Ignoring the Real Causes of Christian Exodus

Pope Benedicts visit to Israel this week has increased media attention on the plight of Christians in the Middle East and their declining numbers. But while the visit should serve as an opportunity for an honest look at Christian flight, one reporter blamed Israel and the West instead.

In an article describing Christian apprehensions over Pope Benedicts visit, Time magazines Andrew Lee Butters calls the presence of Christians in the region a reminder of the multi-sectarian and tolerant history of Arab and Islamic culture. However, this tolerance is threatened, he writes, from the rise of religious extremism.

At this point, one would assume Butters would delve into largely overlooked issues such as

1) the persecution of Christians in the PA and Gaza,
2) creeping fundamentalism,
3) the intimidation of Christian media
4) forced conversions
5) Christians frozen out of the Palestinian national dialogue.

But instead, Butters points his finger in the opposite direction: Clash-of-civilizations pundits and Western leaders like the Pope often ignore how the West helped spark such intolerance, especially through its one-sided support of Israel.

Butters would be hard pressed to prove that Europe has been one-sided in its support for Israel. More importantly, however, Butters statement implies that Muslims are not responsible for their actions because the West backs Israels right to exist in peace with its neighbors. In fact, Butters goes even further, calling Israels creation a disaster for Christians in the Middle East.

Many of the Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced from their homes in 1948 never to be allowed back were Christians. The flood of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon helped spark a civil war between Muslims and Christians there. And the ongoing occupation of the West Bank is strangling the life out of those Christian communities that are left.

Blaming Israel for the civil war in Lebanon ignores the complex political arrangements in Lebanon at the time and the destabilizing effect of the PLO inside Lebanons borders. He also neglects to mention what might be strangling the life out of the 2,000 Christians living in Gaza. But Butters doesnt stop there. He also holds Israel responsible for Muslim abuses of Christians in Egypt:

The ongoing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has also helped fuel the rise of Islamic extremism, especially in countries that have unpopular peace agreements with Israel. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition to the American-backed Mubarak dictatorship, waged a small-scale terror campaign against both the government and the country’s Coptic Christians during the 1990s.

According to Butters, therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood isnt ultimately responsible for small-scale terror against the Christians it carries out. Its really Israels presence in the Palestinian territories that is behind it all.

The BBCs Tim Franks also covered the decline of Arab Christians in Bethlehem. In his article, Franks quoted several Palestinians who claim that Christians are leaving the city because of Israels security barrier. However, Franks also acknowledges that there could be another reason for the exodus.

Privately, some Christians in Bethlehem say another factor sometimes motivates their decision to leave – concern about the rise of radical Islam – but they are unwilling to put such views on the record.

Indeed, Franks admission is consistent with finding from Justus Reid Weiner, who has researched the plight of Christians in the Palestinian territories extensively. According to Weiner, Arab Christians rarely speak about their situation in public:

The human rights crimes against the Christian Arabs in the disputed territories are committed by Muslims. Yet many Palestinian Christian leaders accuse Israel of these crimes rather than the actual perpetrators. This motif has been adopted by a variety of Christian leaders in the Western world. Others who are aware of the human rights crimes choose to remain silent about them.

The media has on obligation to report the truth. Insist that reporters tell the whole story when they cover the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

Write to Time magazine at letters@time.com

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