In its June 2009 issue,Â National GeographicÂ demonstrated just how far it is willing to go to scapegoatÂ IsraelÂ for suffering in theÂ Middle East. The magazine also showed how far it is willing to go to downplay the role Islam played in contributing to Christianity’s decline in the region. In anÂ articleÂ written by Don Belt, the magazine’s senior editor for foreign affairs,Â National GeographicÂ portrays the departure of Christians from theÂ Holy LandÂ as largely a consequence of Israeli (and American) policies in the region. The article offers no honest description of the well-documented mistreatment of Christians at the hands of Muslim majority populations in theÂ Middle East.
Belt’s efforts to whitewash the role Islamic conquest played in the decline of Christianity in the Middle East becomes obvious in the third paragraph of the article which states that “it was during the Crusades (1095-1291) that Arab Christians, slaughtered along with Muslims by the crusaders and caught in the cross fire between Islam and the Christian West, began a long, steady retreat into the minority.”
In reality, Arab Christianity began its “long, steady retreat” into minority status hundreds of years before the European crusaders ever set foot in theÂ Holy Land. As Bat Ye’or and other commentators have documented, the process of forced conversion and subjugation of Christians in theÂ Middle EastÂ began soon after the death of Mohammed in 632. Ye’or writes that after unifying theÂ Arabian PeninsulaÂ under Muslim rule, Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s successor, brought war to non-Muslims, including Christians, outsideÂ Arabia. In her bookÂ The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to DhimmitudeÂ (Farleigh Dickinson Press, 1996)Â Ye’or writes:
Arab idolaters had to choose between death or conversion; as for Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, if they paid tribute and accepted the conditions of conquest, they could buy back their right to live, freedom of worship and security of property.ÂIn 640 the second caliph, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, drove the Jewish and Christian tributaries out of Hijasz by invoking theÂ dhimmaÂ (contract) of Khaybar: the land belonged to Allah and his Envoy and the contract could be broken at the discretion of theÂ imam, the religious and political leader of theÂ ummaÂ [Muslim religious community] and the interpreter of Allah’s will. Umar also invoked the desire expressed by the Prophet on his deathbed: “Two religions should not co-exist within theÂ Arabian peninsula.” (Page 39)
While Ye’or is careful to explain that the subjugation of peoples and faiths was part and parcel of life in the Middle East at the time and that offering conquered peoples a chance to convert to Islam “curbed the barbarity of war,” she also makes clear that Christianity declined under Muslim conquest in the region conducted under the rubric of jihad, or holy war against non-Muslims.
- BBCÂ Guide: Christians in the Middle East
- Was Al BeBeeCeera more accurate in 2005 than today? Â “Christian communities across the region are declining in numbers because of a combination of low birth rates, emigration and, in some places, persecution.”
Instead of acknowledging this history, Belt portrays early Muslim history as a time of tolerance, describing theLevant’s history of “coexistence between Muslims and people of other faiths, which dates from the earliest days of Islam. When the Muslim Caliph Omar conqueredÂ SyriaÂ from theÂ Byzantine EmpireÂ around 636, he protected the Christians under his rule, allowing them to keep their churches and worship as they pleased.”
Here again, Belt ignores an inconvenient truth: that by the eighth century Arab Muslim rulers used indigenous Christian communities as both a source of income and forced labor (slavery) in the Middle East, a policy that contributed to the decline of Christianity in the region. (For a detailed description of this process, consult Bat Ye’or’sThe Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude, pages 100-140.)
In one key passage, Belt lays out his agenda: Obscure the facts about where Christianity is growing in theÂ Middle East(Israel), downplay and minimize the role Muslim extremism plays in marginalizing Christians in Palestinian society, and blame Western Christians for the misdeeds of Muslims in the region. In this passage, Belt writes:
For anyone living inÂ IsraelÂ or the Palestinian territories, stress is the norm. But the 196,500 Palestinian and Israeli Arab Christians, who dropped from 13 percent of the population in 1894 to less than 2 percent today, occupy a uniquely oxygen-starved space between traumatized Israeli Jews and traumatized Palestinian Muslims, whose rising militancy is tied to regional Islamist movements that sometimes target Christians. In the past decade, “the situation for Arab Christians has gone rapidly downhill,” says Razek Siriani, a frank and lively man in his 40s who works for the Middle East Council of Churches inÂ Aleppo,Â Syria. “We’re completely outnumbered and surrounded by angry voices,” he says. Western Christians have made matters worse, he argues, echoing a sentiment expressed by many Arab Christians. “It’s because of what Christians in the West, led by theÂ U.S., have been doing in the East,” he says, ticking off the wars in Iraq Afghanistan,Â U.S.Â support forÂ Israel, and the threats of “regime change” by the Bush Administration. “To many Muslims, especially the fanatics, this looks like the crusades all over again, a war against Islam waged by Christianity. Because we’re Christians, they see us as the enemy too. It’s guilt by association.”
The first problem with this passage is that it obscures the increase of the Christian population inÂ Israel.
Belt is correct when he reports that the overall percentage of Christians in Israeli society has declined from what it was in the 1800s. Christians have become a smaller proportion of the population inÂ IsraelÂ â€“ not because they are leaving but because of the growth ofÂ Israel’sÂ JewishÂ population.Â IsraelÂ is after all, theÂ JewishÂ homeland. Despite this proportional decline,Â Israel’s Christian population has increased substantially in absolute numbers since its founding, a fact Belt does not acknowledge. As previous CAMERAÂ analysisÂ on this subject reveals, the population of Christians inÂ IsraelÂ is currently increasing at a rater faster than that of Jews inÂ Israel. Analyst Tamar Sternthal writes:
As documented in the Central Bureau of Statistics’Â Statistical Abstract of Israel 2008 (Chart 2.2), in the last dozen years, Israel’s Christian population grew from 120,600 in 1995 to 151,600 in 2007, representing a growth rate of 25 percent. In fact, the Christian growth rate has outpaced the Jewish growth inÂ IsraelÂ in the last 12 years! In 1995, there were 4,522,300 Jews inÂ Israel, and in 2007 there were 5,478,200, representing a growth rate of 21 percent â€“ 4 percent less than the Christian population grew during the same time.ÂSince 1949, when there were 34,000 Christians inÂ Israel, the population has grown 345 percent.
Clearly,Â Israel’s population of Christians is growing substantially. Why does Belt omit this fact?
Another problem with Belt’s analysis is that it portrays Christians in theÂ West BankÂ and Gaza Strip as caught between two local parties â€“ traumatized Israeli Jews and traumatized Palestinian Muslims â€“ who are equally responsible for the suffering of Christians in Palestinian society. Numerous sources â€“ which have largely been ignored or dismissed by the human rights and peacemaking communities in the West â€“ have shown that the mistreatment of Christians in Palestinian society is rooted in a religiously-based ideology that calls for the subjugation of non-Muslims in Muslim majority society. For example, in 2005, Justus Reid Weiner invoked the phrase “imperfect citizenship” to describe the precarious position Christians endured in Palestinian society as a result of the Muslim influence on Palestinian governance and law. HeÂ writes:
As long as the religious factor influences the Muslim concept of citizenship, it will remain a particular problem for Christians, as Muslim culture only grants the rights and benefits of full citizenship to followers of Islam.
While Weiner reports that Muslim hostility toward Christians has increased since 9/11, the fact remains that the subjugation of Christians in theÂ Middle EastÂ has roots much deeper than 9/11, the invasions ofÂ IraqÂ andÂ Afghanistan, andÂ U.S.Â support forÂ Israel. Religious and ethnic minorities are badly treated throughout theÂ Middle EastÂ and when it comes to human rights and civil liberties, Arabs, whether Christian or Muslim, enjoy more rights inÂ IsraelÂ than they do in Arab-majority states throughout the region.
National Geographic’s attempt to blame the decline of Christianity in Palestinian society onÂ IsraelÂ is also evident in the captions to the photos displayed along with the cover story.Â Â Underneath a photo of barbed wired in theÂ West Bank, a caption reads “Christian farmers lost their olive groves when Israelis built a fence around a settlement.” Another caption quotes a Christian inÂ BethlehemÂ as saying “Under Israel occupation, normal life is impossible.”
Nowhere in the article is there any testimony about the harassment of Christians in Palestinian society. Nor is there any explanation whyÂ IsraelÂ built the security barrier and instituted checkpoints. The security barrier and the checkpoints were put in place for a reason which Belt cannot be bothered to acknowledge â€“ Palestinian terrorism. At what point will the Christians start holding terrorists responsible for the construction of the security barrier and the checkpoints in theÂ West Bank?
Exaggerating Christian Influence
Belt also exaggerates the role Christianity plays in theÂ Middle East, invoking the quote from a Syrian monk who says
… Muslims are us. This is the lesson the West has yet to learn and that Arab Christians are uniquely qualified to teach. They are the last, vital link between the Christian West and the Arab Muslim world. If Arab Christians were to disappear, the two sides would drift even further apart than they already are. They are the go-betweens.
Here Belt proffers a well-worn trope of Arab Christians serving as “go-betweens” between Muslims in theÂ Middle EastÂ and Christians in the West. But Arab Christians have barely any influence among their Muslim brethren. Their main influence is on Christians in theÂ U.S.Â andÂ Europe.
For example, Bernard Lewis, inÂ Semites And Anti-Semites: AnÂ Inquiry into Conflict and PrejudiceÂ (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), offers a detailed narrative about how Christian churches in the Middle East and the governments of the countries in which they were located worked to dissuade the Vatican from removing the deicide charge (the notion that the Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Christ) from the theology of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s.Â Fortunately, theseÂ negative efforts failed to prevent landmark theological changesÂ that have fostered improved Catholic-Jewish relations in the years since.
Another example of the “influence” of Arab Christians is the work of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. This organization has little, if any ability to constrain suicide attacks againstÂ Israel, but does condemnÂ IsraelÂ to American audiences at numerous conferences. To be sure, the group’s founder, Anglican Priest Naim Ateek, condemns suicide bombings â€“ in English â€“ to audiences of Western Christians (people who are not likely candidates for perpetrating suicide attacks), but his influence over Hamas is minimal at best.
If Arab Christians are go-betweens, their influence is one way â€“ from theÂ Middle EastÂ to the West. Their ability to moderate political life and reduce violence in Muslim-majority countries in the region is miniscule.
Attacks on Palestinian Christians Omitted
While Belt acknowledges the hostility between Muslims and Christians inÂ LebanonÂ in an extended interview with a Maronite Christian who worries about being outgunned by Shiite Militias, he fails to mention the mistreatment of Christians in theÂ West BankÂ and the Gaza Strip by the Muslim majority. There is no lack of information on this subject, just a lack of Palestinian Christians willing to be quoted publicly about it. Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian Muslim journalist who has covered the problem extensively for theÂ Jerusalem Post,Â recentlyÂ wroteÂ the following for the Hudson Institute:
Christian families have long been complaining of intimidation and land theft by Muslims, especially those working for the Palestinian Authority.ÂMany Christians inÂ BethlehemÂ and the nearby [Christian] towns of Bet Sahour and Beit Jalla have repeatedly complained that Muslims have been seizing their lands either by force or through forged documents. . . .ÂMoreover, several Christian women living in these areas have complained about verbal and sexual assaults by Muslim men.ÂOver the past few years, a number of Christian businessmen told me that they were forced to shut down their businesses because they could no longer afford to pay “protection” money to local Muslim gangs.ÂWhile it is true that the Palestinian Authority does not have an official policy of persecution against Christians, it is also true that this authority has not done enough to provide the Christian population with a sense of security and stability.ÂIn addition, Christians continue to complain about discrimination when it comes to employment in the public sector. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority 15 years ago, not a single Christian was ever appointed to a senior security post. AlthoughÂ BethlehemÂ has a Christian mayor, the governor, who is more senior than him, remains a Muslim.
Toameh is not the only source of this type of information. Harry de Quetteville reported the followingÂ Sept. 9, 2005Â inÂ The Daily TelegraphÂ (London):
Christians in the Holy Land have handed a dossier detailing incidents of violence and intimidation by Muslim extremists to Church leaders in Jerusalem, one of whom said it was time for Christians to “raise our voices” against the sectarian violence.ÂThe dossier includes 93 alleged incidents of abuse by an “Islamic fundamentalist mafia” against Palestinian Christians, who accused the Palestinian Authority of doing nothing to stop the attacks.ÂThe dossier also includes a list of 140 cases of apparent land theft, in which Christians in theÂ West BankÂ were allegedly forced off their land by gangs backed by corrupt judicial officials. . . .ÂThe alleged attacks on Christians have come despite repeated appeals to the Palestinian Authority to rein in Muslim gangs.ÂA spokesman for the Apostolic Delegate, the Pope’s envoy toÂ Jerusalem, said nothing had been done to tackle the problem. “The Apostolic Delegate presented a list of all the problems to Mr [Yasser] Arafat before he died,” he said. “He promised a lot but he did very little.”ÂIn the offices of his tiny Christian television station inÂ Bethlehem, Samir Qumsieh said this week that Christian appeals to Mr Arafat’s successor as Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, had also gone unheeded.Â“At least Arafat responded,” he said, “Abbas does not answer our letters.”
Nowhere is any ofÂ this mentioned in Belt’s article, possibly because no one is willing to be quoted on these issues. Paul Merkley, author ofÂ Christian Attitudes Towards the State of IsraelÂ (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001) reports that after the Oslo Accords, Palestinian Christians were very reluctant to publicly criticize the Palestinian Authority. On page 81 Merkley writes:
It is very difficult to get at all the truth about life for Christians under the Palestinian Authority. The official Palestinian press speaks of the unqualified enthusiasm for the new situation, which extends to the whole Christian community. Arab Christian spokesmen insist that relations between Christian and Muslim Palestinians have never been better. But there is a compelling body of evidence indicating that Christians are now facing many more obstacles to the free exercise of their faith than they ever endured under direct Israeli rule. Designated spokesmen for the various Christian communities all insist that they have no concern for the future of Christianity in a Muslim state.
In my own conversations with Palestinian Christians who wereÂ notÂ designated spokespersons for their church communities, I was told of abandonment of the ordinary Christians by the political opportunists who are leaders of their congregations. According to [Judith] Sudilosky [an IsraeliÂ journalist]: “Privately, Arab Christians will say what they dare not say publically: that most Christians would rather live under Israeli authority than risk living under another Moslem regime.” Yossi Klein Halevi quotes one of the few remaining Christian merchants in the Christian quarter: “Our leaders are liars: They tell the newspapers that everything is OK. But when Christians go to the market, they’re afraid to wear their crosses.” (Page 84).
Belt does include testimony from a pseudonymous couple as they celebrate Easter, who like the leaders of the Palestinian Christian community, apparently say very little about the Muslim majority, but a lot about the hated state of Israel. Belt, who assigns them the names “Mark” and “Lisa,” reports the following:
This is the first Easter, ever, that Mark has been allowed to spend with the family inÂ Jerusalem. He is fromBethlehem, in theÂ West Bank, so his identity papers are from the Palestinian Authority; he needs a permit fromIsraelÂ to visit. Lisa, whose family lives in theÂ OldÂ City, holds an Israeli ID. So although they’ve been married for five years and rent this apartment in theÂ JerusalemÂ suburbs, under Israeli law they can’t reside under the same roof. Mark lives with his parents inÂ Bethlehem, which is six miles away but might as well be a hundred, lying on the far side of an Israeli checkpoint and the 24-foot-high concrete barrier known as the Wall.Â
Yes, it is sad that the couple cannot live together inÂ Jerusalem. But it’s also unreasonable to expect that “Mark” would be given citizenship or residency based on his marriage to Lisa.Â Israel, like most other countries, including theÂ United States, proffers residency and citizenship to foreigners after an extensive application process. Marriage alone does not guarantee the right to residency or citizenship, as Belt seems to suggest it should. If the couple were interested in living together, it is very likely “Lisa” could move toÂ BethlehemÂ without any difficulty. Yes, she could very well lose her Israeli identification papers and the fact that she has not made that sacrifice indicates that Israeli residency, even for a Palestinian Christian is valuable enough to endure separation from her husband. Why? One likely reason is that as a Christian inÂ IsraelÂ she enjoys rights that she would not enjoy in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Belt, however, fails to address any of this, but provides the reader with a narrative that portraysÂ IsraelÂ as denying a married couple the right to live together.
Belt fails to provide his readers with an important part of the story. Prior to the Second Intifada, passage betweenIsraelÂ and theÂ West BankÂ and the Gaza Strip was much easier than it is today. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians worked legally (and illegally) inÂ Israel, and made up a significant part of the Israeli labor force. The suicide attacks which took place during the Second Intifada had a two-fold impact. First,Â they prompted Israelis to institute stricter security measures such as the security barrier and the checkpoints. Second,Â they reducedÂ the numbers ofÂ Palestinian workers inÂ Israel. In other words, what Belt is leaving out, is that Palestinian terrorism played a substantial role in making passage betweenÂ BethlehemÂ andÂ JerusalemÂ difficult for the married couple he is describing.
The contempt “Lisa” and her family have forÂ IsraelÂ is revealed when Belt describes “Mark’s” washing the family car on Easter.
Right on cue, with a playful flourish, Mark squeezes the nozzle on the hose. Nothing comes out. He checks the faucet, squeezes again. Still nothing. So there he stands, empty hose in hand, in front of his kids, his neighbors, and a visitor from oversees. “I guess they’ve opened the pipes to the settlements,” he says quietly, gesturing to the hundreds of new Israeli housing units climbing up the hills nearby. “No more [water] for us.” Lisa is still trying to explain this to the kids as the car pulls away from the curb.ÂI hate the Israelis,” Lisa says one day, out of the blue. “I really hate them. We all hate them. I think even Nate’s [her son] starting to hate them.”
Given that Belt offers no evidence to suggest that he has confirmed for himself that “Mark” was unable to wash his car because water was being shipped to Israeli settlements, it is entirely possible that the event was staged for his benefit. It would not be the first time. HamasÂ stagedÂ “blackouts” in the Gaza Strip in 2008, and French filmmaker Pierre Rehov has documented in his movieÂ The Road to JeninÂ how Palestinian officials encouraged sources to fabricate stories about delays at checkpoints for the benefit of Western journalists. And there is ample evidence to indicate that much of the footage broadcast from theÂ West BankÂ and the Gaza Strip is staged to portray Palestinians as suffering under the lash of Israeli oppression. (For moreÂ on this issueÂ see Richard Landes’ website,www.seconddraft.org.)