Christians are an endangered species in the Middle East, endangered not only by the threat of violent extremism that targets them but also their feeling that they must flee to survive.
Every day during this year’s Easter season, I listened to commentators on the right and the left talk about the fast-disappearing Middle East Christians not in terms of saving them but in terms of who is to blame.
Middle East Christians are a statistic in a political debate that crosses the political divide and the religious divide between Jews and Muslims.
Yet no one is really doing anything to protect them from extinction.
I am so tired of listening to Israelis claim that Israel does more to protect Middle East Christians than any of the Middle East countries. Israelis claim Israel is the only safe haven for Christians.
The day after Easter, an official of the Jewish Agency for Israel posted a tweet declaring, “As Christians flee the Middle East, I’m proud to live in Israel, which has five times as many Christians as it did in 1948. Happy Easter.”
The statement offended me. Yes, the Christian population of Israel may have increased slightly, but only after taking a major hit following Israel’s creation. Tens of thousands of Christians were among those that were forced to flee in 1947 and 1948, becoming refugees, including my cousins and uncles.
Other Christians living in the West Bank under Jordanian control experienced Israeli military brutality during the 1967 war 50 years ago. Since that time, Israel has expropriated large areas of Christian-owned lands in Christian areas including Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Nazareth, and even in occupied Jerusalem.
Today, Israel stands in the way of allowing my family to claim our land, which is adjacent to the illegal settlement of Gilo. Gilo was founded on Palestinian lands forcibly confiscated by Israel in the 1970s. In our case, the Israeli military destroyed a home, expelled my relatives, sealed the water well diverting it to Gilo and surrounding it with Jewish-owned settler homes under the gaze of “Gilo Park.”
If there were only five Christians left in Israel, and that population increased to six, Israel would boast about it as a ‘massive 20 percent increase.’
The Jewish Agency did not mention that discriminatory practice!
Yet, despite this reality of oppression, it is true that the Christian population has increased slightly in Israel. Of course, statistics can be manipulated. If there were only five Christians left in Israel because of Israel’s oppression, and that population increased to six, Israel would boast about it as a “massive 20 percent increase.”
Nearly 80 percent of all Middle East Christians live in Egypt. The remaining live in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.
This past Palm Sunday, Daesh terrorists attacked Coptic Christian worshippers in Egypt on Palm Sunday, forcing Egypt’s Christians to cancel their Easter services.
Many in the Muslim world expressed outrage at the suicide bombings that claimed 45 lives and wounded hundreds more. The terrorists targeted a church in Tanta, the seat of Egypt’s Christian community, and a church in Alexandria.
It was not the first time. Both cities have seen terrorism targeting Christians in the past.
Yet denouncing the violence against Christians is not enough from the Muslim world. Islam is the dominant religion in the Arab world and it is their responsibility not only to protect the Christian minority, but to celebrate the Christian existence.
Too often, Christians are marginalized and exploited like trophies in a window for political purposes. Only a handful of Christian leaders are invited to speak at Muslim conferences or events. Worse, many of the largest Islamic conventions in Western countries like the US are held on the same dates as the most important Christian holidays, Easter and Christmas.
Many Christian churches have opened their doors widely to support Middle East Christians. They stand in awe when I tell them my father is from the Holy City of Jerusalem, and my mother is from Bethlehem, the origins of Christian faith. Both are under extreme Israeli duress.
As an Arab Christian, I identify with Muslims far more than Muslims identify with Christians. I view myself as being Christian and “Muslim by culture.” I am proud to be a part of the Muslim world, but I am always disappointed so few Muslims offer anything more than rhetorical support for our plight.
I am constantly cautioned to be silent about Christian-Muslim relations, and told I should only speak of us as “Arabs.” We are no different, they say. Yet the Muslim community is reaching to great heights in America and elsewhere not as “Arabs” but as Muslims. They find solidarity in their religious beliefs in the face of horrendous persecution in the West.
Anti-Muslim racism is a frequent topic. Not discussed, though, is the fact that Christian Arabs are also discriminated against, not just in America, where Americans see no difference between Christian Arabs and Muslims, but in the Arab world, too.
That needs to end. We need to openly discuss it.
The Arab and the Muslim worlds have an obligation to support Christian Arabs and Middle East Christians that include those who do not view themselves as being “Arab” such as Chaldeans, Assyrians and Phoenicians.
When will we be respected? Because honestly, I am tired of listening to Israel do all the talking with their exaggerated “love” and their twisted data.
Muslims are not stealing my land in Palestine. It is Israel. And yet there is not one Muslim or Arab nation standing up for our defense.
• Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian-American former journalist and political columnist. Email him at [email protected]