Thursday, May 16, 2002
By: David Parsons
Though relieved over the end to the long standoff at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, many Jews and Christians remain outraged that most Church leaders did not forcefully condemn the blatant Muslim desecration of a major Christian shrine. Here was a clear case of Islamic militiamen deliberately taking their battle against Israel into a revered church and taking clerics and youths as hostages. Yet most of Christendom seemed mysteriously silent! And many churches that did speak out chose to unfairly criticize Israel for its “siege.”
It is vital for Israelis to understand the reasons behind this moral imbalance of silence to Islam and open scorn towards Israel. In this regard, the Bethlehem standoff provides an unusually crisp portal into present Christian attitudes towards Israel and the enduring plight of Arab Christian minorities under Muslim domination.
First, not all Christians were silent. The Christian Embassy, for one, published a statement early on that “strongly condemned… this transgression on the sanctity of the Church of the Nativity,” deeming it “a premeditated offense by militant Muslim outlaws.” This was long before reports surfaced that the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem had previously met with the Abayat clan that heads the Fatah Tanzim in Bethlehem, offered them keys to the Nativity compound, and encouraged them to seek refuge there if the need arose.
Yet much of the mainstream media refused to pick up on such sober truth telling, since it did not fit their spin on the story, and thus they bear partial responsibility for the perceived silence.
Otherwise, the most obvious reason for the silence is classic Christian anti-Semitism both patent and latent. The standoff indeed unleashed a firestorm of anti-Semitic diatribes from numerous Arab clerics and Western pulpits. There is still much darkness to be purged from the Church. But there were other factors in play that warrant explanation namely self-preservation and self-enrichment.
This first concept is simple to grasp. Arab Christians in Bethlehem and throughout the Middle East have developed over time an ingrained survival mechanism never say anything bad in public about your Muslim neighbors since it could cost you dearly. With the rise of Palestinian nationalism, this penchant for self-preservation prompted some indigent Christians to wax more anti-Israel than the Muslim majority. In his excellent work The Siege, former Irish diplomat (and Catholic) Conor Cruise O’Brien describes it as “waving the bloody shirt” higher than the Muslims in order to show your loyalty to the cause.
Yet the price for demonstrating that loyalty is on the rise. In the first intifada, Bethlehem’s Christians were asked, “Why don’t your sons come throw stones alongside the Muslim boys?” Many Christian families packed up and left. In the current, more deadly intifada, the question being asked is, “Why aren’t you giving any of your sons as shaheeds?” The silence is ever more deafening.
Many church leaders abroad understand the dangers faced by local Christians and thus adhere to the same code of silence to protect these precious flocks. This was prominently on display in the recent standoff, and may be a responsible move to some extent, so long as you do not also unduly blame the Israelis for every wrong.
In addition, as local Arab clerics keep silent about their suffering under Islam, it limits their ability to appeal for vital outside support to meet real needs in their communities. Some respond by jumping at any chance to trumpet supposed sufferings under the “Israeli occupation,” knowing Israel does not bite back. Thus when the IDF first entered Beit Jala last August to quash Tanzim gunfire at Gilo, there was a tremendous outcry that Israeli forces were holding some 45 “orphans” in a Lutheran compound as “human shields.” Total nonsense, of course, and nothing as egregious as Muslim gunmen invading the Church of the Nativity. But it proved profitable nonetheless.
Some local clergy and foreign ministries aligned with them subtly compete for funding, and the winner is often the one who can scream the loudest against Israel. The same can be said about major elements of the so-called human rights movements. Blasting Israel can be good for business.
In a similar vein, many churches that minister in the Arab/Islamic world make the mistake of thinking they have to bash Israel in order to “get in good” with the natives. This has manifested even in Evangelical circles that otherwise would be predisposed to favoring Israel. Yet we can attest that it is possible to raise monies and assist the humble Christians of Bethlehem without compromising on the Bible’s mandate to “bless” the Jewish people.
Be that as it may, there are some very positive signs coming out of the Bethlehem standoff that augur well for future relations between Israel and the Christian world.
One Protestant source close to the Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Vatican delegations involved in the Nativity negotiations insists they were “tremendously grateful to Israel for exercising restraint,” but had “disgust beyond words” for the Muslim gunmen and Palestinian officials they had to deal with. Christian and Israeli officials built a “trustful relationship” during the stretched-out talks, although it will remain problematic to express this publicly. The outrage against the Muslim actions is there, but it is still outweighed by the fears.
The question is whether it is time for responsible Church leaders to remove the gag, since it has done little to relieve the plight of Christians in Bethlehem and elsewhere under the Palestinian Authority. The standoff may be over, but they are still living with a Muslim gun to their heads. And God forbid that the next standoff darken the door of the Holy Sepulchre.
International Christian Embassy Jerusalem
©2010 International Christian Embassy Jerusalem