“Christianity is facing the greatest threat to its existence in the very place where it was born. Jane Corbin travels across the Middle East to some of the holiest places in Christendom and finds that hundreds of thousands of Christians are fleeing Islamic extremists, conflict and persecution. From the Nineveh plains in Iraq to the ancient city of Maaloula in Syria, Kill the Christians reveals the story of how the religion that shaped Western culture and history is in danger of disappearing in large parts of its ancient heartland.”
Pre-broadcast promotion of the programme included an article by Corbin titled “Could Christianity be driven from Middle East?” published on the BBC News website and another article by Corbin published in the Guardian under the headline “These may be the last Christians of the Middle East – unless we help“. The sub-heading in the Guardian article reflects one of the themes appearing in the documentary itself as well as in the other written article.
“Islamic extremism has taken persecution to a new level, but the seeds were sown a decade ago in the US- and British-led Iraq invasion”.
Whilst the version of Corbin’s article appearing on the BBC News website confines itself to discussion of the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria, in the article appearing in the Guardian, readers got a taste of things to come in the documentary itself.
“Christianity remains a force only in Lebanon, where the common enemy for Muslims and Christians alike is Islamic extremism. There are other threats, however – in historic Palestine young Christians leave for jobs and a more secure life abroad. Emigration and fear are sapping the life of Christian communities even in relatively peaceful parts of the region.”
At around 37 minutes into the programme Corbin tells viewers:
“But there’s one country where Christians are still secure – their last bastion in the Middle East: the Lebanon.”
Remarkably, around a tenth of this hour-long documentary ostensibly about “Christians…fleeing Islamic extremists, conflict and persecution” is devoted to what Corbin variously terms “historic Palestine” and “the Holy Land”.
“The Christians of the Lebanon have a good chance of holding on, but only if their children feel they have a future in the region. That’s not certain when you look at where it all began: historic Palestine. The Christian community has dramatically declined in the very place where Christ was born: in the little town of Bethlehem on the West Bank Palestinian territory occupied by Israel.”
Bethlehem is of course located in Area A and has been under the full control of the Palestinian Authority since 1995.
“It’s not Islamic State that threatens Christians here but a slow process of attrition. Decades of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians have driven many Christians to emigrate. In the 1920s Bethlehem was almost completely Christian; only one Muslim family lived here. But now only a third of the town’s inhabitants are Christian.”
Corbin refrains from informing her viewers of some critical background to Bethlehem’s demographics:
“In 1947 the population of Bethlehem was 85% Christian. In 1990 23,000 Christians lived there, as a 60% majority. After the Palestinian Authority took over control of the town in 1995 the town’s municipal boundaries were altered to include concentrations of Muslim population, turning the Christians into a minority. By 2010 the number of Christians in Bethlehem had fallen to 7,500.”
“The Church of the Nativity marks the very place where Christ was born in a manger. It’s somewhere every devout Christian in the world wants to visit. Much of Bethlehem’s economy depends on pilgrimage and tourism and that always suffers when there’s conflict in the Holy Land.” […]
“During the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation a decade ago, the Church of the Nativity itself was besieged. Israeli forces battled Palestinian militants who’d taken refuge inside. Many Christians left Bethlehem following the uprising.” […]
“Life is hard in Bethlehem. The town’s now partly surrounded by the wall. Israel says it built this separation barrier for its security but Christians say it restricts their movement. Violence still regularly flares up in Bethlehem between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians.” […]
Once again we see the BBC’s standard “Israel says” formula at work in relation to the anti-terrorist fence. As usual, no effort is made to provide audiences with factual information on the subject of the fence’s effectiveness in preventing the terror attacks which were the cause of its construction and just as Corbin avoids any mention of Palestinian terrorism during the second Intifada, she also erases it from her euphemistic description of contemporary violence which, according to her, just “flares up”. Corbin also repeats the standard inaccurate BBC claim according to which Bethlehem is “partially surrounded by the wall”. In fact, not only is there no anti-terrorist fence to the south and east of Bethlehem, but the section which can accurately be described as a “wall” is one small specific section.
“Some Christians also complain of discrimination against them by the Muslim majority and they fear increasing Islamic extremism in the area.” […]
That one-liner is of course the real story behind the plight of Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem and elsewhere but – despite the ample evidence long available – it is one which does not fit the BBC narrative and hence has not been reported comprehensively. As we see, Corbin makes no effort to present an exception to that BBC rule.
“Many Christians in Bethlehem feel cut off from the greatest place of all in the life of Christ – just five miles away. Jerusalem is where three of the greatest religions on earth come together, making this the holiest city on earth. Two of those religions are still thriving in the Holy Land. Judaism is secure in the State of Israel and prayers in Jerusalem’s great Mosques echo those across the Middle East where Islam is predominant. Only Christianity is in terminal decline. They still worship in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the site of Jesus’ tomb. But most visitors are from far away – from places where the religion’s growing. Soon these most symbolic sites could become just museums for international pilgrims. Few Christians actually live in the place where Jesus lived and died.”
In the year following the establishment of the State of Israel – 1949 – its Christian population numbered 34,000. In 1947 there were 28,000 Christians living in Jerusalem. During the 19 years of Jordanian rule over the eastern part of the city, 61% of them left, with the population reduced to 11,000 when the city was reunited in 1967. At the end of 2012, The Christian population of Israel numbered 158,400, 80% of whom are Arab Christians living exactly in “the place where Jesus lived and died”: the Galilee and Jerusalem.
“Most Christian Arabs live in the northern Israel, and the cities with the largest Christian populations are Nazareth, with 22,400; Haifa with 14,400; Jerusalem with 11,700; and Shfaram with 9,400.”
One year later – December 2013 – the number of Christians living in Israel had risen to 160,900, indicating a natural growth rate of around 1.9%. By way of comparison, the natural growth rate of the UK population in 2013 was 0.6%.
So as we see, Corbin’s claim that “…in the Holy Land…Christianity is in terminal decline” is not evidence-based at all. Rather, it clearly flows from the exact same politically motivated source as Jeremy Bowen’s recent attempt to persuade BBC audiences that Israel is just as much a threat to Middle East Christians as the religiously motivated persecution and slaughter perpetrated by Islamist extremists.
The issue of the persecution of Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East is one which clearly does need to be brought to audiences worldwide. It is therefore all the more regrettable that the BBC exploits this serious subject for the promotion of inaccurate, trite political narratives about the one country in the region in which they are not in danger, whilst at the same time downplaying and even concealing the real background to the plight of Christians living under the control of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.