BBC coverage of the Pope’s visit to the Middle East began on May 22nd – two days before the commencement of the event itself – with an article by the corporation’s Vatican correspondent David Willey titled “Pope Francis to tread careful path on Mid-East visit” appearing in the ‘Features & Analysis section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page and on its Europe page.
Excepting Willey’s misleading reference to the Palestinian territories as one of “three countries” to be visited by the Pope, the first section of the article is fairly unremarkable until readers arrive at the section sub-headed “Christian exodus”.
“The Pope’s namesake, Saint Francis, never actually made it to Jerusalem, or to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
He did however travel as far as Acre – now part of Israel – in 1219, laying the foundations for a Franciscan presence in the Middle East which has, somewhat miraculously, endured until this day.
Some 300 Franciscan friars are officially entrusted by the Vatican with the custody and upkeep of the Holy Places in the Middle East.
However, they have been denuded of their Christian heritage to the extent that one leading local Catholic churchman has described the Holy Land as developing into a sort of “spiritual Disneyland”, full of tourist attractions but increasingly devoid of religious meaning because of the departure of much of the former indigenous Christian population.”
Whilst the jurisdiction of the Custodian of the Holy Land includes sites in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Cyprus and Rhodes, many if not most of the sites that body administers are in Israel (as can be seen on the organisation’s website) where the Christian population – contrary to Willey’s statement – is continually growing.
Willey goes on:
“The Christian exodus extends over a wide area of the Middle East, not only from the Palestinian territories.
Two of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East, the Chaldean Catholics of Iraq, and the Syrian Catholics have been decimated by war.”
Willey is equally circumspect and misleading with regard to Palestinian Christians.
“At the end of the British mandate in Palestine in 1947, the population of Bethlehem was 85% Christian. Today it is 18% and continues to diminish as a result of a higher local Muslim birth-rate and emigration owing to tough economic conditions and Israeli security measures.
In the Old City of Jerusalem, the Christian presence is now estimated at just 1.5%.” [emphasis added]
The Christian population of Israel as a whole stands at some 161,000 – around 2% of the total population – and so a Christian presence of 1.5% in the Old City is not quite the dramatic figure Willey would have readers believe and does not reflect the fact that since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, the city’s Christian population has remained largely stable.
As we recently noted here in a post concerning another BBC production on the subject of Palestinian Christians, the realities behind the emigration of Palestinian Christians are decidedly more complex than Willey is prepared to state, but notably he appears to have adopted the now well entrenched BBC faux narrative of Palestinian Christians leaving their homeland because of “Israeli security measures”.
In the concluding section of his article Willey misleads readers by implying that religious freedom in Jerusalem is currently lacking.
“So what are the stumbling blocks towards better relations between the Vatican and Israel?
The Vatican has remained single-mindedly in favour of a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to the internationalisation of the city of Jerusalem in the name of religious freedom.”
Providing no factual evidence for his next inaccurate claim, he goes on to state that:
“The Israeli government is less enthusiastic about a Palestinian state, and says Jerusalem will remain their “eternal undivided capital”.” [emphasis added]
Whether or not we will see yet more repetitions of the BBC’s faux narrative regarding the reasons for the decline in numbers of Palestinian Christians during its coverage of the Pope’s visit in the coming days remains to be seen, but the tone set by Willey’s opener and the fact that the Pope’s party includes the BBC’s Middle East editor suggests that the topic is one upon which to keep a watchful eye.