This just in: Get married or baptized in a church adjacent to Jesus' birthplace, and it won't be recognized by the law. You can't make this up. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has just declared that it deems the First Baptist Church of Bethlehem to be illegitimate.
No sooner had 600 mostly American evangelicals departed from the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference (CATC) in Bethlehem, then the PA made its startling pronouncement. No reason was given, but people who know the church's pastor, Rev. Naim Khoury, suspect that it has plenty to do with the fact that he has been unflaggingly even-handed in dealing with Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
What does the PA move portend about the future of Christian holy sites and churches in a future Palestinian state? As President Mahmoud Abbas continues to pursue a unity government with Hamas, no one knows whose template for treating religious minorities will be followed. We know the track record of Hamas in Gaza. We know of the attack on the only Christian bookstore in Gaza, now shut down. We know of the increasing frequency of neighbors in Bethlehem, jeering at the shrunken Christian population, calling upon them to convert to Islam. We have seen how the PA, which is responsible to guarantee the site of Joseph's Tomb, stood by and allowed it to be destroyed – and then destroyed again, after it was rebuilt. We've watched the trucks of the Waqf, entrusted with the sanctity of the Temple Mount, remove tons of earth from one of the most important archeological sites in the world, with the goal of physically erasing all traces of the Jewish First and Second Temples. We've heard the PA's imams declare that there never was a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and seen its Muslim allies go to UNESCO to have Rachel's Tomb declared a mosque.
CATC participants and others committed to interfaith progress should ask themselves if they feel more optimistic after their stay in Bethlehem about the prospects for a secure Christian future in the Holy Land?
We are all witness to a broader challenge to historic Christian communities: there is immediate danger to lives, not only buildings. Some of the oldest Christian communities in the world have already been decimated in the Assyrian Triangle of Iraq. Its churches burned, clergy assassinated, many have tried fleeing to Iraq's north – only to find poor prospects for rebuilding shattered lives. While they wait in limbo, a convert to Christianity sits on Iran's death row, awaiting execution for the crime of becoming Christian. In Saudi Arabia, Christians aren't in any danger of dying because it won't tolerate any Christian presence, except foreign workers and VIPs. How bad is it? Reacting to proposed legislation by a Kuwaiti Minister of Parliament to ban all church construction in his nation, Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti and highest-ranking cleric Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah offered his ruling about the entire Arabian Peninsula: it is "necessary," he said, "to destroy all the churches of the region."
In Pakistan, Christians literally live in fear for their lives. And in Egypt, the brutal Maspero massacre of almost thirty Copts, belies the larger problem: intimidation of millions of Egyptian citizens – at least ten percent of the Arab world's largest nation – is so severe and widespread, that some Coptic community leaders have advised those who can leave the country to do so.
Who is pounding on the doors of world leaders about the majority of those Christians who cannot leave?
Where is the outrage? Over many years of conversation with our Christian friends, we have learned much – and admired – the Christian compulsion to speak out against injustice. But we remain puzzled by the anemic response from so many circles when it is Christians themselves who are imperiled. Jews are often criticized for being overly protective of their own. And there is some truth to that. But why do Christian leaders seem so unmoved by mortal threats to their spiritual brothers and sisters? Does the universal embrace of Christian love preclude any special affinity for and responsibility towards other Christians? To be sure, we have proudly drawn closer to some who work assiduously to protect the lives of Christians. But why are there so few?
We, as an American Jewish (proudly Zionist) NGO raise the issue of the persecution of Christians at the UN, at the White House, and in the halls of Congress. When we report to law enforcement agencies on our Digital Terrorism and Hate Project, the targeting of Christians is high on our list of greatest concern. Why? Not only because in a democracy it is the right thing to do, but also because as Jews we know, that if Coptic Christians cannot live in peace, there will be no peace for anyone in the Holy Land, and if Christian minorities under siege from Pakistan to Nigeria are abandoned, there can be no talk of an era of global peace and tolerance.