The plight of Palestinian Christians has finally hit radar screens in the US Congress, though there's lots of clutter over the source of their distress - Israel or Islam. Conservative commentator Robert Novak - who revels in spreading dirt on Israel - stirred the pot in a Washington Post column in May, disclosing that veteran Congressman Henry Hyde, Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, had sent President Bush a private letter suggesting American support for Israel's security barrier may involve "the affirmation of injustice" due to its "negative consequences on communities and lands under their occupation." Accompanying Hyde's letter was a report detailing the fence's alleged impact on Arab Christians in the Holy Land. In response, House members Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Joseph Crowley (D-NY) circulated a proposed resolution that blamed the Palestinian Authority's systematic abuse of Palestinians Christians for their continuing flight from the land. A heated debate has ensued, fueled by Arab and American clergymen who fault the draft resolution for exaggerating the role Islamic radicalism plays in this Christian exodus. Three senior Arab clerics in Jerusalem (Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, Anglican Archbishop Riah Abu al-Assal, and Lutheran Archbishop Mounib Younan) even invited McCaul and Crowley to come see for themselves how the "massive migration to other countries of Palestinian Christians [is] largely due to the illegal [Israeli] occupation." This debate is not new, and all sides agree that the Palestinian Christian community is dwindling fast, from around 10% of the population in 1948 to barely 1.5% today. What remains in dispute is who should be held responsible. IT SEEMS Chairman Hyde has fallen victim to that "evil twin" of divestment - fence dismantlement. Both are anti-Israel initiatives launched after the infamous 2002 UN Durban conference on racism. While divestment made in-roads in Presbyterian and Anglican circles, the campaign to dismantle Israel's security fence has now penetrated Congress. Yet it's farcical to pin the primary blame for the Christian exodus on Israel's fence or its "occupation," since the phenomena predates both. More than 60% of Palestinian Christians had fled long before the fence started going up three years ago. Indeed, most of that emigration occurred before Israel even entered the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967. In Jerusalem, for example, the last British census found 28,000 Arab Christians in 1948, while Israel's first official tally in 1967 registered only 11,000. So for the bulk of Palestinian Christians, the current debate over the security fence is rather pointless; they departed long ago, driven out by the Arab-Israeli conflict itself, which arose from Islam's bitter and unremitting theological rejection of Israel's existence. More mobile and better educated than their Muslim neighbors, the Christians sought a future elsewhere. Some crossed into Israel - the only Middle East country where the Christian population has actually grown over the past 50 years. Scores of others started anew in such far off places as Toronto, Santiago and Sydney. Those that remain suffer under the same hostile Islamic spirit that is battering Israel, and which views both Jews and Christians as followers of "inferior" faiths destined to be subjugated to Islam. Palestinian Christians - like other Christian minorities in Arab lands - have grown accustomed to this sad state of dhimmitude, with most of their leaders maintaining a code of silence to protect their flocks. The signers of the invitation letter to Cong. McCaul and Crowley are cases in point. "The entire history of Palestine never witnessed any religious conflict between Christians and Muslims," Bishop Riah told The Washington Times at a time when Muslim gunmen were invading Christian homes in Beit Jalla to shoot at Gilo. "[I]n Arab countries there is no persecution of Christians," Latin Patriarch Sabbah assured Newsweek at a dismal Christmas two years later. BY PUSHING for the dismantlement of Israel's fence, Palestinian Christian leaders seek to accomplish two goals: First, they prove their nationalist credentials to the Palestinian Muslim majority. They may have not given any sons as "martyrs," but they are contributing to the cause. Second, they genuinely want to keep the door open to Israel, lest their parishioners get trapped without any escape hatch from the menacing Muslim masses. Nonetheless, they would have us pretend that Palestinian society is the shining exception to the prevailing Muslim oppression of Christian minorities throughout the Middle East. Thousands of Assyrian Christians are fleeing the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. The ancient Egyptian Coptic and Lebanese Maronite communities are wilting under official and societal persecution. The practice of Christianity is banned in Saudi Arabia. But all is fine in Palestine!? I suspect Bob Novak actually cares little about Palestinian Christians, and merely used them to smear Israel. Perhaps others highlight Muslim maltreatment of Christians just to score points for Israel. These precious people should not be pawns in some grubby blame game over who forced them from the Holy Land. Rather, the focus should be on what can be done to preserve the embattled remnant. The answer to that, dear friends, lies largely in Israel's protective hands. The writer is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem and contributing editor of The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition. (From the August 2006 edition)

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