US Affairs: Hyde spark

The hot topic in Congress this week was the plight of Palestinian Christians.

congress 88 (photo credit: )
congress 88
(photo credit: )
Relations between American Christians and pro-Israel activists have been bumpy in recent months. While active lobbying and interfaith efforts on the part of most Jewish organizations bore fruit this week - with the redefining of the Presbyterian Church's divestment resolution - on other fronts, the picture isn't so rosy. The main battleground at present is in Congress, where the plight of Palestinian Christians has become a hot-button issue, with each side blaming the other for the mistreatment of the Christian minority in the Holy Land. It all began with a detailed and harshly worded five-page letter to President Bush, sent by House International Relations Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL) - based on findings of a report his office conducted - on the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit to Washington last month. Hyde's has been the leading voice claiming that Israel's security barrier is harming the Christian communities in the outskirts of Jerusalem and the Bethlehem region by preventing them from practicing their faith freely. In the letter, Hyde - who is retiring this term after 32 years in Congress - argued that Israeli actions in the West Bank were "damaging and dwindling" the Christian community, which "is being crushed in the mill of the bitter Israeli-Palestinian conflict." The Hyde letter, as other similar complaints lodged in recent years, did not have much of an impact. Nor, diplomatic sources say, were such issues ever raised in bilateral talks between Israel and the US. The only issue which was brought up by Bush - and that was way back during his first term - was the need for Israel to settle its problems with the Vatican and end the ongoing dispute over the Holy See's tax status in Israel. Israel, however, has made an effort to counter claims concerning the Christians' freedom of religion and movement in the West Bank. Israeli diplomats and other officials visiting Washington have always made a point of meeting with Christian communities and responding to charges regarding the impact of the security barrier on Christian life in Israel and the West Bank. One issue recently taken up by the Israelis was the fate of the Christian village of Aboud, which, according to the Hyde report, is suffering from the expansion of nearby Jewish settlements. In response, Israeli officials were quick to "pull out the maps" and refute the charges. THIS WEEK, the problem of Christian Palestinians was raised once again in Congress, this time in an attempt to claim that the Palestinian Authority, not Israel, is to blame for restricting their religious freedom. A "Dear Colleague" letter - followed by a draft of a bill - began circulating in the House in an attempt to gain supporters. This legislative initiative, sponsored by Reps. Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Joe Crowley (D-NY), condemns the "persecution of Palestinian Christians by the Palestinian Authority" and suggests that Congress make financial aid to the PA conditional upon a guarantee of religious freedom for the Christian minority in the Palestinian territories. This initiative is based on a study, prepared by Justus Reid Weiner of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, concluding that the plight of the Palestinian Christians "is, in part, attributable to the adoption of Muslim religious law (Sharia) in the Constitution of the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, the Christians have been abandoned by their religious leaders who, instead of protecting them, have chosen to curry favor with the Palestinian leadership." Pro-Palestinian activists in the US have dismissed the findings of Weiner's study. Some have claimed that the proposed legislation on this issue is no more than an attempt to counter Hyde's letter and complaint about the Israeli treatment of Christian Palestinians. "The resolution contains many inaccuracies and exaggerations," asserts an organization called "Churches for Middle East Peace," which has asked its members to lobby against the bill. To back up its claim, the organization points to the fact that the PLO ambassador to Washington, Afif Safieh, is himself a Roman Catholic - something they consider evidence that Christians are not discriminated against in the Muslim-led PA. THE FIGHT is far from over. The McCaul-Crowley bill is slowly gaining cosponsors in the House and may in the future reach an actual vote. But Hyde has not indicated that he has received adequate answers to his claims against Israel, and is not likely to let up on this issue before the end of his term. Furthermore, Hyde is now leading the opposition in the House against a resolution marking the 39th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem. Though the text of the resolution is an exact replica of that of the year before, Hyde - joined by Senator John Sununu (R-NH) in the Senate - opposes a clause in it which says, "Whereas this year marks the 39th year that Jerusalem has been administered as a unified city in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected." This is one statement Hyde does not feel he can stand behind this year. And, according to congressional sources, the resolution will likely die due to his opposition. Still, for many Jewish activists dealing with the relations between Christians and Israel-supporters, this week constituted a victorious "a turning point." The reason for this sense of satisfaction is the new resolution adopted by the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, which ended the divestment policy of the Church toward certain companies doing business with Israel. The fact that the Presbyterian Church, which has 2.3 million followers in the US, decided in 2004 to divest from companies "which profited from Israeli occupation in the West Bank" dealt a severe blow to American Jewish-Christian relations. In the two years since the original resolution was approved, much has changed. For one thing, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza improved Israel's image around the world and in Church circles. For another, and more important one, a massive interfaith effort was made by the American Jewish community to reach out to Presbyterians on local and leadership levels, and make the case against singling out Israel and against boycotting the Jewish state. Jewish activists who attended this week's Presbyterian general assembly in Birmingham, Alabama, said the feedback they received from Church members was overwhelmingly positive, and that they were told repeatedly that the response of the Jewish community was a lead factor in changing the resolution and abandoning the divestment language. The divestment dispute is now seen by Jewish communal leaders not only as a religious battle that was staved off, but as an opportunity to build new bridges between the Jewish pro-Israel community and the Christian groups in the US.