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Canterbury tall tales: Blaming Israel for dwindling Christian population

western wall
A general view shows the Dome of the Rock (L) and the Western Wall (C) in Jerusalem's Old City December 6, 2017. |

There’s no question that Christian faithful — especially minority communities around the world — are often targets of systematic discrimination, vilification, mayhem, murder, and terrorism.

It is an issue which the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a significant Jewish human rights NGO, has been outspoken about. Our founder, Rabbi Marvin Hier, twice raised the issue with Pope Francis during private audiences at the Vatican.

That is why we were most interested to learn that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, known to be an honorable and good-hearted man, co-authored an op-ed in London’s Sunday Times about the plight of a particular Christian community.

Perhaps that essay would focus on the recent beheading of a Christian pastor by ISIS-affiliated terrorists in Mozambique. The murderers then forced his wife to carry her husband’s head to show local authorities.

Maybe it would highlight the slow-motion genocide of Christians in Nigeria, under assault from Muslim terrorists, marauders, and thugs, (which one of the authors co-authored a book about after debriefing dozens of victims in their homeland.)

Perhaps the Archbishop would use the proximity of Christmas to denounce the Chinese Communists for razing churches and persecuting worshippers.

Then there are the Christians in Pakistan living under the threat of laws that make them blasphemers to much of the Muslim population. Or those who dare to convert to Christianity in Iran and are caught preaching the Gospel. Or perhaps use the holy season to express solidarity with Egypt’s Coptic Christians who are targeted for bombings of their churches, often on Christmas Eve.

No. All those will have to wait at least till next year. In 2021, the Archbishop of Canterbury chose to score political brownie points with the woke world of NGOs by associating his name and rank with a blatant lie: That Israel is the cause of the rapidly dwindling Christian population in previously Christian parts of the Holy Land.

Really? Can he find another country in the Middle East where the Christian population is actually growing, and churches are being built? How does that compute with a “systemic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land,” as charged by the document that he lifted up for Anglicans to embrace in an earlier tweet?

Israel’s Jews are incensed. It was their forefathers who experienced first-hand discrimination, inquisitions, ghettos, blood libels, pogroms, and more — all in the name of religion. They watched in horror in 1947-'48 as every Jewish House of Worship in the Holy City of Jerusalem was destroyed by Jordanian occupiers and as their people’s historic Mount of Olives cemetery was desecrated. They cried for 19 years as Jordan barred all Jews from worshipping at the Wailing Wall until it was liberated from the Jordanians in 1967.

Israeli law, its courts, and police have proven to be fully committed to protecting the rights of religious minorities and punishing Jewish extremists who desecrate G-d’s name by attacking other faiths.

The Archbishop should have known that the President of the Jewish State, a traditional Jew who is the grandson of a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, traveled to Nazareth to deliver a message of appreciation to Israel’s Christians, and wishes for a Merry Christmas.

Welby should also appreciate that the Jewish National Fund distributed free Christmas trees to Christian organizations around Israel this season. Do these sound like the policies of a government that embarked on a program of ridding itself of its Christian minority?

By the way, it is a fact that the Palestinian Muslim population is also growing. So, how can it be that what Welby faults for the dwindling number of Christians in Bethlehem and Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter – namely, travel restrictions that result from the Separation Barrier, and the growth of settler communities on the West Bank – only suppress Christian populations, and not the Muslim ones, where they are growing, not shrinking?

Why did Welby choose to omit the real reason for Christian flight from places like Bethlehem — the incessant pressure by Arab Muslims on Christians as Christians to leave? The well-documented pressure — which surely every Church leader with a flock in the Middle East is aware of, includes threats, violence, and even demands that Christians pay the jizya tax on non-believers. How could Welby skip over the decline of Gaza’s Christian community from 5,000 when Hamas took over, to a mere 1,000 today?

He is correct at pointing to acts of violence by Israelis, directed at Christians and Christian institutions, as well as acknowledging the resolve of the government to act against it. But why does he see some nefarious, systematic plot afoot, rather than the actions of radical individuals – not institutions – (including a psychiatric patient in one of the church attacks he mentioned)? The number of attacks is minuscule compared to other places – including Welby’s UK. Why does he not see a plot to diminish the state of Christianity there through the wave of church vandalism and burglaries that is going on?

Finally, he could have spoken to Israeli Christians – a whopping 84% of whom claim that life in Israel is satisfying.

Several years ago, Senator Ted Cruz was invited to speak to a gathering of Christian religious leaders from the Middle East. They met to call attention to the true plight of disappearing Christians – from the rest of the Middle East. They were talking about the genuine ethnic cleansing of Christians from the Assyrian Triangle and other areas, where the world’s oldest Christian communities were being actively extinguished.

Senator Cruz made the mistake of saying something positive about Israel, for which he was roundly booed. Cruz said that if they were that blind to reality, he wasn’t waiting for more – and walked off. How did it come to pass that these church leaders hated Jews more than their own oppressors?

The answer is fairly simple. At the end of the 19th century, Christians in the Middle East felt the winds of change at their backs. They had to choose between radical Islam (which gave them no chance at all for survival) or a new Arab pan-nationalism. They chose the latter. In time, they became more Arab than Christian. Along the way, many also embraced the new Arab anti-Semitism.

Welby’s understandable desire to stand up for Christian unity allowed him is no excuse for a man of his rank and influence to swallow whole the recent statement critical of Israel by a group of Christian leaders. In some cases, they are tragic pawns, unable to criticize their true oppressors. But others follow in the footsteps of the infamous Archbishop Atallah Hanna, who wrote, “We say to the enemy: 'Leave our land, our Jerusalem, and our holy places. This is Arab Palestinian land, that has no connection whatsoever to the Jews and the Zionists.’…Martyrdom operations are an excellent and good way to resist the Zionist invasion of the Palestinian land.”

Or the Rev. Naim Ateek, himself an Anglican like Welby, who criticizes Judaism as a form of “tribalism,” a “racist theology” practiced by people who worship “a god who has been created in the image of those who are thirsty for revenge,” based on “exclusive biblical texts that are being used to justify the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.” Their agenda is not the preservation of Christian communities, but hatred of Jews.

Don’t worry Archbishop, Israel will continue to protect the rights of Christians and Muslim faithful because it is the Jewish way.

We respectfully suggest that the Archbishop convert his considerable influence to awaken Christian conscience to intervene for truly endangered Christians across Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Director of Global Social Action.  Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the Center’s Director of Interfaith Affairs.

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