As we’ve noted previously, a pattern in which the ongoing persecution of Christians in Muslim states is downplayed, and the freedom enjoyed by Israel’s Christian community is ignored, continues to taint UK media coverage of the Middle East, and prevents news consumers from accurately understanding the vast freedom divide in the region.
Yesterday, we cross-posted a piece by Tamar Sternthal (Director of CAMERA’s Israel office) responding to a commentary (published in Ha’aretz) by Economist journalist Nicolas Pelham (‘Christians in Israel and Palestine‘, May 11) which accused Israel’s lobbyists of deceiving the world about the state’s treatment of Christians. As we noted, Pelham not only claimed that Christians are mistreated in Israel but, even more risibly, suggested that there’s something akin to harmony between Christians and Muslims in the Palestinian territories.
On the very same day the Ha’aretz piece ran, an Economist article titled Christians in Israel-Palestine: Caught in the Middle, authored by N.P. (presumably Nicolas Pelham), which continued to mislead on an issue of serious concern to millions of Christians in the world. Pelham begins his piece by criticizing the state for the tight security planned for the Pope’s upcoming visit:
Israel is taking no chances. It is planning a strict permit regime, insisting that the Holy Father travels in an armoured car, with the public kept at arm’s length behind a security cordon. Thousands of police are to be drafted in. “The pope wants to see the people,” protests a papal spokesman. “But Christians won’t be able to see him…Israel is turning the holy sites into a military base.”
Then, Pelham attempts to buttress his narrative by citing Israeli security procedures used during Easter celebrations in Jerusalem’s Old City last month.
Tensions rose in the Old City over Easter, as Israel’s police set quotas for access to Jesus’s burial site, the Holy Sepulchre. They issued wristbands and badges to let Christian groups through the gates of the Old City at allotted times, and set up barriers in the Christian quarter. “Move back,” Commander Golan told pilgrims, as thousands sought to attend the rite of the Holy Fire on Easter Saturday, when believers say fire erupts from Jesus’ tomb, setting thousands of church candles aflame.
After acknowledging that Israeli security measures during Easter were effective, and that this year’s Holy Fire ceremony (at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher) “flared without injury”, he then legitimizes the suggestion that there may have been special treatment for Jews during the Passover and Easter holidays.
Whereas the police held back Christian pilgrims, say the priests, the gates for Jews celebrating Passover, which coincided this year with Easter, were opened wide
However, as CAMERA senior researcher Ricki Hollander (a part-time Jerusalem resident) told us recently, security procedures during Passover for Jews were similarly stringent:
I and the people I was with were not allowed in to the Old City to go to the Jewish Quarter or Kotel yesterday [Saturday, April 19] afternoon during the fire ceremony. One friend I was with who lives in the Old City was prevented from returning to his house until the ceremony was over. Another elderly friend with a cane who was prevented from entering the barriers as well. We saw dozens of Jews being turned away. As it happens, we went to another gate and managed to take a very long way around to reach the Jewish quarter.
Pelham then cites the recent example of UN Middle East Peace Envoy Robert Serry:
Robert Serry, a Dutch diplomat who is the UN’s Middle East envoy, whose way was briefly barred, protested against what he said was Israel’s hindrance of religious freedom.
This is deceptive.
As we demonstrated in a post about a Guardian story which advanced the same narrative, there was no “hindrance of religious freedom” for Christians during Easter, and thousands of pilgrims were able to freely attend the Holy Fire ceremony (and other Easter events in the Old City) without incident. Further, Serry was merely delayed for 30 minutes before he and his delegation were able to attend the ceremony – a delay likely based on concerns about possible trampling if too many people surged to the ceremony at the same time.
Testifying to the overall success of the day’s events, Christian officials reportedly thanked Israeli police for their professional handling of the event.
The suggestion that there was any hindrance of Christians’ religious freedom on Easter in Jerusalem is pure fiction.
The Israelis say that the number of Christians in Israel is growing, whereas in the Palestinian territories (and elsewhere in the Arab world) it is shrinking
“Israelis say”? Wasn’t the Economist journalist able to fact check the Israeli “claim”?
He could have of course referred to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, where he would have learned that there were approximately 34,000 Christians living in Israel in 1949, whereas 161,000 Christians were living in the state by the end of 2013. By contrast, “Christian communities in the West Bank and Gaza”, according to a report based on statistics provided by the World Christian Database, “have been declining for several decades.” To cite just one example, since Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007, the Christian population has reportedly shrunk by half to about 1,500. (In the mid-90s, there were reportedly 5,000 Christians in Gaza.)
Pelham ends thusly:
In a move heralded by the Israelis as encouraging the integration of Christians in Israel, the army is planning to call up young Christians. It will be voluntary, says an army spokesman, noting the endorsement of a priest in Nazareth, Father Nadav. But most churchmen have condemned the move, saying it will sow sectarian strife between Israel’s 150,000 [sic] Arab Christians and its ten-times bigger number of Muslims. Last year, only 40 of some 2,000 Palestinian Christians who reached conscription-age enlisted.
Pelham got the number wrong. Though the number of Christians who enlist is indeed small, it is increasing. In the 6 month period between June 2013 and the end of December alone (based on multiple reports), there were 84 Christians who enlisted – a three-fold increase from the previous year.
More broadly, as anyone who lives or has spent serious time in the state would surely understand, Israel is, by far, the country with the best record on religious freedom in the Middle East. No matter how egregious the obfuscations by journalists like Pelham, nobody can plausibly deny that (as the latest report by the human rights group Freedom House documented) while Israel defines itself as a ‘Jewish and democratic state,’ “freedom of religion is respected“.