(Photo: AP Images / Dan Balilty)
A new report on the state of Christians living in the Holy Land aired on CBS' "60 Minutes" last weekend has stirred controversy among some Christian and Jewish groups that have blasted the report as unfairly portraying Israel as an oppressor of Middle East Christians.
CBS' Bob Simon conducted the new report seeking to refute that Muslim discrimination is driving force for the mass exodus of Palestinian Christians from the Holy Land. He argued that it has been Israeli settlements and the policies of Israel that have forced Christians out of the Holy Land.
Today Christians make up 1.5 percent of the population of Jerusalem but just in 1967 had constituted five percent of those living in the holy city, according to the report.
The report also stated that the number of Christians living in the ancient city of Jerusalem are the most troubling and the church has been raising alarm that without Christians in the holy city Jerusalem could easily transform into a "religious museum" or "spiritual theme park," and no longer be a home Arab Christians who have lived there for centuries.
"Palestinian Christians, once a powerful minority, are becoming an invisible people squeezed between a growing Muslim majority and burgeoning Israeli settlements," Simon said.
The aired footage showed the investigative journalist speaking with several Palestinian Christian locals who shared their stories about life behind the barricaded wall. Simon also spoke to the Israeli Ambassador to the Untied States, Michael Oren, and a prominent Israeli journalist about his perspective on the situation of the Christian population in Israel.
"If you see what's happening in the West Bank you will see it is looking more and more like a piece of Swiss cheese; where Israel gets the cheese: that is the land, the water resources, and the archeological sites, and the Palestinians are pushed in the holes behind the walls." Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian Lutheran minister from Bethlehem, said.
The Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, admitted that "Christian communities are living under duress" but argued that the stress placed on Christian communities in the Holy Land was a result of Islamic extremism and not the polices of the Israeli government.
"We regret any inconvenience caused by the security precautions, but it's their inconvenience and our survival," Oren said.
Oren had contacted CBS News prior to its airing of the report to ensure that the network was not airing a "hatchet job" and said that he found it "incomprehensible" that CBS would focus on the plight of Christians in Israel in light of increasing Christian persecution across the region.
However, prominent Israeli journalist Ari Shavit said that it was in fact policies utilized by the Israeli government that have led to the exodus of the Palestinian Christian community.
"Israel is not persecuting Christians as Christians. The Christians in the Holy Land suffer from Israeli policies that are a result of the overall tragic situation. And this, of course, has consequences for everybody," Shavit told the Simon during the segment.
Both the Jewish Federations of North America and Christians United For Israel found the report to be defamatory and requested that their followers complain to CBS executives.
"Sunday night, CBS's '60 Minutes' aired a segment titled 'Christians of the Holy Land' which cynically distorted a complicated story to disparage Israel. Among the myriad errors in the report is the myth of a declining Palestinian Christian population," a letter by the JFNA read.
The JFNA argued that the report was incorrect in its assessment of a Palestinian Christian exodus from Israel and maintained that the Christian population in the West Bank is actually growing.
"In fact, since 1967, the Christian population in Bethlehem increased by 11% and in the Bethlehem region grew by 56%. The West Bank Christian population grew from 42,484 in 1967 to over 51,000 today. The only 'decline' that has been documented is the percentage Christians represent in the predominantly Muslim West Bank, a population that grew almost fourfold during the same period," the letter read.
CUFI also expressed their discontent with the report via a letter to their followers urging them to take action against CBS.
"This story scapegoated Israel and ignored the greatest threats facing the Christians of the Middle East. By focusing on the wrong story and blaming the wrong party, you have squandered a precious opportunity," a message from CUFI to CBS chairman Jeffery Fager and reporter Bob Simon read.
Thousands of CUFI's followers have contacted CBS studios with the letter, according to a tweet by the organization.