By Paul Michaels
While the number of Christians worldwide continues to climb (now about 2.2 billion), their communities throughout the Islamic world are besieged by the rising tide of extremism. The consequence has been a steep decline of Christianity in many countries overseas.
An editorial, “Christians and lions,” in the Dec. 31 issue of The Economist gave a partial summary of this state of affairs: “In Nigeria scores of Christians have died in Islamist bomb attacks, targeting Christmas prayers. In Iran and Pakistan Christians are on death row, for ‘apostasy’—quitting Islam—or blasphemy. Dozens of churches in Indonesia have been attacked or shut. Two-thirds of Iraq’s pre-war Christian population have fled. In Egypt and Syria, where secular despots gave Christianity a shield of sorts, political upheaval and Muslim zeal threaten ancient Christian groups.”
While the plight of Egypt’s Christian community in the post-Mubarak period has received a fair amount of media attention under the glare cast on the “Arab Spring,” the often dire situation of Christians in the other countries mentioned above, not to mention China, has either been underreported or largely ignored.
Drawing upon a recent PEW Center study, the magazine noted that in sub-Saharan Africa Christians have gone from 9% to 63% of the total population. Yet, speaking of an underreported story, in Nigeria over the past decade, hundreds of Christians living mainly in the south have been killed in clashes with Muslim radicals from the north. On Christmas Day, an Islamist sect known as Boka Haram (meaning “Western education forbidden” according to a New York Times report) claimed responsibility for a series of church bombings, one of which killed 25 in the capital, Abuja. A few days later, with violence unabated, the president of Nigeria declared a state of emergency in a substantial part of the country.
Perhaps this is to be expected from the influential British-based Economist, but while focusing mainly on Islamist intolerance, it also found a role for Israelis in the persecution of Christians: “In the Holy Land, local churches are caught between Israeli encroachment on their property and Islamist bids to monopolise Palestinian life. Followers of Jesus may yet become a rarity in his homeland.”
Now facts may be boring, yet they’re often instructive, especially when essential ones are omitted. What’s missing above is any mention of a specific example of an alleged Israeli encroachment on church property.
In late 1999, Israel was accused of allowing such an infringement when it appeared that the government was prepared to yield to Muslim demands to permit the construction of a mosque next to the famous Christian pilgrimage site, the Basilica of the Annunciation. The Basilica, the largest church in the Middle East, is located in Nazareth, where Muslim Arabs now outnumber Christian Arabs two-to-one. The Vatican raised strong objections with Israel, which found itself in the middle of a battle between two faiths it sought to accommodate if not mollify. Israel’s efforts to reach a compromise by allowing the building of a small mosque while leaving land for a plaza between that structure and the church failed to placate church officials. Negotiations continued until Israel decided in early 2002 to stop the construction of the mosque, an act that pleased the Christians but led Muslims to accuse Israel of “persecution.” A year later, Israel demolished the foundation of the mosque (which had never received a building permit in the first place).
In short, not only was Israel’s initial response not an act of “encroachment” on Church property, this entire episode illustrates the extent to which Israel has attempted to be sensitive to the religious traditions and demands of both Christians and Muslims, and occasionally finds itself in an untenable situation as a result.
There is one other fact that the Economist omitted, and it’s crucial. While Christian populations are declining everywhere in the Middle East, there is one exception: Israel. Only in the Jewish State are Christians not only safe, their numbers are actually increasing. But that makes for rather boring news, doesn’t it?
Paul Michaels is the Director of Research and Media Relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
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