Despite a recent statement by the Latin Patriarch suggesting the contrary, it seems that such claims are misguided at best, write Lord Simon Isaacs, Des Starritt and Pastor Brian Greenaway.
Last week, the Latin Patriarch, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, alleged that Israel’s current government has emboldened perpetrators to carry out greater amounts of attacks on Christians. Pizzaballa argued that extremists have been increasingly harassing clergy and vandalising religious property since the current government came to power. He argued that the prevalence of settler leaders in key roles has made extremists feel that they are protected and that the cultural and political atmosphere tolerates such attacks.
The reality on the ground in Israel could not be more different. The declaration of independence describes the country as a Jewish state but clearly extends religious freedom to all of its inhabitants. The Central Bureau of Statistics reports that 84% of Israel’s Christian community say they are satisfied with life in the country. This is unsurprising, given that Christian Arabs are one of the most educated groups in Israel. 53.1% of Arab Christians and 35.4% of non-Arab Christians went on to get a bachelor’s degree after finishing high school. Furthermore, there are lower numbers of Christians signing up for unemployment benefits than Jews and Muslims. Arab Christians are over-represented in law, mathematics, statistics, social sciences, and computer sciences in Israel’s higher education system.
More generally, Christians in Israel enjoy a wide range of benefits which starkly demonstrate that Israel remains a welcoming place for Christians, even under the current government. Israel is home to many important Christian holy sites, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Israeli government recognizes the importance of these sites to Christians and works to preserve and protect them. Christians are represented in Israel’s government and have their own political party, the Christian Aramean Party. In addition, Christians are appointed to high-ranking positions in the military and civil service. Christian schools are recognized by the Israeli government and receive funding, which means that Christian students have access to education that reflects their religious beliefs and values. Christian tourists are welcomed in Israel and encouraged to visit holy sites and other places of religious significance. This helps to promote cultural exchange and understanding between different communities. Lastly, Christian perspectives and voices are often featured in Israeli media, including news programs and publications. This helps to promote diversity and inclusion in the media landscape. These benefits blatantly mark Israel out as the best place in the Middle East to be Christian. Importantly, however, these factors show that Israel is an exceptional nation in which to be a Christian even ignoring arbitrary comparisons between Israel and the Arab nations, which Israelis likely would disapprove of anyway.
In fact, Pizzaballa’s claims seem to unfairly blame the current Israeli government for the outbreak in attacks when they should be pinned on extremists, who exist everywhere. In no way are the attacks endorsed by the current government. In fact, the government has even taken pains to defend Christian rights in Israel, with Netanyahu’s rejection of a bill banning proselytizing a good example. By contrast, persecution against Christians in many Arab states can often find legal and political justification, rather than a vague pinning on some sort of political aura the current coalition in Israel might be emitting. For example, there is an Egyptian law that required presidential approval to carry out even simple Church repairs, such as fixing toilets, which has caused delays of over decade in the issuing of permits to build churches. Even more pressingly, although Article 4 of Palestine Basic Law asserts that despite Islam being the official religion, “respect and sanctity of all other heavenly religions shall be maintained”, The law goes on to say Shari’a shall be the main source of legislation, meaning conversion from Islam is punishable by death.
In fact, a history of vandalism against Christian communities by Muslim neighbours makes it equally likely that attacks were cases of inner-Palestinian violence and had nothing to do with Arab-Jewish tensions. Numbers confirm that Christians living under the Palestinian Authority (PA) are experiencing continual ill-treatment that Muslims do not. In 1947, Christians made up 85% of the population of Bethlehem, an ancient Christian stronghold. By 2016, Christians had declined to only 16% of the population.
It is reported that hundreds of Christians have staged protests in Gaza’s main church in the past week, demanding the return of members of their community of 2,500, whom they said were kidnapped by Islamist proselytizers and forced to convert to Islam. In a similar vein, the organization Open Doors has placed the Palestinian Territories on its World Watch List, an annual report on the global persecution of Christians, citing ‘Islamic oppression’ as the main source. Unsurprisingly, Israel is absent from said list.
These issues are strongly felt by Palestinian Christians. A survey of almost a thousand such Christians by the Philos Project reports that 80% worry about corruption in the Palestinian government, and around 70% of them fear Hamas. 77% say they are worried about radical Salafist groups in Palestine. Whilst a large minority believe both that most Muslims do not want them in Palestine (43%) and that Christians are discriminated against when applying for jobs (44%).
It therefore is quite challenging to take seriously Pizzaballa’s doomsday predictions that ‘this escalation will bring more and more violence’ and ‘will create a situation that will be very difficult to correct’. Rather, it is evident not just that Israel is the only country in the Middle East in which Christian communities have been able to thrive, as Father Gabriel Naddaf (leader of the Aramean Christian community in Israel) argues. It is also evident that Christians are thriving even by standards less meagre than Middle Eastern ones. It would be folly to completely ignore the rise in attacks; any and all forms of violence must be decried. But a jump from correlation to causation seems premature and unfair. While there is much that must be addressed in Israel’s democracy, on the occasion of its 75th year of independence, it seems more appropriate to commend the significant political and legal safeguards which Israel has in place ensuring religious freedom for all.
The Most Hon. Marquess of Reading Lord Simon Isaacs is the Chairman of the Barnabas Foundation.
Des Starritt is the Executive Director of Christians United for Israel UK.
Pastor Brian Greenaway is the chairman of Love Never Fails.
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