Muslim emmigration from the Holy Land as a result of Israeli policies.

Kassis the Enforcer

Kassis levels a sustained attack at Archbishop Williams, writing:

We are no longer expecting support from church leaders around the world. Our Hope, Faith and Love come from elsewhere. However, at the same time, we request you and every leader, especially church leaders, not to use us and our cause for your own purposes. We are so thankful to Your Grace for the “International Conference on Christians in the Holy Land” that you are holding in your Palace in July, but we feel it will be useless, not to say harmful to us, indigenous Christians in the land of the Holy One, if the outcome will be in the same spirit as your interview.
Since Your Grace did not meet or consult with any Palestinian Christians during your recent visit here, we are wondering why you would be suddenly interested to speak on our behalf. This troubles us. Palestinian Christians are fully capable of expressing their situation without needing anyone to interpret what they mean; we are happy to meet directly with church leaders and in, solidarity, discuss our reality and what can be done to transform it.

Kassis’ attack on Archbishop Williams, particularly its suggestion that he has abandoned the Palestinians, is misplaced. Anyone who has followed his career knows full well that he has been a sympathetic supporter of the Palestinian ca use while at the same time refusing to support or condone the harsh and unreasonable polemics leveled at the Jewish state. The suggestion that Archbishop Williams is trying to use the plight of Christians in the Holy Land for his own purposes is simply laughable. The Archbishop has routinely worked to promote dialogue with Muslims in England and throughout the world. Does Kassis know this?

This is not the first time such an attack was leveled at Archbishop Williams. In 2004, when the Archbishop offered a powerful, but polite admonition about the use of theology and scripture to assail Israel’s legitimacy, he was roundly condemned by pro-Palestinian activists, most notably Jonathan Kuttab, who condemned the Archbishop for recognizing a “Jewish peoplehood.”In his response Kuttab wrote: “As you seem to see it, Israel, in biblical terms, is still a gift to the community of nations.”

Such attacks are in marked opposition to the fawning praise that Palestinian leaders such as Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek and others offer to their anti-Israel supporters in the U.S. and Europe. They speak to their anti-Zionist flocks as if they are the only Christians in the West who “get it” and who are courageous enough to stand up to Zionist American Jews and their friends in the Christian Zionist community.

By way of comparison, Kassis and Kuttab speak in different voices to Archbishop Williams – as enforcers. For Kuttab and Kassis’, any suggestion that Israel is legitimate and that Christians suffer from Muslim extremism in the region is simply beyond the pale.

This indicates that the story told by Palestinian Christians is more brittle and subject to challenge than its proponents care to admit. Israel does not have to be perfect for it to be a legitimate state. But for the narrative offered by Palestinian Christians to remain effective, its listeners cannot be allowed to even think about talking about Muslim extremism or the rights of Jews to a sovereign state of their own.

Kassis’ Previous Career

Kassis has been around the block when it comes to attacking Israel. Prior to promoting the dishonest and one-sided Kairos Palestine Document, he served as the International Program Coordinator and Project Manager for the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), an organization sponosred by the World Council of Churches that focuses intense attention on Israeli policies in the West Bank without calling attention to the misdeeds of Palestinians.

This agenda can be clearly seen in an EAPPI publication titled “ChainReaction” which was published on a quarterly basis between 2005 and 2007.

An article appearing in the Summer 2007 issue, “40 Ways to End the Occupation,” is particularly instructive. In this article, inspired by Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” EAPPI activists list 40 ways people can assail Israel. The article calls on people to “expose the occupation”, “expose the evil of the wall by painting on its mural”, “boycott settlement products”, and to support an “artistic and cultural boycott of Israel.” The article even calls on activists to break the law: “Hack (government) websites.” Given the context, there’s no doubt that the article is calling on activists to target the Israeli government for computer hacking. This is how Kassis was able to direct WCC resources under his control.

Kassis himself used his station at EAPPI to assail Israel as well. For example, in an editorial published in ChainReaction August 2005, described the presence of Israeli Jews in the Gaza Strip as being “considered a crime against humanity by many legal experts.” Describing the presence of Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip in these terms ” justifies violence against them, pure and simple.

In another article published in 2007, Kassis wrote that the 1947 partition plan affirmed by the United Nations was a “major injustice against the Palestinian people.” Instead of dividing the country, Kassis said the UN should have called for “one state where Jews and Arabs would each enjoy self-determination.” In sum, Kassis would rather have seen for the creation of a bi-national state where Jews would have been a minority from the start.

Kassis’ enmity toward Israel goes a long way to explaining his assault on Archbishop Williams. The real threat posed by Archbishop Williams’ statement was not what he said about Christians in Palestinian society, but what he said about the suffering of Christians in Egypt and Iraq. The ethnic cleansing of Christians in the Middle East raises serious doubts about the story Palestinian Christians have been telling to their supporters for the past few decades.

In other words, the jig is up, and Kassis knows it.

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