by Fiamma NirensteinReligious leaders lay the blame for the situation in Palestine on Jerusalem. But the Jewish State is the only one where the followers of Christ are on the increase.
It’s not hard to imagine how worried the Catholic Church is about its Christians in the Middle East, and this is why it has dedicated a lengthy working session at the Synod of Bishops to problems in that area. Islam does not like Eastern Christians: it has forced them to flee and now they account for only 6% of the population in the Mideast. There is only one country where the number of Christians has grown. In Israel, from their 34,000 in '49, they have become 163,000 and will be 187,000 in 2020. In Muslim countries, on the other hand, Christians are on the wane, but the 50 churches present in the Holy Land seem not to notice. They prefer to dump on Israel, where they enjoy full freedom of worship and expression. It’s useless to hearken back to the time of Islamic conquest in the 7th century when Christians accounted for 95 percent.
According to the report by the US Department of State on religious freedom, in 2007 in Turkey, there were two million Christians, and today there are 85,000; in Lebanon they have gone from 55% to 35%; in Egypt their number has been halved; in Syria, from half the population they have been reduced to 4%; in Jordan, from 18% to 2%; while in Saudi Arabia, they speak of "invisible Christians". In Iran, Christians have become virtually non-existent. In Gaza, the 3,000 who remain are subjected to continuous persecution. All this the Christian hierarchies talk about under their breath, and this is understandable; but it is not acceptable, in such a high-level venue as the Synod, to severely criticize Israel, just to avoid offending your persecutors.
And there are even some in the Catholic Church who think this way. After an authoritative name—that of the Custodian of the Holy Land, Pierbattista Pizzaballa—was unthinkingly used as the signature of a document written in a tone of theological excommunication towards the State of Israel, Pizzaballa called a press conference to warn that no church in the Holy Land had signed the document. His way of announcing that he is no longer willing to play that game. But if you go to the www.kairospalestine.ps website, the names of top-level signers are clearly visible on the document, drawn up back in December 2009, and which will be presented today at the Synod. Among them, are, in fact, the Latin Patriarch Mons. Fouad Twal, Pizzaballa himself (a good, intelligent Franciscan and fine intellectual), Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, Armenian Torkon Manougian and Copt Anba Abraham, as well as Lutheran Manib Yunan and Anglican Suheil Dawani.
The previous Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, a die-hard apostle of the Palestinian cause, will present the document that speaks in the name of "us Christian Palestinians". In it, it says: “The military occupation is a sin against God and against man”, actually excommunicates Christian supporters of Israel, takes sides against the very presence of Israel, likens the defensive barrier that has blocked 98% of terrorism to apartheid, attacks the settlements invoking the name of God and conceptually cancels the Jewish state, imagining it to be a mixture—Islamic, Christian and also perhaps a bit Jewish. It even legitimizes terrorism when it talks about the “thousands of prisoners who languish in Israeli jails” and which are “part of the society around us”. In fact, “resistance to the evil of occupation is a Christian's right and duty".
Monsignor Twal has issued a number of statements in recent days. He has said that, instead of two states for two peoples, there should be just one, ignoring the current idea that Arab refugees and birth rates would sweep away the Jews. And, secondly, he said that "100%" of the reason why Palestinians are running away is Israeli occupation. He is probably referencing the freedom of movement denied by the barrier and safety checks which increase or decrease depending on the terrorist threat, completely ignored by Twal. But there is a flaw in the Patriarch’s reasoning: Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population is growing, and significantly so, as has already been stated. From 1997 to 2003, the Christian population has increased by 14%, while in Cisjordan, under the Palestinian authorities, it has decreased by 29%. Bethlehem, the city where Jesus was born and where the Christian presence has always been one of its distinctive characteristics, has remained semi-abandoned by fleeing Christians. Yes, the Israeli occupation does impede movement, but the kidnapping, crime and reprisals of Tanzim and Hamas against Christians are even more terrifying.
And not only. Even if disagreements do sometimes arise between the three religions in Jerusalem (the only city in Israel where the Christian presence has decreased, perhaps due to the atmosphere of conflict), they are always out in the open and within the context of completely liberal legislation. Whoever goes to the capital of Israel sees it filled with crowds of pilgrims, processions, the religious faithful, ethnic groups and faiths. Religious freedom, freedom of access and belief is total, as it has never been since the time of Islamic conquest. Churches, of whatever type or degree, have legal status, a say in what happens, real estate, large sums of money—and complete freedom of opinion. In Arab countries, the opposite is true. There are those at the Synod, unlike the representatives from Jerusalem, who have denounced Islamic persecution, as reported in Il Foglio: Gregorius III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch, the Archbishop of the Syrians in Iraq Basile Georges Casmoussa and François Eid, the Egyptian bishop, and others have dared to speak out about the constrictive situation in which their brothers live. But it is from Lebanon, which has just experienced a sort of Shi'ite invasion by Iran’s Ahmadinejad, that a voice has been heard proclaiming, on the other hand, that Israel is Lebanon’s problem, a foreign entity in the Middle East. The voice is that of Edmond Farhat, Nuncio to Lebanon.
In the final draft of the appeal which will be voted on Friday, the Synod is once again offering the Catholic Church as the guarantor of freedom of religious and personal freedom for all religions. But if there are no sanctions against what Christians suffer in Islamic countries and if they continue to blame the Jews who have nothing to do with it all, how do they think they will be able—morally and practically—to sustain this?