Conservative Christians remain silent about suffering Bethlehem | Pakistan Today

Conservative Christians remain silent about suffering Bethlehem

  • Christian conservatives are still Zionists

On Christmas, my thoughts turn to Bethlehem, its struggling people, and the shocking disregard for them by many Christians in the West. Not that they don’t love Bethlehem. But the city they love is that of the 2000-year-old story.

the reality of contemporary Bethlehem is ignored. Today, Bethlehem is surrounded by dozens of Israeli settlements, many built on land confiscated from Bethlehemites. It is cut off from much of the West Bank by two Israeli bypasses and a massive concrete wall. And just this month, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to advance a new settlement that would completely sever Bethlehem from nearby Jerusalem.

The resultant loss of land, the growing impoverishment of its citizens, and the hostile actions of Israeli occupation forces and settlers have forced many Bethlehemites to leave their beloved city and homeland. Given these accumulated violations of human rights and their impact on Christians and Muslims alike, one might expect the West’s Christians to speak out for the little town they celebrate annually. That, sadly, is not to be– most especially among powerful Christian conservative groups in the USA which claim to defend co-religionists worldwide.

To most in the West, Palestinian Christians are simply invisible. To conservative Christians, they are at best a nuisance in the way of unquestioning ideological attachment to Israel.

I saw this up close during my four-year tenure as a Presidential appointee to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. As a Lebanese Maronite Catholic, who had traveled throughout the Middle East, I was aware of concerns of Christian communities in the region and I was excited to play a role in protecting their rights.

Despite having been charged by the White House to “push back” on the hold that conservatives had over the commission, because I was the newest commissioner, I thought it best to spend months learning the ropes, before raising any concerns of my own. I learned early I wasn’t going to have the luxury of waiting.

This shameful silence continues. On this Christmas Day, the very conservative Christians who will sing of Bethlehem and tell the story of what happened in that city long ago will remain willfully blind to its current reality.

In December of 2013, my third month, the staff circulated a draft opinion piece for newspapers authored by the commission’s Chair and Vice Chair. It began:

“As we enter the Christmas season, Christians look joyously ahead to celebrating Christ’s birth in a manger. But across parts of the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity, followers of Jesus are under siege and live in fear, facing a rising tide of repression, intimidation, and violence…Unless circumstances change, some are pondering the unthinkable: will Christianity survive in the area of its origin?”

The piece went on to devote full paragraphs to the plight of Christians in each of the following countries: Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

Soon my inbox began to fill with notes of approval from my fellow members. I had to act quickly before a majority approved and the article would be sent out. I, therefore, wrote in response:

“How on earth can we publish an article about the plight of Christians in the Holy Land without even a mention of the concerns of the Christians in Bethlehem…and Jerusalem, etc. They too are suffering– losing their lands and ability to survive under harsh occupation. The wall, the settlement construction on confiscated Bethlehem land, and the closure of Jerusalem are choking these cities and forcing their residents to leave.”

The response from some colleagues was one of indignation. How dare I criticize Israel? Didn’t I know that Israel protects Christians and allows them to prosper? And didn’t I know that the problems facing Christians in the Holy Land are the result of Muslims?

After a number of further exchanges, they agreed to add a single disturbingly “no fault” sentence: “In Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, many Palestinian Christians, who are part of a small and diminishing minority, feel marginalized and insecure.”

This was not the last time I was to witness the gross insensitivity of my colleagues to the plight of the Christians in Palestine.

The next year, I invited the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem to address the commission. He had come to Washington seeking help on a number of issues, including stopping Israeli plans to confiscate church lands for the barrier wall. Its route separated a monastery from its vineyards and a convent and Christian children from their school. Not only did his appeal fall on deaf ears, but he and I were both shocked when two commissioners upbraided him for not using his position to challenge Hamas!
The following year, my conservative fellow commissioners wanted to issue a statement denouncing UNESCO for honoring a Palestinian request to declare Bethlehem a World Historical Site.

In my final year, the commission received two appeals: one from a liberal Jewish group and the other from the heads of all the Christian churches in the Holy Land– accompanied by a 192 page report compiled by a group of Palestinian lawyers arguing the case for why the commission should address Israel’s violations of the religious rights of Christians, Muslims, and non-Orthodox Jews.

When a liberal Jewish colleague and I introduced a motion to consider both the requests and the report, the reaction from our conservative Christian and Jewish colleagues was near hysteria. They had two major objections: Why were we singling Israel out for criticism? And didn’t we realize that if the commission were to act on this request it would lose its Congressional funding?

Deeming the latter challenge insulting, I focused only on the former and responded that we were not singling Israel out for criticism, since we had in fact joined with our colleagues in challenging violations of religious freedom in dozens of countries worldwide. In fact, it was the conservatives on the commissions who were singling Israel as the one country that could never be criticized.

Our motion was defeated.

This shocking disregard for human rights and religious freedoms is what allows Israel’s behaviour toward Palestinian Christians to continue. As a result, Bethlehem is being strangled and its people are in pain.

This shameful silence continues. On this Christmas Day, the very conservative Christians who will sing of Bethlehem and tell the story of what happened in that city long ago will remain willfully blind to its current reality.



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