What's Really Behind the Persecution of Christians in the Middle East

"Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24).

Although it has fallen largely on deaf ears, the plight of Christians in the Middle East has made some news, especially in Christian circles. I have written on the circumstances there, myself, and about how Muslim extremism is the main cause of escalating emigration, the destruction of Coptic churches, and the approaching extinction of Christians in the region.

Recently, however, my view of the problem was carefully challenged by a Catholic brother whose vocation is intimately involved with the difficulties in the Middle East. I began to research the topic much more thoroughly, even speaking to Christians in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. With a heavy heart I must confess I was wrong about a great many matters, and am guilty of ignorantly contributing to the real problem by spreading what amounts to propaganda.

When asked directly about the causes for the emigration and elimination of Christians from the area, Israeli and Palestinian Christians overwhelmingly indicate that the primary causes are political and economic conditions, not religious extremism. 87.3% of the respondents in a 2006 study of 1500 Christian families in Palestine and Israel said the same. Only 8% attributed emigration to religious extremism (pg. 34, Sabeel survey with Bethlehem University). The truth, it seems, is that religious extremism contributes, but not in the way I previously thought. More on that in a moment.

In their own words, many Christians in the area say it is not the movement of Muslims into the area or Islamic violence, but brutal economic conditions that proceed from the political climate between Israel and Palestine that are forcing Christians to leave and inciting violence.

Most of the land taken by Israeli settlement expansion belonged to Palestinian Christians, including the seizure of lands belonging to the Convent of Cremisan. The Separation Wall, built under the guise of security, physically split Christian families and closed Christian businesses.

Against an exhortation for Israel to reconsider by the USCCB and brother bishops all over the world, the Wall devoured land privately owned by indigenous Christian people, split a Salesian religious community offering services and ministering there in two, and illegally confiscated and destroyed Christian vineyards and olive groves held and cultivated by Christians for generations.

In addition to the Wall, the Israeli occupation and its security checkpoint and permit system greatly restricts Christian movement, especially to Jerusalem and other Christian holy sites. My Catholic brother shared that a group of Christians he was with at Christmas was uncomfortable with their worship at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem because the tension and scrutiny was so thick.

Israel's separation Wall, illegal confiscation of Palestinian land, policies that violate freedom, and its brutal crackdowns on nonviolent protests have decimated the economic stability of the entire area and pushed not only Christians to emigrate, but also many other Palestinians.

Candidly, to the Palestinian Christians there the Wall is a big "push factor" for forcing Palestinians out of Palestine, many of whom are Christian. But Muslims leave as well. According to one of the Palestinian Christians I spoke with, religious violence from Jewish settlers has also made the lives of Palestinian Muslims miserable and intolerable.

Such Israeli activity prompted the heads of the Catholic churches in the Holy Land last year to label it unjust and meet with Pope Francis about the extent of Israeli oppression and the suffering of Christians there. At the time the Wall was still being considered, they also called for the realignment of its plan in accordance with international law, pointing out to the Israeli decision-makers that "illegal seizure of lands in no way serves the cause of peace, nor does it support the moderate position that opts for non-violence."

The churches spoke prophetically. Blatant, chronic injustice and instability causes anxiety, discouragement, despair, and retaliation. Israel and her allies in the world blame Islam, and militant Muslim terrorists everywhere use the accusation to retaliate. Palestinian Christians beg us not to "exploit [their] sufferings to fuel some islamophobic tendencies and negative images about Islam. Indeed, this is what the Israeli occupation persistently tries to do. It demonizes Islam in a way that deflects blame from the repression levied by the state itself."

Religious extremism contributes, but we must not single out Islamic extremists as the sole threat to Christian presence in the area. According to Palestinian Christians, there are also Jewish extremists represented by what they call "religious and racist" settlers on the West Bank. They maintain that they are encouraged directly by the Israeli government and by, in their words, "Christian extremists represented by Western Christians that support Israel blindly and unconditionally."

With candor they maintain that these last two groups are a greater threat to Christians in the Middle East than the Muslim extremists, because they have more money, military power, and clout to uproot all Palestinian presence, both Christian and Muslim, from their homeland.

To be fair, it is also widely known in the region that without Israeli control, the area would undoubtedly degenerate into factious religious wars within a decade or so. The issues are too intricately complicated to support easy answers. But no real peace can or will ever come from the injustice perpetrated on the area by some aspects of current Israeli methodology.

The most heartbreaking bit I learned about the situation and suffering of our Catholic Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East was this statement from a Palestinian Christian leader: "We are no longer expecting support from Church leaders around the world. Our Hope, Faith and Love come from elsewhere. Palestinian Christians need advocates for the truth. It is the truth, and only the truth, that will lead to peace and justice in our home."

Source: AINA (Assyrian International News Agency)