Anyone connected to reality would be perplexed by church leaders’ campaign to blame Israeli Jews for driving Christians out of Israel, as the country’s Christian population actually increased last year. Writes Melanie Phillips
Christian churches, seemingly deaf to baleful historical and theological echoes, have decided to mark Christmas 2021 by scapegoating the Jews.
In the last week, a preposterous campaign has been mounted by church leaders to blame Israeli Jews for driving Christians out of Israel and the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria.
An article in last weekend’s Sunday Times, written jointly by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Archbishop of Jerusalem, Hosam Naoum, warned about a crisis of Christian survival “in the Holy Land.”
This, they wrote, was being brought about through the desecration of churches and attacks, both physical and verbal, on priests, monks and worshipers.
The previous day, the Franciscan friar Francesco Patton, guardian of the Christian holy sites in the region, made a similar claim in the Telegraph where he wrote that, in recent years, the lives of many Christians had been made unbearable “by radical local groups with extremist ideologies.”
The previous week, Naoum claimed on Britain’s GB news channel that Christianity was on the point of extinction in the Holy Land as a result of pressure from “extremists and radicals,” especially in Jerusalem.
Anyone with any connection to reality would have been perplexed by all this. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the country’s Christian population actually increased last year by 1.4 percent. Indeed, Israel is the only place in the Middle East where Christians are flourishing.
And who were these people driving the Christians out? Remarkably, Welby and Naoum chose not to say. Patton came close when he remarked, “These radical groups do not represent the government or the people of Israel.”
Since Israel is a Jewish state, this suggested that those responsible were Jews — the impression also created by Welby and Naoum. And that is indeed who they meant. But to conceal the noxious nature of this claim, they chose not to say so.
These media sallies were part of a concerted campaign organized by Christian denominations in Jerusalem. A statement by the Patriarchs and heads of Christian churches in the city alleges “a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land”.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, said that “at no time in human history has the future of our Christian communities been shakier,” adding that “radical groups are intent on uprooting us from our homes, businesses and ritual sites.”
This campaign is grotesque. The churches claim that these Jewish “radicals” are acquiring “strategic property in the Christian Quarter.” But this refers to buildings that the churches actually sold to Jewish organizations.
The churches do have valid cause for complaint over attacks carried out against them recently by Jewish extremists. These are totally reprehensible, and Israel should be cracking down on such groups.
But to claim that these limited instances of fringe Jewish hooliganism constitute a systemic threat to Christian existence in Jerusalem is a gross distortion that hides the reality.
For although Welby and Naoum refer to Israel as a beacon of “democratic and religious freedoms” for Christians and acknowledge that their numbers in Israel are growing, their coy reference to “radical groups” obscures the identity of those who really are driving Christians out of the “Holy Land” — Arab Muslims.
As Honest Reporting points out, the Christian charity Open Doors explicitly attributed the steep decline of Christians in the area to “Islamic oppression,” explaining that “Islamic extremist militants” in the Palestinian Authority-administered “West Bank” were causing Christians to fear violent attacks.
A 2019 report by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies illustrated the point. In April 2019, Christian residents of Jifna, near Ramallah, begged the P.A. for protection after Muslim gunmen stormed their village following a complaint that the son of a Fatah-affiliated leader had attacked a Christian woman’s family.
The P.A. police turned a blind eye as armed rioters connected to Fatah, the political party that controls the P.A., lobbed petrol bombs at homes and fired live rounds into the air. Witnesses later reported that the men had demanded the village’s residents pay a “jizya” — a tax historically levied on non-Muslim minorities living under Islamic rule.
In 2005, when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, there were approximately 5,000 Christians living there. After Hamas seized control, its affiliates began targeting Christians with kidnappings, murders, forced conversions and attacks on churches and Christian-owned businesses. Now fewer than one thousand Christians remain in Gaza.
The churches mentioned none of this. Instead, Welby and Naoum write that “the growth of settler communities and travel restrictions brought about by the West Bank separation wall have deepened the isolation of Christian villages and curtailed economic and social possibilities.”
So once again, it’s apparently all Israel’s fault — this time because of Jews residing in their own historic lands, and because of measures to protect Israeli citizens from the regular attempts made by Arab Muslims in those territories to slaughter them.
Today, just 1,000 Christians remain in Gaza.
Even more disturbing, as noted by the president of the Board of Deputies Marie van der Zyl in a protest letter to Welby, was the archbishops’ reference to the original Christmas story taking place against “the backdrop of a genocide of infants” – an allusion to King Herod’s massacre of children in the Gospel of Matthew.
“I found this reference troubling,” she wrote, “because of the potential linkage which could be made between Christianity, Jews and the killing of children in any current context.”
It’s more than just troubling. Not only does it slyly reinforce the blood libel perpetrated against the Israel’s Defense Forces — which goes to lengths unmatched by any other military to protect civilian life — that they willfully slaughter Palestinian children.
It also continues to tap into the calumny of replacement theology, which in recent years has been revived within the church.
This ancient doctrine, which was responsible for the Christian pogroms against the Jews of medieval Europe, held that the Christians had replaced the Jews in the eyes of God and had inherited all divine promises made to them while the Jews themselves had become the party of the devil.
Today, this doctrine has been appropriated by Palestinian Arab Christians — and endorsed below the radar by many liberal Western churches — to claim that the Palestinians have now inherited the divine promise of the land of Israel.
This has created such absurdities and obscenities as representing Jesus, the Jew from Judea, as a Palestinian; writing the Jews out of their own national story in Israel; and rehashing the ancient libel that the Jews killed Jesus to underpin the modern libel that the Israelis are slaughtering the Palestinians.
The churches’ accusation against Israel is even more egregious since Christianity really is under existential threat throughout other parts of the Middle East and the developing world.
In its ancient cradle of Iraq, Christianity has been virtually wiped out by Islamist attacks. At the beginning of this year, Open Doors listed the ten countries where Christians were most persecuted as North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran, Nigeria and India. Of more than 50 countries on its full list, all were in the developing world. None of them was Israel.
Yet Welby and the other clerics ignored all this (although Welby subsequently sought to deflect the growing outrage over his article by writing a postscript on the Spectator website in which he devoted three paragraphs to Christian persecution around the world). Instead, the churches’ campaign chose to scapegoat the Jews for crimes against Christianity perpetrated by others — the fundamental myth fueling Christian antisemitism from the time of the early church fathers.
Many decent Christians are horrified by the venom of the liberal churches towards Israel and the resurgence of theological Christian Jew-hatred, which to them goes totally against the uplifting lessons they learn from their faith.
But judging from this disturbing campaign, it seems that little of substance has changed for the church in its foundational malice towards the Jewish people.
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London”.