In mid-July some 90 religious, political, and media representatives gathered at London's Lambeth Palace at the behest of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, to discuss in conference the situation of Christians in the Holy Land.
The purpose, according to Archbishop Williams, was to raise "literate, compassionate awareness" of the plight of Palestinian Christians in light of the "very significant" and "accelerating" decline of their population and to consider "What we can we do to help those Christians who so urgently want to stay in their homeland, and to imagine a future there for themselves?"
The conference followed closely on the heels of a mid-June BBC interview, in which Williams spoke of Palestinian Christians as a minority in a largely Muslim population and, with no mention of the effects of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, attributed the Christian exodus solely to Muslim extremism. This led the Rev. Naim Ateek, the director of Sabeel, the Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, to write the archbishop to point out that "as Palestinian Christians, we perceive ourselves as an integral part of the Palestinian people ... [and] do not refer to ourselves as a minority."
Ateek noted, moreover, that "as Palestinians, whether Christian or Muslim, we equally live under the oppression of the illegal Israeli occupation of our country." This was reiterated at the conference by Samer Makhlouf, a Roman Catholic, who reportedly called the occupation "the father of all problems in the region." (See John Allen's report in the National Catholic Reporter.)
Others at the conference tried to draw attention to the specifics of those problems… the sorts of hardships I have seen firsthand visiting Palestinian Christians in late 2008 and again this March. These effects are most clearly evident in Taybeh, the only entirely Christian village in Palestine, whose economic livelihood is threatened by the settlements and military outposts that surround it, and Bethlehem, whose many Christians are cut off from Jerusalem by the thirty-foot high separation wall and a tightening ring of settlements, including the veritable cities of Gilo and Har Homa. At the Christian-run Bethlehem University, for example, students with Jerusalem identity cards described the daily hassle they must endure at Israeli checkpoints, while those with West Bank papers complained about their complete inability to visit the holy sites -- or relatives -- in Jerusalem.
No wonder the population of Christians in Israel/Palestine has stagnated, growing only from about 150,000 in 1946 to fewer than 160,000 in 2006 rather than the far higher figure that might be expected from natural demographic growth. As the Palestinian Christian academic Bernard Sabellah noted, according to Allen, this stagnation is accounted for by the "missing" Christians who have emigrated.
Almost amusingly, Rabbi Daniel Sperber of Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University reportedly told the conference not to worry … "the churches are full" thanks to Filipino guest workers and 50,000 Christians who have immigrated from the former Soviet Union. These latter "Christians," he failed to note, are for the most part Soviet "Jews" who have made aliyah to Israel and brought with them racist, fascist attitudes that have given rise to neo-Soviet policies that would discriminate against Palestinians and Filipinos alike and, in the process, threaten Israeli democracy.
So, to return to Archbishop William's pregnant question, "What we can we do to help those Christians who so urgently want to stay in their homeland, and to imagine a future there for themselves?"
For the most part, the archbishop and others danced around the "realities on the ground" -- realities made worse each day by the bulldozers that daily create thousands of new illegal settlements, home now to half a million Israeli Jews on the West Bank -- preferring instead to talk of "balance," as if a confrontation between Israel's behemoth military machine and a people on its knees could ever be "balanced" -- and bottoms-up grassroots "constructive engagement;" the sort of "constructive engagement" engaged in by the Episcopal Church since 2002.
To what effect, one has to ask? According to Canon Robert Edmunds, chaplain to Suheil Dawani, the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Jerusalem, such an approach risks ending in "words and goodwill" that don't change the lived reality of Palestinian Christians. They are, he said, but "band-aids," adding that "if we don't encourage the government of Israel to cut a deal, we're going to be putting on band-aids for a very long time."
It is far past time not just to encourage, but to insist that the government of Israel cut the two-state deal demanded not just by justice but by the best interests of Israel. It is time for the Episcopal Church to consider and adopt a policy that will get the attention of the governments of Israel -- and the United States -- a policy of divesting from all companies that enable the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and boycotting all products manufactured in Israeli settlements in the West Bank or East Jerusalem.
The bleeding Palestinian Christians -- indeed, all Palestinians -- deserve not just our words, prayers, goodwill, and conferences. They are not just some object of abstract historicity and, therefore, in the eyes of our archbishop, "critical to Christianity's identity." They are living, breathing, bleeding human beings whose dignity we are called by our baptism to respect.
The above appeared on Episcopal News Service July 28, 2011