WBUR’s “On Point” Misses the Mark

Tom Ashbrook, the host of WBUR’s daily talk show, “On Point,” presented a distorted view of reality during an April 6, 2007 segment on Christians in the Middle East. Commentators  portrayed the Crusades, Israel and the United States as the primary cause of a Christian exodus from the Middle East, while minimizing pressures from the radical Muslim sector that have played an undeniable role in the decline of the Christian population in the region.

The show offered comment from a total of five guests: Gregory Katz, Middle East Bureau Chief for the Houston Chronicle; Sister Olga, a diocesan hermit in the Roman Catholic Church and native of Iraq who now works as a campus minister at Boston University’s Catholic Center; Yvonne Haddad, professor of the History of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Georgetown University; Michael Kfouri, a Lebanese Maronite Christian and Buthina Canaan Khouri, a Greek Orthodox Palestinian.

In addition to these guests, “On Point’s” listeners heard four callers who:
• compared the modern-day suffering of Christians in the Middle East to the   suffering of  Christians under the Roman Empire;
• blamed the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq and support for Israel for the departure of Christians in the Middle East;
• complained about the role governments in the Middle East have played in driving Christians from the region; and
• blamed fundamentalist Christians like Pat Robertson for supporting Israel in a manner that provokes Muslim hostility toward local Christians.
The overall thesis of the show was that Christians are leaving the Middle East for a number of reasons, including:
• hostility engendered by America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003;
• access to greater economic opportunities outside the region;
• Sunni and Shia violence against Christians in Iraq;
• Fear of a fundamentalist takeover in Lebanon.
In reference to Israel and the disputed territories, the departure of Christians was blamed on the “occupation.” The issue of Muslim fundamentalism driving Palestinian Christians out of the region was discussed only to be dismissed in subsequent conversation. Attempts do downplay or deny the impact of Muslim fundamentalism were most apparent in the testimony from Gregory Katz, Yvonne Haddad and Buthina Khoury.

In particular, Ashbrook allowed Haddad to deny, without challenge, the historical record of Muslim violence against Christians in the Middle East. Haddad, falsely reported that there is only one known incident of Christians being forced to convert to Islam – in Turkey under the Seljuks (who were influential during the 11th and 12th centuries). The readily available historical record shows that forced conversions were a major factor in the spread of Islam throughout the Middle East. On this score, “On Point” listeners were sharply deceived because the program did not include guests with the qualifications to disprove Haddad’s false statement.

Moreover, Ashbrook allowed Buthina Khoury to claim that Israeli occupation has been the primary factor in driving Christians from the West Bank without acknowledging the impact of Muslim fundamentalism. In particular, Khoury’s family, owners of a brewery in the West Bank, has received extensive publicity in recent years with regards to tensions from radical Muslims.

Not only did Muslims attempt to burn her family’s brewery to the ground in September 2005 in response to an illicit affair between a Christian man and a Muslim woman (who was allegedly murdered by her family when it was discovered she was pregnant), the brewery’s distributor in the Gaza strip was torched, likely by Muslim extremists to enforce an Islamic ban on alcohol. With Ashbrook’s failure to question Khoury about these events, “On Point” listeners were deprived of the necessary, but readily available, context to assess the validity of her testimony about the subject under discussion.

“Not Forced to Flee for their Lives”

The attempt to downplay the issue of Muslim pressure on Christians in the Middle East was clearly evident in commentary from Gregory Katz, Middle East Bureau Chief for the Houston Chronicle, who in December 2006, wrote a series of articles about the departure of Christians from the Middle East. On WBUR, Katz said that Christians are leaving the region to find new lives in the U.S., Latin America, and Australia, but not Europe.“They are just trying to leave and go somewhere else,” Katz told “On Point” listeners.

Katz downplayed the role Muslim pressure played in convincing Christians to leave, but then offered three examples of Christians leaving for fear of Muslim fundamentalism, which seem to prove exactly the opposite of one of his main points: “It’s not that these people are being openly persecuted and forced to flee for their lives.”

Under questioning from Ashbrook, Katz admitted that in Iraq, Christians are, in fact, fleeing for their lives as a result of attacks by Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

Katz then reported that Lebanon’s Christians are leaving because they are fearful of a fundamentalist takeover in their country.

Katz then acknowledged that his recent reporting on Christians in the West Bank and Gaza, which blamed the problem mostly on Israel, received “a lot of criticism” for not describing the impact of Hamas on Palestinian Christians.

“I did find some of that in my reporting – some Christians in Bethlehem saying that Hamas was putting the pressure on trying to get a more devout Islamic following throughout the West Bank so really both Israel and to a degree Hamas are pressuring the Christians. It makes them feel they have no future here.”

Forced Conversions

On the issue of forced conversions, Ashbrook relied on Yvonne Haddad who, after describing the terrible impact that the Crusades had on Orthodox Christians in the region, stated:

… with the coming of the Muslims against the Crusades you have the Seljuks who took power and when they took over Anatolia which is now Eastern Turkey, they went through some of the villages and forcefully converted the Christians to Islam. And in the whole history of Islam it’s the only incident we know of where Christians were forced to convert to Islam.

Later in the program, Ashbrook affirmed Haddad’s assertion that the forcible conversions of Christians by Muslim rulers were rare when a caller subsequently raised the issue of “concerted government activity to extinguish Christianity” in the Middle East. Ashbrook challenged the caller with the following:

Yvonne Haddad said that’s rare, that’s been rare. The Seljuks in Turkey centuries ago. But what are you pointing to?

Later, when a caller asked another guest, Sister Olga (who gave moving testimony about the deteriorating plight of Christians in her home country of Iraq) what she would say to those who voted for George Bush, who according to the caller is responsible for “the war in Iraq, unquestioning alliance with Israel, the ruination of the relationship between Muslims and Christians which have historically actually been pretty good.”

In total, three voices on the show – those of an “expert,” the host, and a caller, all affirmed the notion of historically good relations between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East. The historical reality is much starker than “On Point” listeners were led to believe, however. Despite Haddad’s testimony to the contrary, forced conversions of Christians was not a rare phenomenon but is instead one of the primary reasons why Christianity currently has such a diminished presence in the region of its birth.

Haddad’s assertion that the forced conversions perpetrated by the Seljuk Dynasty in Turkey (which ruled from the 10th to 14th centuries) are the “only incident we know of where Christians were forced to convert to Islam” is contradicted by the historical record.

In The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996) Bat Ye’or writes the following on pages 88 to 89:

After the Arab conquest, a number of Christianized Arab tribes suffered defeat, enslavement, and forced conversion. In 704-5, Marwan’s son, Muhammad, assembled the Armenian nobles in the church of St. Gregory in Naxcawan and the church of Xram on the Araxes and burned them to death. Walid I (705-15) had Christian captives killed in the churches of Syria. He used various forms of torture to make the Christian Taghlib tribe apostasize. Ummar II ordered that Jewish and Christian apostates be exempt from the poll tax. Under al-Mansur (754-75), the whole Christian population of the Germanicea valley (Marash, north of Aleppo) was taken prisoner and deported to Ramla in Palestine. Mahdi (775-85) used torture to force the Christian tribe of the Tanukiyya, which lived in the vicinity of Aleppo, to become Muslim. Five thousand men apostasized and the women escaped. During his reign, the persecution of the Manicheans intensified. Idirs I (789-93):

having arrived in the Maghreb, caused the last traces of the religions <Christian, Jewish and Pagan> to disappear and put an end to the independence of these tribes [Judeo-Berber].

The Christian resistance had its martyrs in Andalusia, under Abd al-Rahman II (822-52); his successor, Muhammad I, yielded to the ulama of Cordova and obliged some of his Christian officials to convert so as to keep their positions. Religious disturbances continued in the province of Elvira in 889, and in 891 Sevile and its surrounding areas were drenched in blood by the massacre of thousands of Spaniards—Christian and muwallads [Spanish converts to Islam].

… The Almohad persecutions in the Maghreb and Muslim Spain (1130-1212) eliminated Christianity there. In Tunis in 1159:

The Jews and the Christians who live in this town had the choice of Islamism or death; one part became Muslim and the remainder were executed.

… In Antioch, around 1058, Greeks and Armenians were converted by force, torture being used to persuade the recalcitrants. After the defeat of the Mongols by the Malmuks in Syria (1260), the Christians of Damascus were pillaged and slaughtered, others were reduced to slavery, and churches were destroyed and burned down. … In 1261, the slaves of Malik Salih, governor of Mosul, looted the Christians and killed anyone who did not become a Muslim. (Pages 88-89)

Ye’or also details the forced conversion imposed by Turks in more recent times:

For strategic reasons, the Turks forcibly converted the populations in the frontier regions of Macedonia and northern Bulgaria, particularly in the sixteenth and 17th centuries. Those who refused were executed or burned alive. Traveling in Anatolia in the Salt Lake region, Tavnier observed that in the village of Mucur, “there are numbers of Greeks who are forced every day to become Turks.” In fact, the whole history of Islamic conquest is punctuated with forced conversions. In 1896, Armenians in the vicinity of Birekjik on the Euphrates were forced to convert and had to go into exile in order to revert to Christianity. After the great massacres of 1915-16, a small number escaped death by converting to Islam. It would be tedious to enumerate all such cases, repeated over the years and recorded in Christian and Muslim chronicles. (Pages 90-91)

Ye’or also reports that Christian children were forced to convert to Islam through a process of enslavement.

During the centuries of Muslim expansion, a continuous flow of non-Muslim peoples supplied the slave markets. … The trauma resulting from captivity or slavery prompted unransomed prisoners who had lost family, money, and friends to convert to Islam. (Page 90)

Later, Ye’or provides more detail about the relationship between slavery and forced conversions:

Another important process of Islamization was the devshirme. This practice, introduced by the Ottoman sultan Orkha (1326-59), consisted of a regular levy, as tribute, of a fifth of the Christian children from the conquered Balkan regions. The interval between levies varied with needs. Some places were exempt: Constantinople, Jannina, Galata, Rhodes. These youngers, aged between fourteen and twenty, were converted to Islam and entered the corps of the Janissaries, military militias formed almost exclusively of Christians. The periodic levies, which took place in contingents of a thousand, subsequently became annual. The Christian children were requisitioned from among the Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Armenian, and Albanian aristocracy and from among the children of the priests. At a fixed date, every father had to gather with his sons at the central place of the village. The recruiting agents, themselves janissaries, then selected the handsomest and most robust … (Pages 113-115)

Ye’or is relying on a variety of readily-available sources when she reports on the long and sad history of forced conversions in the Middle East under Muslim rule. (The second half of The Decline of Ea stern Christianity Under Islam is comprised entirely of historical documents translated from Arabic and other languages into English, all of which detail the oppression of Christians under Muslim rulers in the Middle East.) The record clearly demonstrates that Haddad, a putative expert on Muslim-Christian relations, was flat-out wrong when she asserted that forced conversions were limited to a few villages in Turkey under the Seljuks. The truth was hiding in plain sight in the well-known historical record, but it remained hidden during the segment.

Haddad is personally responsible for misleading “On Point” listeners about the issue of forced conversions of Christians, but the program’s producers are also at fault. They should have made experts capable of contradicting her falsehoods available to “On Point” listeners. To be sure, Ashbrook cannot be expected to be able to cite the historical record chapter and verse, but he and his producers are obligated to exert a healthy skepticism toward their sources and additionally, bring in experts with countervailing opinions capable of challenging Haddad’s assertion.

Present Situation

“On Point”’s failure to provide relevant information about his guests was most especially evident with the commentary from Buthina Canaan Khouri. Khouri, who was introduced as Greek Orthodox Palestinian Christian and an independent filmmaker from the West Bank town of Taybeh, said both Muslims and Christians are suffering as a result of the occupation. Predictably, she blamed Israel for the declining population of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip:

To you tell you the truth it has been and … still the main reason is the occupation .. is the fearful measurement of the Israeli occupation against the Palestinian population.

If you look at the high unemployment … if you look at the poverty eighty, eighty-five percent of poverty and increasing, daily the hardship of daily life or the checkpoints the wall that is being measured (sic). … It is turning our life really into misery. Plus growing up in such a situation fundamentalism grows more and more, and therefore racist becoming racism becoming very strong, all that together plus the negligence of the rest of the world toward Christians living here in Palestine all that I think … contributes to the emmigration of Palestinian Christians.

Ashbrook questioned Khouri about Hamas’s impact on the Christian population in the West Bank and about her relationships with Muslim Palestinians, to which she responded:

I’m telling you the truth, no that’s not the case yet. I don’t know if it’s going to be like that, but at this time there’s no threat from Hamas in particular against any Palestinian especially against minorities and against Christians. And even for women it’s not yet the case. There are concerns and worries later on in the future maybe but at this stage there are no worries. I am Christian as you said, I am [a] woman. I am living in Palestine. I have been born and lived here. Until now I have not faced any problem as a Christian.

And I am independent filmmaker, but there are certain cases that took place, some you can say, some fights between some Christians and Muslims some cases here and there and it has been the case as well.  There have been fights even among Christians themselves some times. I am Greek Orthodox and we know there is a fight going on between even the Greek patriarch the old one and the new one. So we do encounter some problems here and there amongst Palestinian Christians and Muslims but that’s not the threat from Hamas at the [present] time.

“On Point” listeners were not offered several important facts about her life in Taybeh that would have provided important context about her narrative. First, she is part of a family that owns the only brewery in the West Bank or Gaza, which was nearly destroyed by a mob of Muslim arsonists in September 2006. Articles about this episode are readily discovered through a simple internet search.

For example, an article published by USA Today on April 9, 2006 begins with the following lede:

For Buthina Khoury, whose family owns the only brewery in the Palestinian territories, the election victory of Hamas carries risk.
Hamas advocates a strict, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, one in which alcohol would presumably be forbidden.
So by June, the Khoury’s Taybeh Brewing Co. will have introduced its first non-alcoholic beer.
“The times are changing and we don’t want to lose out,” Khoury says …

The article (which displays an image of Khoury holding a glass of beer which closely matches another photo of her here) also reports that business for the brewery started declining when the Second Intifada began in 2000.

To stop suicide bombers, Israel expanded its network of West Bank checkpoints, making deliveries all but impossible. Israelis stopped drinking Taybeh, as suicide attacks by Palestinians increased.
The Khourys’ brewery suffered an 80% slump in business during the uprising. It cut its workforce from 15 to five.
Avant-Garde, a Tel Aviv pub, used to offer Taybeh beer. “Nobody asks for it anymore,” manager Lior Boim says. “We have not sold it since the intifada started.”

USA Today provides context “On Point” did not by reporting that the security measures Khoury complained about were prompted by suicide attacks and that Israeli demand for at least one Palestinian product – beer produced by Khoury’s family – decreased in the face of Palestinian terror attacks. This raises the question of Palestinian violence against Israel – much of it perpetrated by Muslim extremists – contributing directly to Christian suffering in the West Bank and Gaza, but again it was left unaddressed in the discussion.

Another article published by Canada’s Globe and Mail in June 2006 details the prospects for the brewery’s success in light of Hamas’s electoral victory earlier that year.

Although beer still flows from the taps in West Bank towns with large Christian populations such as Ramallah, Jericho and Bethlehem, as well as East Jerusalem, there’s none to be found in Muslim-dominated cities of Nablus and Hebron. In the Gaza Strip, where Hamas unofficially ruled the streets before the election, there is an informal ban on all kinds of alcohol.
The United Nations Club, the last placed still daring to serve drinks in the territory in 2006, was bombed earlier this year. Taybeh’s distributor in G aza was torched long before that. (June 9, 2006)

What makes Khoury’s background even more relevant to the matter at hand, is the fact that her family’s brewery was nearly burnt to the ground by Muslims from the nearby town of Deir Jarir who set fire to approximately a dozen homes in Taybeh in September 2005.

While some reports indicate that religion was not a factor, it is pretty hard to ignore the possibility that Muslim animosity toward Christians played a factor in the violence. BBC correspondent Lucy Williamson reported on Sept. 10, 2005 that the violence was a consequence of an illicit affair between a Christian man and a Muslim woman who was allegedly poisoned after her family discovered she was pregnant as a result of the relationship. The attack on Christian homes took place after Palestinian officials exhumed the body to determine if in fact, she was murdered. Before the homes were set alight, the mob had intended to set the brewery on fire, according to Nadim Khoury:

“There were two or three hundred people,” he says, “on the roof of the brewery over there; climbing over my neighbors wall, carrying guns and big sticks.
“My sisters picked up stones to throw at them. We were screaming at them not to burn the brewery.”
“Nadim was lucky – the brewery escaped, but the mob burned 13 houses that night – all of them belonging to Nadim’s extended family.
His cousins hid in the olive groves overlooking the village and watched as their homes were torched.
The burnings were a punishment from the neighbouring village of Deir Jarir.
The target, Nadim’s cousin, Mahdi – a Christian – was accused of having a relationship with a Muslim woman from Dair Jarir, which his family denies.
But the woman, Hayem, Ejerj, was not around to give her version. She was buried more than a week ago.
Many suspect that this may have been an honour killing – that Hayem was murdered by her family to wipe out the perceived shame of her behaviour.

Later the BBC reporter downplays the prospect that the violence was motivated by Muslim hostility toward Christian by asserting it was not a battle between Muslims and Christians, but a battle “between Palestinian officialdom and tribal justice.”

One question Ashbrook could have asked, if he had known to bring the issue up, is if there have been similar instances of Muslim homes being set on fire in response to illicit affairs between Muslims.

Fortunately, there are numerous sources available to help “On Point” follow-up on the issue. Two sources in particular are worth inviting: Khaled Abu Tomeh, a Palestinian journalist with the Jerusalem Post who has detailed the mistreatment of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza and Wafa Sultan, a Syrian-born psychiatrist who has been particularly critical of the mistreatment of minorities in the Middle East.

Because of “On Point”’s journalistic failures, its listeners would, regrettably, not learn of the ongoing and real threats to the surviving Christian communities in the Middle East.


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