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October 21, 2008

Reality Starts to Penetrate

Christian suffering at the hands of the Muslim majority in the Middle East has been an open secret amongst putative supporters of tolerance and religous freedom in the United States. Journalists and peace activists know that Christians are a beleaguered and targeted minority in Muslim-majority countries throughout the Middle East, but for the most part, only a few people like Israeli researcher Justus Reid Weiner and Bat Ye'or (an Egyptian Jew thrust from her home in 1956) take up the cudgel on their behalf.

The testimony from Weiner and Ye'or has not gained much traction amongst the human rights and peace activists who focus on the Middle East, probably because they are noted Zionists who can be dismissed as trying to discredit Israel's adversaries. Given the anti-Zionist tendencies of the peace and human rights activists in the U.S., particularly in mainline Protestant churches, it's unrealistic to expect them to engage with the issues Ye'or and Weiner address in an honest manner.

Rabbi Stephen Wise ran into a similar problem when he tried to warn the American people about the suffering of Jews in Europe in 1942. In response to his testimony, Charles Clayton Morrison, editor of Christian Century, accused Wise of exagerating the problem and asked "whether any good purpose is served by the publication of such charges ..." Three years later, the magazine admitted the truth about the events Wise tried to describe.

To be fair, it's human nature for people to closely scrutinize evidence offered by people with differing ideological viewpoints, but at the end of the day, the evidence has to be treated on its own merits, not judged against a metric of ideological acceptability, as is with the case of Weiner and Ye'or's testimony and translations. Apparently, when a Zionist Jew hears a tree fall in the forest, it doesn't make a sound peace and human rights activists in the West want to hear.

But when Christians in the Middle East blame Israel for their suffering, it's a different story altogether. Then peace activists, clergy and journalists of all stripes -- religious and secular -- find their prophetic voices and complain to high heaven about the declining population of Christians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and how oppressive Israeli policies are driving them out.

It's an annual occurence. Just wait until until the last week of November or first week of December when journalists and peace activists will yet again, portray Christians in Bethlehem as undergoing the same type of suffering endured by Jesus, Mary and Joseph -- with Israel cast as ancient Rome. It happens every year.

This year, there's reason to think that somebody "gets it."

In an editorial published on Oct. 20, 2008, the Los Angeles Times described the status of Christians in the Middle East in straightforward terms. After detailing the exodus of Christians from Iraq as a result of violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists, the editorial states:

The religious cleansing of Christians in Iraq is part of a larger pattern in which a faith with origins in the Middle East is being driven out of its native region. From Iraq to Lebanon, which once claimed a Christian majority, to Bethlehem, the West Bank town revered as the birthplace of Jesus, intra-Muslim violence and the Arab-Israeli struggle have combined to persuade (and in some cases force) Christians to relocate to Europe or North America.

While the editorial offers an obligatory reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the piece ends with a call for Muslim leaders in the Middle East to protect Christians in the region:

... a vibrant Christian population has benefited predominantly Islamic countries, not least by building cultural, educational and political bridges to the West. Likewise, a thriving Christian community validates Israel's claim to be a state that, despite its Jewish character, respects the freedom and autonomy of other faiths.

Reversing the exodus of Christians from the Middle East will not be easy; it will require international pressure on Muslim-dominated regimes -- including Iraq's -- to deal justly with their Christian citizens.

This passage does two things that many journalists -- religious and secular -- are loathe to do: Acknowledge Israel's efforts to protect the rights of its religious minorities and hold Muslim leaders accountable for the safety of Christians in the countries they govern.

It gets even better. The editorial also acknowledges "opposition of Arab bishops to a Vatican Council declaration absolving Jews of collective responsibility for the death of Jesus."

This may seem like an obscure bit of history, but it's a crucial fact that has been largely ignored by people who invoke testimony about Israeli policies from groups like Sabeel and the Middle East Council of Churches. In Semites and Anti-Semites, Bernard Lewis provides detail about the successful efforts of Christian churches in the Middle East to convince the Second Vatican Council to soften its suppression of the deicide charge against the Jewish people. He also documents how several Muslim commentators -- who as a matter of doctrine deny that Christ was crucified -- encouraged the Vatican not to suppress the deicide charge against the Jewish people. For example, Jordanian Foreign Minister Qadri Tuqan argued that "history testifies to Jewish intentions of destroying Christ and Christianity."

Bernard Lewis writes that "it is strange that Muslim leaders should have concerned themselves so intimately with the council of a church which they do not accept, and the definition of a dogma they do not believe. Probably the best explanation was that given by the London Economist, which remarked that in the Arab view this was no time to be acquitting the Jews of anything."

Why is it important? Because as the Los Angeles Times editorial rightfully argues, Christian communities in the Middle East are a bridge to the West. Maybe it's about time that people start asking in which direction the traffic is flowing and what cargo is being conveyed.

What the Los Angeles Times has done is remarkable. It has called for the protection of the Christian minority in the Middle East without demonizing Israel, while at the same time acknowledging the anti-Israel attitudes within this community.

Christians in the Middle East do not need to be as pure as the driven snow to warrant protection from their governments and concern from people of good faith in the West. But journalists, peacemakers and activists in the U.S. need to understand that not everything groups like Sabeel and Middle East Council of Churches say about Israel can be taken at face value. Maybe the Los Angeles Times is ahead of the curve on this score.

- Dexter Van Zile

Posted by dvz at October 21, 2008 04:33 PM


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