Palestine Enlightenment for the Vatican

What the Roman Catholic bishops forgot to mention about Israel.

A Vatican meeting that ended last week of the Catholic church leaders from the Middle East, called the "Eleventh General Congregation of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops", received relatively little press attention. A little enlightenment is in order.

Pope Benedict attended some of the deliberations and, no doubt, Vatican officials carefully oversaw the bishops' published resolutions. So the bishops, in their concluding declaration, condemned anti-Semitism (and, for balance, Islamophobia—actually, wait a minute, how many Muslims has "Islamophobia" actually killed?), and endorsed a "two-state solution" and secure boundaries for "the State of Israel", and condemned all forms of violence. But, at the same time, they called for "an end to the occupation of the different Arab territories"—without clarifying whether they were speaking only of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, the "Palestinian" territories, or of the whole territory of Mandatory Palestine. (Such ambiguity often characterizes Palestinian publications.)

The bishops (most of them, or all, Arabs), whose brief was to review the state of Christianity and Christians in the Middle East, appear—from the declaration—to have devoted an inordinate amount of time to the issue of Palestine/the Land of Israel. Well, of course it is God's "Promised Land" (though one of the participating bishops, Cyril Salim Bustros, a Melkite archbishop from Boston, seemed to deny this). But, all will agree, Palestine's Christian community is numerically negligible.

The bishops critically noted the "impact of the Israeli-Paletinian conflict on the whole region" (has it really caused or affected the continuous and massive bloodletting in Iraq this past decade; in Sudan; in Turkey/Kurdistan; in Afghanistan and Pakistan?)—and spoke of "the Palestinians who are suffering the consequences of the Israeli occupation, the lack of freedom of movement, the wall of separation and the military checkpoints, the political prisoners, [and] the demolition of homes.” In the declaration, the bishops expressed their "solidarity with the Palestinian people, whose current situation encourages fundamentalism" (how about the concurrent rise of Islamism in the Philipines, Thailand, Nigeria, Iraq, Britain and Holland? Is this not a general phenomenon in the Muslim world and a result of deep, global trends and reasons? Perhaps these also underlie, at least in large measure, the growth of fundamentalism among the Gaza-West Bank populations, and among Israel's Arab minority?)

The final declaration also included what appears to be a slap at the Israeli settler movement: "Recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the Word of God to wrongly justify innjustices is not acceptable" (though I do believe the Catholic Church, for many, many centuries had recourse to theology and scripture in justification of its own vast injustices toward, say, Latin American Indians and Jews).

The bishops devoted a great deal of space to Christian emigration from the Middle East, a region which in the seventh Century had an overwhelming Christian majority. Today there are few Christians in the giant swathe of territory between Pakistan and the Atlantic Ocean (save for the relatively large Coptic community in Egypt and the fast-dwindling Christian communities of Lebanon). Life among the Muslims during the past fourteen centuries, apparently, was no bed of roses: There were massacres, forced and semi-forced conversions, and mass emigration. Recent years have witnessed the movement of Iraq's remaining Christians to the West, the two recent Gulf wars (generating strong anti-Western and anti-Christian currents) precipitating the final exodus.

The bishops dutifully mentioned the recent "assassination of Christians" in Iraq—but failed to specifically note the de-Christianization of Palestine. To be sure, the Israeli occupation has also weighed on local Christians, and many have feared being caught between the (Muslim) hammer and the (Jewish) anvil. But the Islamization of the occupied territories has no doubt played a large part in Christian apprehensions.

The traditionally Christian town of Bethlehem is today at least two-thirds Muslim; several Christians have in the past few years been murdered in the Gaza Strip and the Christian bookshop in Gaza was firebombed a few years ago. I don't believe it has been rebuilt. In the West Bank, the intimidation has not been as blatant—but there is a steady migration of Christians out of the territory Westward. In Mandatory Palestine, some 10 percent of Arabs were Christians; today, it is probably closer to 2-3 per cent.

Indeed, the only area of Mandatory Palestine which has seen an increase in the number of Christians in recent decades is Israel. The bishops failed to mention this.