Bethlehem and bigotry
There’s one invariable sign that Christmas is almost upon us – a story about how Bethlehem is suffering at the hands of wicked Israel.
It has become almost as much a feature of seasonal journalism as stories about how Nativity plays are being subverted and commentaries on how commercialism is snuffing out the true meaning of the festival.
This year we’ve already had our first exercise in demonising Israel for its treatment of Bethlehem with the graffiti artist Banksy enjoying extensive coverage for his trip to decorate the security barrier near the town with his work. The message of Banksy’s work and the coverage it has generated is the same: oppressive Israel has snuffed the life out of the town where the Prince of Peace was born. Herod’s spirit lives on, even as the spirit of Christmas is struggling to survive.
The truth is very different. The parlous position of Palestinian Christians, indeed the difficult position of most Christians across the Arab world, is a consequence not of Israeli aggression but of growing Islamist influence. Israel goes out of its way to honour sites and traditions sacred to other faiths while the radicals who are driving Palestinian politics seek to create an Islamist state in which other faiths, if they survive at all, do so with the explicit subject status of dhimmis.
But when it comes to Israel’s position in these matters it’s still a case of O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see them lie.
It is wholly consistent with this latest report received from Scottish Friends of Israel:
With the Christmas holiday fast approaching, the town of Bethlehem, the historic birthplace of Jesus, is facing a continuing exodus of its Christian residents as a result of growing persecution by radical Muslims.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), led by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, strongly condemns the oppression of Christians in Bethlehem by Islamic extremists, which has risen sharply since Israel turned over control of the town to the Palestinian Authority in 1995. At the time of Israel's withdrawal, Christians made up 62% of Bethlehem's population.
Today, that figure stands at approximately 15%, a historic all-time low.
The persecution of Christians by hard-line Islamists is common in Palestinian-controlled areas and indeed throughout the entire Middle East.
In Gaza, where 3,000 Christians live among 1.5 million Muslims, it is particularly violent and sometimes deadly. Just recently, Rami Khader Ayyad, owner of a Christian bookstore, was murdered by extremists. Following Hamas' violent take-over of Gaza in June 2007, numerous attacks against Christians were also reported, including the ransacking of a convent.
IFCJ has decided to highlight these human rights violations and call attention to the persecution of Christians occurring in these areas. In addition, the organization is providing funds for a special holiday program to feed underprivileged Christian Arabs in Bethlehem. The assistance is being extended through the First Baptist Church of Bethlehem, headed by Pastor Naim Khoury, and will help provide food aid to hundreds of Christians, many of whom have been harassed and threatened by Muslim radicals because of their faith. Pastor Khoury has survived three separate assassination attempts in recent years, while his church has reportedly been bombed by Islamic extremists fourteen times.
"The oppression of Christian Arabs by their Muslim brethren has caused thousands to flee Palestinian-controlled areas over the past decade. The US and the international community need to pressure the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to reverse this deplorable trend and ensure the safety and prosperity of its Christian population," said Rabbi Eckstein, IFCJ President and Founder. "Through this gift, IFCJ is providing material support to the needy and saying to Bethlehem's Christians that they are not forgotten - that both Jews and Christians stand with them in their time of need."
Founded in 1983, IFCJ has a dual mission to foster better understanding and cooperation between Christians and Jews and to build broad support for Israel and the Jewish people around the world. The Fellowship works to help Jews immigrate to Israel from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Iran, Argentina, India and other troubled countries; fight poverty and aid victims of war and terrorism in Israel; and extend aid to poor elderly Jews and orphans in the former Soviet Union. For general information about the IFCJ, please visit www.ifcj.org.