BBC & Angus Roxburgh promote the Church of Scotland narrative on the Middle East

Timing – so they say – is everything, and so it is with interest (more on that later) that one notes the BBC’s broadcast and publication of a feature by Angus Roxburgh on the Scots Hotel in Tiberias. 

As well as appearing in the Magazine section of the BBC News website, the piece was also broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, October 31st (produced by Caitlin Smith) and promoted by its writer/narrator on Twitter.

First, let us take a look at the online version of the article, in which Roxburgh uses a story supposedly about the Church of Scotland’s white elephant on the shores (rather than “banks” as he stated in the radio broadcast) of the Sea of Galilee as a convenient method of advancing a political narrative. 

Roxburgh informs us that:

“Churchmen were acutely aware that if they sold the property it would be bought by Israelis, which would be a blow not just to Christianity in the region but also to the Palestinians, whose cause the Church of Scotland strongly supports.”

The potential purchasing of property no longer needed by the Church by Israelis would be a “blow to Christianity in the region”? No doubt many of us would very much like to hear an expansion of the ‘logic’ behind that statement. 

Perniciously, Roxburgh manages to class the second Intifada terror war – which, as well as resulting in the murders of over 1,000 Israeli citizens of all faiths and the injury to thousands of others, also had a detrimental effect upon the tourism industry in Israel – as “civil unrest”.

“The hotel has been dogged with problems ever since the decision was taken to upgrade it. Civil unrest led to a slump in tourism.”

Equally bizarre is Roxburgh’s claim that:

“Rooms here cost as much as £200 ($320) a night, which puts it out of reach of most local people. Certainly few Palestinians, who it was originally hoped might come here to rub shoulders with Jewish people, could stay here.”

Obviously, Roxburgh (and, apparently, his hosts) have never travelled the ten minutes up the hill to Upper Tiberias where Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and members of other faiths rub shoulders every day at the ‘Big’ shopping centre, and in particular at the local branch of the Rami Levy supermarket, without needing to pay £200 for the pleasure of doing so. All the same, it is interesting to note that Roxburgh stereotypically assigns lower and higher economic abilities to certain sectors of the population.  

Later, Roxburgh goes for a drive with the Church of Scotland Minister in Tiberias, Colin Johnston.

“In the village of Reineh, near Nazareth, Father Samuel Barhoum tells me how proud he is of the links with the Kirk. “We are a forsaken minority here,” he says, alluding to the fact that outside the Middle East many people are unaware that there are Palestinian Christians as well as Muslims.”

There are indeed Palestinian Christians in the wider region, and there are also Arab Israeli Christians, including Father Barhoum’s Anglican congregations in Reineh and Nazareth. In fact, around 80% of over 150,000 Christians living in Israel are Arabs. Strangely, Roxburgh elects to identify the latter as ‘Palestinians’, whilst neglecting to mention that Israel is the only place in the Middle East in which the Christian population is safe and growing

Roxburgh chooses to interpret Fr Barhoum’s use of the phrase “forsaken minority” in a very specific manner. Had he dug a little deeper – having first taken note of the fact that forsaken and forgotten are not the same – he might perhaps have addressed the subject of some members of the Christian Church’s abandonment of Christians in the wider Middle East to their fate of harassment by Islamist extremists and the resulting mass emigration.

Whilst Arab Israeli Christians are protected by the state – unlike many of their co-religionists elsewhere in the Middle East as a whole and including Palestinian Authority-controlled regions – here, for example, are photographs taken last year outside a Christian church in Nazareth which raise an area of discussion which neither Roxburgh nor his hosts seem keen to address.

But instead of investigating that story, Roxburgh chooses to go down the well-trodden route, faithfully parroting his Church of Scotland hosts’ political line, but without actually delving too much into what interpretations the Church gives to the phrase “Palestinian cause”. 

“The Church of Scotland is fiercely supportive of the Palestinian cause. But ironically the existence of the Scots Hotel – which relies to some extent on Israeli goodwill and receives hefty Israeli tourism grants – is said by some to tie the Church’s hands.

Last year the General Assembly abandoned a motion calling for a boycott of goods from illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine because the Israeli government was proposing legislation that would make such calls a criminal offence.

Speakers condemned what they felt was Israeli “intimidation”. “My view,” says Johnston McKay, “is that the Church has not been as seriously critical of Israel’s policies as it ought to have been… it is compromised because it needs the support of Israel’s government for this hotel.” “

Like the Church of Scotland as a whole, its mission in Tiberias did not always mix politics and religion and in fact, had Angus Roxburgh bothered to speak to any of the local population, he would probably have come across voices nostalgic for the old days in which relations were cooperative, mutually respectful and warm. 

In recent years, however, those relations have changed, as politics and an often willfully blind reading of the Arab-Israeli conflict (as reflected in many of the posts upon the blog of the Minister in Tiberias since 2009, Colin Johnston) took a more prevalent place on the church’s agenda. 

As stated in Angus Roxburgh’s article, the Church of Scotland has, unfortunately, pinned its colours to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions mast, and despite its protestations at being supposedly “intimidated” by Israel, still managed to pass a resolution which: 

 “instruct[s] the Church and Society Council to work with ecumenical and civil society partners to continue to lobby for the introduction of labelling of products in the UK which clearly identify whether they are from an illegal Israeli settlement.”

Currently, the Church of Scotland is promoting “an Advent journey with the Palestinian people” on its website, which includes the incredibly insensitive graphic below and promotion of the BDS-supporting, one-state-promoting and theologically problematic 2009 Kairos Palestine document

In 2011, the authors of the Kairos Palestine document saw fit to reprimand the Archbishop of Canterbury when he gave his views on the subject of the exodus of Christians from Bethlehem to BBC Radio 4. 

The Church of Scotland is also currently sponsoring a conference to be held on November 2nd at the Quaker Meeting House in Edinburgh. The Balfour Project, as it is named, purports to contribute to justice, peace and reconciliation in the Middle East, and in particular the resolution of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians”. A look at the project’s organisers, however, indicates that this is just yet another anti-Israel campaign. 

And so, the Church of Scotland will now collaborate with – among others – Mary Grey; a patron of ‘Friends of Sabeel UK, Anne Clayton of the same group, (the organization with which they are ‘friends’ is headed by one of the Kairos document’s co-authors, Naim Ateek),  Ilan Pappe, Abe Hayeem, Massoud Shadjareh of the Iranian regime-backed, Hizballah-supporting Islamic Human Rights Commission and Anglican vicar Stephen Sizer, who just recently became the subject of an official complaint by the Board of Deputies of British Jews due to his anti-Semitic rhetoric. 

The timing of Angus Roxburgh’s article and broadcast – whilst not necessarily intentional – is, therefore, significant. As the Church of Scotland heads off even further into the realms of anti-Israel activism coloured with more than a tint of racism and supersessionism, the BBC sees fit to unquestioningly advance that organisation’s political narrative on the subject of ‘Palestine’ in an ostensibly whimsy travel piece – rather than asking more difficult questions about the real threats to Christianity in the Middle East (excluding Israeli property developers, of course) or even what is going on inside the Church of Scotland itself.  

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