Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Letter to the Archbishop of Westminster

Following midnight mass on Christmas Eve, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, delivered his annual homily for the occasion. In it, he made a reference to Christians in the West Bank which I and others found offensive and ill-informed. I wrote a letter to him, setting out what I believe to be the important context within which his words appear either ignorant or biased or both. His statement is quoted in the text of my letter, which I reproduce below. Is there anything I should have said or anything I should not, please let me know in your comments.


The Most Reverend Vincent Nichols DD

Your Grace,

I hope you will forgive my writing at such a busy time of year, but I have a serious concern that will not wait for expression. I am not a Catholic, but my concern is, in the main, not about your religion, but your politics. To introduce myself briefly, I am a writer and a former lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies with a serious interest in Iran and the Middle East in general. Late on Christmas Day my attention was drawn to your Midnight Mass homily. When I found a copy online, I found it well expressed and diligent in its portrayal of the mysteries you set out to expound. But since I am not a religious man, I can make no better comment on the homily and its religious content. It would be inexpressively arrogant of me to challenge you on any of that, nor did I feel compelled to do so.

As you may already have surmised, my problem lies with your departure into political matters in a manner that, I believe, exposes you to real and spontaneous criticism. You wrote a short introduction to this theme in words I find no fault with, but for which I had heartfelt agreement:

‘We are to see clearly the reality of the world around us. As we look at the real circumstances of Christ's birth so too we look with fresh eyes on the anxieties and insecurity which touch many peoples' lives. We are to be freshly attentive to the needs of those who, like Jesus himself, are displaced and in discomfort. We are to see more clearly all those things which disfigure our world, the presence of the sins of greed and arrogance, of self-centred ambition and manipulation of others, of the brutal lack of respect for human life in all its vulnerability. While recognizing how complex moral dilemmas can become, we are to name these things for what they are. We too live “in a land of deep shadow”.’

Just last week, I watched a three-part television adaptation of the Nativity story. You may have seen it yourself. It was dramatically balanced, presenting both the religious narrative and the harsh realities of life in first century Judaea: Mary’s fear of being stoned, Joseph’s anxiety about his attachment to a sixteen-year-old girl who has fallen mysteriously pregnant, Herod’s fear of the Romans, the shepherds’ distress under Herod’s rule, and much else. Your connection of the Nativity to contemporary suffering is perfectly balanced; but your later application of that principle leaves much to be desired, almost certainly as a result of your ignorance of the realities of life in the West Bank. Such ignorance is widespread, so I do not single you out for sharing in it. But your calling and stature make it vital for you to get something like this right, otherwise your words will pass on shadows of that ignorance to all who hear and read you and will darken the minds of another generation.

You say that ‘We too live “in a land of deep shadow”,’ and I don’t doubt the veracity of it. What you mean exactly by ‘a land’ is neither here nor there, since most of the world is in some kind of darkness and has always been so. It is the curse of the human race. We are in agreement. But in a moment we are not. You continue by saying:

‘That shadow falls particularly heavily on the town of Bethlehem tonight. At this moment the people of the parish of Beit Jala prepare for their legal battle to protect their land and homes from further expropriation by Israel. Over 50 families face losing their land and their homes as action is taken to complete the separation/security wall across the territory of the district of Bethlehem. We pray for them tonight.’

‘Particularly heavily’? Can you in all sincerity say that your singling out of events in Beit Jala merits that use of ‘particularly’? A difficult and misunderstood situation for some people becomes a paradigm for the shadow enveloping mankind? Of all the people in the world, you single out 50 Christian families in Beit Jala and expect those who hear you to recoil, cut to the heart by the horrors of that situation. You speak as if the world had no greater shadow to offer. Thousands have died and are dying in neighbouring Syria, but that gets no mention from you. An entire population is repressed and religious minorities are persecuted in Iran and you say nothing. Muslims who convert to Christianity in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere are put to death, yet you are silent. In Egypt, Coptic Christians are killed and persecuted and their churches are destroyed, yet you cannot find a sentence in which to condemn it. Christians are not allowed to possess Bibles or to worship or seek converts in Saudi Arabia, yet your voice is not raised. Christians are murdered and their churches burned to the ground in Nigeria, but I do not hear your voice. Yet Muslims are free to worship, open schools, have their own courts, and missionize in every Western country, yet you do not point out the anomaly.

Instead, it is the predictable condemnation of one of the world’s most democratic, liberal, and tolerant states that occupies your thoughts. You speak of a ‘separation/security wall’ without irony. Overall, this barrier is not a wall, it is a fence: it will be about 500 miles long when finished, and only about 3 percent of it will be a wall or is a wall now. There are very cogent reasons why some sections are built from concrete and are very high, unlike the rest, which is primarily chain-link fence. When the second intifada erupted in 2000, gunmen belonging to Fatah Tanzim squads went into mainly Christian houses in Beit Jala and used them as strategic points from which to fire into the Jewish civilian enclave of Gilo, a mere 800 meters away. They fired at first with Kalashnikovs and stolen M16s, then with heavy machine guns. The battles fought in Beit Jala, together with the return fire the Fatah shooting provoked, caused great difficulties for the Christians of the town, who wanted to stay apart from the Muslim-centred violence, whereas the Muslims of the Tanzim wanted to attract return fire into Christian properties. Not surprisingly, the Christian residents tried to force these terrorists (many of whom were from outside Beit Jala) outside their homes. In retaliation, the gunmen beat Christians badly. Christian women were harassed by Muslim men from a nearby village, Beit Awwad.

That violence was spread throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Hundreds were killed by terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, and hundreds more on the Arab side when Israeli troops fired back. It was the second intifada, on top of thousands of similar incidents since 1948, that impelled the Israelis to take hard action against those who wanted to kill them, to attack them specifically as Jews, and to wipe them out or expel them entirely from the Holy Land. Building the barrier was and is harsh to many who live in the West Bank, but it has cut terrorist attacks by over ninety percent. That is an achievement that must be taken into consideration before any condemnation of the wall or the fence. It was never the Israelis who started the violence, nor do they seek to continue it.

Tragically, the barrier did not prevent a hideous massacre in March of this year, when two Palestinian youths entered the Jewish settlement of Itamar, not very many miles from Bethlehem. They took knives and murdered five members of the same family in their sleep, including a five-month-old girl, whom they decapitated. The bodies of her mother, father, two younger brothers and baby sister were found by twelve-year Tamar Fogel, when she stumbled on a scene of such carnage that I flinch to describe it. It is in attacks like this that Israeli toughness begins, in which the plan for a long security barrier was born.

I know that some of the actions that have been taken to build or expand the barrier have resulted in injustice. But I weigh such injustice against several things. I weigh it against the photographs I was sent of the Fogel family massacre and the courage of young Tamar Fogel in facing up to her future as an orphan, yet still committed to her faith and her land. I weigh it against my understanding of how Israel behaves as a country. Israelis have a deep commitment to justice, something achingly evident in the number of times their Supreme Court has ruled against the government, not least in the matter of the security barrier. In 2004, for example, the Court ruled that ‘The route that the military commander established for the security fence ... injures the local inhabitants in a severe and acute way while violating their rights under humanitarian and international law.’ The route was changed. In 2005, the Court issued an injunction against the government and the Israeli Defence Forces against the building of the fence round the village of Iskaka, and in the same year forced a halt to the barrier’s construction near Ramallah. Similar rulings have continued to the present day. If the appropriation of land in Beit Jala is illegal and can be shown to have merit, the case will undoubtedly receive a hearing. It may take time for such a case to pass through the judicial system, but what country can offer instant justice save one that makes no pretence at consideration, due process, or justice? If justice is your concern – and I see no reason for it not to be – may I please ask you to direct your criticisms to Iran, where sentences of death are passed in minutes, or to Syria, where justice is firmly in the hands of the regime, or to Saudi Arabia, where a misdemeanour may take you after Friday prayers to the main square in Riyadh, where an executioner’s sword will quickly teach you manners.

Israel, by contrast, has always applied its laws fairly and justly. The only person Israel has ever hanged was Adolph Eichmann, one of the planners of the Holocaust. There is no death penalty, even for the most horrendous acts of terror. This year, in return for a single Israeli soldier, who had been kidnapped illegally and kept incommunicado even from the Red Cross for many years, the Israeli state sanctioned the release of over one thousand Palestinian prisoner, many of them with hands stained by the blood of innocents and children. Israel has well-enforced laws to protect the rights of women, homosexuals, and members of religious minorities. Although Muslims have at various times destroyed synagogues in Jerusalem and elsewhere, the Israelis have long recognized that control of their own holiest site, the Temple Mount, is vested in the Muslim waqf authority and that control of almost the entirety of the second holiest structure of the Jewish faith, the Ma’arat Ha-Machpelah is also under the authority of the waqf Council. When I visited this shrine – the resting places of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac with other patriarchs – we found ourselves squeezed into a tiny space, while Muslim visitors had full run of the place. There is a lack of balance between the two. In Iran, the regime has destroyed all the holy places and cemeteries of its own largest religious minority, the Baha’is. In Israel, the Baha’is practise their faith openly and have established their international centre in a series of dazzling buildings and luscious gardens that are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site of remarkable beauty. I ask you to judge here whether it is customary for the people of Israel to behave towards non-Jews with contumely, for it is the implication of that deep shadow that hovers over your sermon. If you do indeed mean the Israelis, if you do indeed think of them as bearers of that shadow, I must ask why. Why are Israelis thought to embody the heavy shadow of your accusation when true haters of mankind abound yet are never the targets of your anger. And if it is not the Israelis as Israelis but the Israelis as Jews, I think you will agree with my that that cannot be a helpful road down which to travel.

I write all that as a sort of prelude to a wider discussion. There is much at stake here. That muchness derives from your singular attention to a single place, or two contingent places, Bethlehem and Beit Jala. It would be easy for the uninformed to conclude that the Israelis are bent on the expulsion of Christian families, who are in your sermon portrayed as the victims of an arbitrary Israel ruling. That is not how it seems to me.

After the Palestinian Authority took control of most of the West Bank in 1995, Muslim families from Hebron (where Jews are very badly treated) and elsewhere moved to Beit Jala and illegally seized private land and property. This came on top of a long period when pressure was placed on Arab Christians to migrate from towns like Nazareth, Bethlehem, and elsewhere. In 1914, Christians constituted 26.4 percent of the total population in what today is Israel, the Palestinian areas, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, while by 2005 they represented at most 9.2 percent (Phillipe Fargues, "The Arab Christians of the Middle East: A Demographic Perspective," in Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East, Andrea Pacini, ed, Oxford University Press). But the same thing is emphatically not true of Israel. In 1949, one year after Israel was founded, the country’s Christian population numbered 34,000 souls. That figure has grown by 345 percent. It is still growing. Between 1995 and 2007, Israeli Christians grew from 120,600 to 151,600, representing a growth rate of 25 percent. In fact, the Christian growth rate outpaced the Jewish growth in Israel in the same period.

It is not a coincidence that Christians thrive in the only non-Muslim state in the Middle East and diminish in all the Muslim states. This does not surprise me, for Islam has a long history of intolerance towards Jews and Christians, and religious sensitivities take precedence for many, regardless of the nationalist and economic dimensions of the conflict. Let me cite some relevant statements by the well-known Muslim-Arab journalist, Khaled Abu Toameh, who brings a hidden problem into the open. Writing in 2009, he says:

‘Christian families have long been complaining of intimidation and land theft by Muslims, especially those working for the Palestinian Authority.

‘Many Christians in Bethlehem and the nearby [Christian] towns of Bet Sahour and Beit Jalla have repeatedly complained that Muslims have been seizing their lands either by force or through forged documents. . . .

‘Moreover, several Christian women living in these areas have complained about verbal and sexual assaults by Muslim men.

‘Over the past few years, a number of Christian businessmen told me that they were forced to shut down their businesses because they could no longer afford to pay "protection" money to local Muslim gangs.

‘While it is true that the Palestinian Authority does not have an official policy of persecution against Christians, it is also true that this authority has not done enough to provide the Christian population with a sense of security and stability.

‘In addition, Christians continue to complain about discrimination when it comes to employment in the public sector. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority 15 years ago, not a single Christian was ever appointed to a senior security post. Although Bethlehem has a Christian mayor, the governor, who is more senior than him, remains a Muslim.’

May I recommend you also read this valuable report written by David Raab and published by a very sound think tank, The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs?

A statement by the Palestinian Authority Information Ministry makes it clear that ‘The Palestinian people are also governed by Shari’a law... With regard to issues pertaining to religious matters. According to Shari’a Law, applicable throughout the Muslim world, any Muslim who [converts] or declares becoming an unbeliever is committing a major sin punishable by capital punishment... The [Palestinian Authority] cannot take a different position on this matter.’

Such rulings have a major effect on all Christian churches and make life impossible for potential converts, who are only safe if they seek refuge in Israel or go abroad.

Let me cite a couple more passages from reports that make this same point in fresh ways.

An Israeli government report in 1997 asserted more direct harassment of Christians by the PA.

In August 1997, Palestinian policemen in Beit Sahur opened fire on a crowd of Christian Arabs, wounding six. The Palestinian Authority is attempting to cover up the incident and has warned against publicizing the story. The local commander of the Palestinian police instructed journalists not to report on the incident....
    In late June 1997, a Palestinian convert to Christianity in the northern West Bank was arrested by agents of the Palestinian Authority's Preventive Security Service. He had been regularly attending church and prayer meetings and was distributing Bibles. The Palestinian Authority ordered his arrest....
    The pastor of a church in Ramallah was recently warned by Palestinian Authority security agents that they were monitoring his evangelistic activities in the area and wanted him to come in for questioning for spreading Christianity.
    A Palestinian convert to Christianity living in a village near Nablus was recently arrested by the Palestinian police. A Muslim preacher was brought in by the police, and he attempted to convince the convert to return to Islam. When the convert refused, he was brought before a Palestinian court and sentenced to prison for insulting the religious leader....
    A Palestinian convert to Christianity in Ramallah was recently visited by Palestinian policemen at his home and warned that if he continued to preach Christianity, he would be arrested and charged with being an Israeli spy.

Another report in 2002, based on Israeli intelligence gathered during Israel's Defensive Shield operation, asserts that ‘The Fatah and Arafat's intelligence network intimidated and maltreated the Christian population in Bethlehem. They extorted money from them, confiscated land and property and left them to the mercy of street gangs and other criminal activity, with no protection.

Your fifty families – if, indeed, there are fifty families – will, at worst, face a legal battle, knowing they will be vindicated if their claims are valid. Israel will not set their homes alight, nor gun them down, nor desecrate their churches nor violate their priests nor execute their converts. It will not do to them what the Muslims of Egypt have done in a long and systematic persecution. It will not do to them what the Taliban have done to Christians in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will not intimidate or hector or torture or kill them. It’s time this was recognized, especially by a leading churchman like yourself.

The Christians of Beit Jala are, I suspect, being used to put pressure on Israel. The protest may well be part of a long and insidious campaign to malign and weaken Israel in the eyes of the world. Thus, Israel has been described as an ‘apartheid’ when it is, in fact, free of all traces of apartheid. What racism there is is on the same level as that found in the UK. Israel has been called a ‘Nazi state’ in an attempt to hurt Jews in the most painful way imaginable. It has been termed an ‘intolerant state’ when its reputation for racial, religious, and other forms of tolerance raises it above most nations.

I believe you owe the people of Israel an apology or an explanation. They need to know why you chose to single them out, selecting their actions as particularly examples of the shadows that lie on us. I cannot see Israel as a shadow, though I have seen it as a country surrounded by shadows all its life. It is a country of hope for millions. It has been a safe hand in securing the safety of Christianity’s holiest places, places that would fall into disrepair and be threatened with ruin should Israel be replaced by an Arab state, in direct allegiance to Islamic law, which forbids the repair of Christian churches or synagogues.

I have, I fear, abused your hospitality. I hope you have been able to spare the time to read my little letter. I trust it has given you cause for thought. What may arise from that is entirely up to you. I believe I have played my part, but if you know more, I can point you in other directions. Thank you for troubling to read so far. I have trusted that you would, and I have trusted in your innate goodness to awaken in your conscience new insights into the behaviour of a country that seeks peace when others lust for war.

Yours most sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin