Economist’s Nicolas Pelham Deceives About Christians in Israel

Cross posted by CAMERA’s Israel Director, Tamar Sternthal

Charging “Israel’s multiple self-professed lobbyists” for having “donned the mantle of Christian saviors,” The Economist‘s Nicolas Pelham cites Proverbs to excoriate: “Deceive not with thy lips.” Writing yesterday in Haaretz (“Christians in Israel and Palestine“), it is Pelham himself who repeatedly deceives.

Population Decline or Growth?

First, he completely misleads about Israel’s Christian population, claiming it has declined, when in fact it has increased by 268 percent since 1949. He writes:

What [Israel’s lobbyists] do not say is that Israel’s population of native Christians has fallen by roughly the same proportion. From 8 percent in 1947 (in all of mandatory Palestine), it numbered 4 percent in 1948, and is now less than 2 percent. The reasons for the decline are largely the same. Jewish, as Muslim, birth-rates are much higher. [Note: The last sentence appears only online. It is not in the print edition.]

What Pelham does not say is that according to The Statistical Abstract of Israel, there were approximately 34,000 Christians living in Israel in 1949. This figure was not broken down by ethnicity, but the vast majority of these people were Arab Christians. And at the end of 2011, there were approximately, 125,000 Arab Christians living in Israel. By citing relative figures instead of absolute figures, Pelham deceives readers into believing Israel’s Christian population “has fallen,” when the opposite is true.

Deceive not with thy lips.

St. George’s Harmony of Violence?

Painting a dubious picture of mutual respect and harmony among Muslim and Christian Palestinians, Pelham deceives:

On St. George’s Day, Muslims join Christians to commemorate his martyrdom at his shrine in Al-Khader, near Bethlehem.

Hardly the picture of coexistence, last week’s celebration of the feast of St. George at St. George’s Orthodox Church ended in a violent clash, as was documented on a YouTube video that went viral:

According to Lela Gilbert, author of Saturday People, Sunday People, Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner:

A Bethlehem Greek Orthodox Church (St. George’s Church – Khadar – near Beit Jala) was attacked by Muslims during its annual St. George’s Day services on May 6. … Some local Muslims either tried to park a car too close the church and/or tried to enter the church during a service honoring St. George – the initial instigation isn’t clear. But when the intruders were asked to leave, one of them stabbed a Christian man who was outside the church serving as a guard. He was hospitalized. Several then started throwing stones at the church. 7 or 8 Christians were injured and some physical damage was done – broken windows etc. The police didn’t show up for an hour.

“Despite the contradictory reports, it seems pretty obvious that whatever police presence there was at St. George’s on its feast day, it was insufficient to prevent an outbreak of violence, which resulted in several injuries including one broken nose,” observed Dexter Van Zile, CAMERA’s Christian Media Analyst. “In sum, stones were thrown at Christianity’s living stones near the city of Christ’s birth.”

“No matter how you look at it, the episode represents a failure on the part of the Palestinian Authority, one that local journalists and Christian leaders are – for understandable reasons – reluctant to highlight,” Van Zile added.

Deceive not with thy lips.

Islamist Bullying in Gaza A Thing of the Past?

Pelham depicts a false rosy picture for Gaza’s Christians, falsely suggesting that intimidation was limited to “the early days of Hamas rule in Gaza.” He writes:

In the early days of Hamas rule in Gaza, militants firebombed a church and attacked its worshippers uncannily close to a police station. But the Islamists have since clamped down on their own; their prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, pointedly attended church to honor a local Christian politician.

The U.S. State Department’s International Freedom Report for 2012 (the most recent report available) paints a more sober picture of the status of Gaza’s Christians. “The de facto Hamas authorities in Gaza continued to restrict religious freedom in both law and practice, and the negative trend for respect of this right was reflected in such abuses as arresting or detaining Muslims in Gaza who did not abide by Hamas’ strict interpretation of Islam . . . ” The report noted:

Hamas largely tolerated the small Christian presence in Gaza and did not force Christians to abide by Islamic law. However, Hamas’ religious ideology negatively affected Christians, according to church leaders. For example, local religious leaders received warnings ahead of Christian holidays against any public display of Christianity. Christians raised concerns that Hamas failed to defend their rights as a religious minority. Local officials sometimes advised converts to leave their communities to prevent harassment against them. Hamas officials on July 19 publicly denied allegations from the Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza that Hamas-affiliated officials coerced Ramez Ayman and Hiba Abu Dawoud and her three children to convert to Islam. Christians staged a protest at Gaza’s main church in late July.

What Pelham does not say is that as recently as July 2012, Palestinian Christians living in the Gaza Strip were reportedly kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam. “According to the Greek Orthodox Church in the Gaza Strip, at least five Christians have been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam in recent weeks,” Khaled Abu Toameh reported in Gatestone Institute (“Who Will Save the Christians in the Gaza Strip”?). He added:

The church blamed an unidentified terror group of being behind the forced conversions and called on the international community to intervene to save the Christians.

Church leaders also accused a prominent Hamas man of being behind the kidnapping and forced conversion of a Christian woman, Huda Abu Daoud, and her three daughters. Shortly after she disappeared, the woman sent a message to her husband’s mobile phone informing him that she and her daughters had converted to Islam.

In a rare public protest, leaders and members of the 2,000-strong Christian community in the Gaza Strip staged a sit-in strike in the Gaza Strip this week to condemn the abductions and forced conversions in particular, and persecution at the hands of radical Muslims in general.

Deceive not with thy lips.

Christmas Tree Ban in the Knesset?

The Jerusalem-based journalist and writer on Arab affairs erred when he wrote:

haaretz knesset bans christmas trees

The online article helpfully provides a link to a Dec. 26, 2013 AP story which appeared at the time in Haaretz. The AP article does not support Mr. Pelham’s claim that the Knesset bans Christmas trees “from its premises.” In fact, it states:

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein says he refused to display a Christmas tree in the parliament because of the “painful memories” it evoked among Jews.

Edelstein told Israel Radio Thursday such a public display of a Christian symbol could be construed as offensive.  Earlier this week, Edelstein rejected the request of a Christian-Arab lawmaker. He said the parliamentarian could display a tree in his office and party’s conference room. (Emphasis added.)

Thus, while a Christmas tree was not permitted in public space in the Knesset, it was permitted in private offices and party conference rooms. In other words, Christmas trees are not banned from the Knesset “premises.”

What Pelham does not say is that it is prohibited to publicly display Christmas trees in all of Gaza City and the rest of the Strip, while Christmas trees are distributed for free in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. In fact, the free Christmas trees are available twice a year in Israel, once for western Christians and then a few days later for Greek Orthodox Christians.

The Guardian reported in 2011 (“Gaza Christians long for days before Hamas cancelled Christmas“):

There hasn’t been a Christmas tree in Gaza City’s main square since Hamas pushed the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza in 2007 and Christmas is no longer a public holiday. . . .

[Peter Qubrsi, a Catholic from Gaza] describes being stopped in the street by a Hamas official who told him to remove the cross. “I told him it’s not his business and that I wouldn’t,” Peter said. After being threatened with arrest he was eventually let go, but the incident scared him.

Deceive not with thy lips.

Following communication from CAMERA’s Israel office, Haaretz editors changed the online text to the following accurate wording:

knesset christmas tree corrected

Editors also appended a vague note at the bottom of the article which fails to make clear what was amended and why:

knesset christmas tree appended

Haaretz has not yet corrected in print.

Why Did Azmi Bishara Leave?

In another deception, Nicolas Pelham asserts:

The country’s most prominent Christian politician, Azmi Bishara, was hounded out of Israel amid cries of treachery after he dared to suggest that Israel should be a state for all its citizens.

In fact, Haaretz itself reported at the time a very different account of Bishara’s departure to Jordan shortly before he was charged with passing information to Hezbollah:

azmi bishara hezbollah

Haaretz added:

A senior Shin Bet official told reporters earlier in the day that Bishara had had prolonged contact with Hezbollah members who were involved in gathering information on Israel.

Bishara allegedly provided “information, suggestions and recommendations,” including censored material, to his contacts in Lebanon during the war.

The Shin Bet official said that Bishara was fully aware of the sensitivity of the information. According to the Shin Bet, he was given “missions” from Hezbollah, which he then carried out.

Bishara allegedly advised Hezbollah on the ramifications of firing missiles further south than Haifa. At the time, Hezbollah was debating whether to strike at targets deeper inside Israel. A few days later, missiles struck south of Haifa for the first time.

The former lawmaker is also suspected of helping Hezbollah with assessments regarding a possible Israeli assassination attempt on Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, as well as offering advice on waging psychological warfare against the Israelis.

Deceive not with thy lips.

Many of the pieces in The Economist are unsigned, so it’s hard to know whether or not Pelham is responsible for the now infamous (and since corrected) reference to Kochav Yair as a “fanatical settlement.” (It is neither.)

….

(See our follow-up post on this story, here)

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The award for ‘UK paper blaming Israel for ruining Christmas in Bethlehem’ goes to….

Surprisingly, this year the award does NOT go to the Guardian.

timesIt goes to The Times for a story by Catherine Philp which is riddled with errors and distortions. (See our previous posts on Philp here and here.) 

Israeli settlements surround Bethlehem?

Philp:

From a barren hill, the settlers look down on snowy Bethlehem. “Just look at all this nature,” rhapsodises Yehuda Nesha as he turns from the fabled biblical town towards the Judean hills. Should the settlers get their way, though, nature will soon be banished from this hill, replaced by the red roofs and golden stone walls of hundreds of new homes, the latest links in a chain of Jewish settlements encircling the Palestinian town of Bethlehem.

However, as this map by B’tselem demonstrates, Israeli settlements do NOT encircle Bethlehem.

circle

map

Bethlehem has become more densely populated than Gaza?

Philp:

With little space left to expand, Bethlehem has become more densely populated than Gaza, despite the steady exodus of wealthier residents, mostly Christians, anxious to escape what the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called “a choking reality”.

Interestingly, this exact claim was also advanced in a story by Harriet Sherwood last year, citing an unnamed Palestinian official.  But, as we demonstrated at the time, this too is false. According to the PA’s own statistics, the population density of the city of Bethlehem is 4,757 persons/km², which is LOWER than Gaza’s, which (per the CIA Fact World Book) is at 4,898 persons/km².

Who’s to blame for the Christian Exodus from Bethlehem?

Philp:

Down in Beit Sahour, which is mostly Christian, residents of one housing development have been living under the threat of demolition for more than a decade since an Israeli court ruled its building illegal. The order was frozen but never lifted, leaving families in limbo, wondering if or when the bulldozers will arrive and where they will go if they do. “This is the only place left for us,” says William Sahouri, whose family has lived in the area for more than 300 years. “There are no lands to expand.”

He is one of seven brothers, but only three remain in Bethlehem. The other four have gone abroad, part of a migration that has seen Bethlehem’s Christian population fall from about 50 per cent to under a third.

In this year’s Christmas message, Mr Abbas highlighted the Christian exodus, lamenting “the sad fact that more Bethlehemites will be lighting their candles in Santiago de Chile, Chicago, San Pedro de Sula, Melbourne and Toronto than those in Bethlehem”.

Beyond her implication that Israel is to blame, Philp fails to seriously explain why the Christian population in the city has fallen.

In addition to demographic dynamics, such as higher Muslim birthrates, there is the widespread problem of Palestinian Christians being targeted for violence at the hands of Muslim extremists.  As reported in a detailed CAMERA analysis last year, Pastor Nihad Salman (who serves in Beit Jala, a Palestinian Christian town opposite Bethlehem) has testified extensively about Muslim hostility toward Christians.  Additionally, Dexter Van Zile, CAMERA’s Christian Media Analyst, interviewed Steven Khoury, assistant pastor at The First Baptist Church in Bethlehem, in a piece that was published in The Algemeiner. Khoury told Van Zile that anti-Christian animus has gotten worse in Bethlehem over the years, and that there is serious pressure placed on Christians in the West Bank to convert to Islam. 

Telegraph story in 2011 reported that Church leaders in the Holy Land had compiled a “dossier” of alleged incidents of abuse by ‘Islamic fundamentalists against Palestinian Christians, and accused the Palestinian Authority of doing nothing to stop the attacks.  According to the Telegraph, “the dossier includes a list of 140 cases of apparent land theft, in which Christians in the West Bank were allegedly forced off their lands, backed by corrupt [Palestinian] judicial officials.”

Remarkably, in 880 words written by the Times reporter about the fate of Christians in Bethlehem, there isn’t a single word about the problem of Islamist extremism. Nor does she note that the only country in the region where the Christian population is increasing is Israel.

Indeed, the fact that the only nation in the Middle East where Christians are flourishing just happens to be the sole place where radical Islam is not a serious threat is essential to understanding the fate of Christianity in that part of the world – vital context about contrasting values of tolerance in the region which Catherine Philp fails to provide.  

The Washington Post’s Coverage of Israel: Slouching towards the Guardian at Easter

A Guest post by AKUS

In December last year I wrote a column headed The Washington Post’s coverage of Israel: Slouching towards the Guardian? about the unusual way the Washington Post covered Israel’s use of drones over Gaza and pointed out that “it seems to have become strikingly similar in content and tone to the Guardian”.

This was followed by Scott Wilson, The Washington Post’s anti-Israel attack dog: Slouching towards Harriet Sherwood?, which showed the resemblance between Scott Wilson’s coverage of Israel and the Harriet Sherwood‘s approach in the Guardian. Scott  provided a polite rebuttal to the idea that he is the Washington Post’s “attack dog, but the tone and method employed in the article was strikingly similar to the typical Guardian article – inaccuracies, no context, and a half-hearted editorial apology after CAMERA called them out (which is more than the Guardian provides in most cases).

On April 4th, 2012, the Washington Post published  a Guardian-like article by Richard Stearns about Easter in Jerusalem: “A dark Easter for Palestinian Christians” in its problematic “On Faith” section which was replete with …  yes, inaccuracies, no context, and, in place of an apology, a furious rebuttal by Israel’s US Ambassador, Michael Oren.

The Washington Post’s “On Faith” section has been a fertile ground for anti-Semitic articles and below-the-line anti-Semitic commentary.

In March 2011 the paper instituted a moderation policy in order to clean things up below the line, but Stearns’ article shows that they have a long way to go in fixing what is wrong above the line. His article resembles the annual articles that appear in the Guardian at Easter and Christmas about the plight of the Christians in the West Bank. Their problems are always presented as Israel’s fault, rather than due to the widely reported policies and actions of the Moslem Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank intended to drive Christian Arabs out.

For example, last Christmas, the Guardian’s Phoebe Greenwood wrote ‘If Jesus were to come this year, Bethlehem would be closed even though there were an estimated 100,000 visitors to Bethlehem – more than ever, and compared to 70,000 the year before – and accommodation was impossible to find.

In response to Stearns’ article, on April 5th, 2012, the Israeli Ambassador, Michael Oren, termed the article “libelous”:

“The claims made in a recent article by Richard Stearns (“A dark Easter for Palestinian Christians”) are completely without foundation and are libelous to the State of Israel.”

Stearns first bemoaned the need for security checks for Arabs entering Jerusalem from the West Bank (amusing to anyone who has had to pass thorough the security checkpoints to attend the July 4th celebrations on the Washington, DC Mall after 9/11) and followed with outlandishly incorrect data about the number of permits issued to West Bank Christians.

Stearns made no effort at all to explain why Israel maintains checkpoints and security barriers to protect the Christians and other visitors that flock to the Old City of Jerusalem year round, but especially during festivals such as Easter and Christmas. Instead,  he describes the security measures and number of visitor permits (visas, in effect) in a way that makes it appear that Israel is deliberately trying to prevent Christians from visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Easter to witness the ancient “Holy Fire” ritual:

Because of travel restrictions in past years, the vast majority of Christians living in the West Bank have been stopped at checkpoints and prevented from attending one of the most important religious services of the year. Israeli authorities require permits for entering Jerusalem. Local Christians estimate that only 2,000 — 3,000 permits are provided, despite the overwhelming desire among the 50,000 Palestinian Christians to travel from the West Bank and Gaza for the Easter week celebrations in Jerusalem.

Those who make it across checkpoints and into Israel are still barricaded by numerous walls and other security obstructions. As a result, even many who have permits are unable to make it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In 2010, a Palestinian colleague of mine at World Vision, who had warm memories as a child of the Holy Fire service, was able to return to the Holy Sepulchre. She described the scene for those able to gain entrance to the church: “The crowd, striving to stay joyful, could still feel the change of what Easter had now become and the dark cloud of checkpoints, police forces, and denial of entry that had obscured the joy of this holiday.”

Now, in fact, as Oren pointed out, this is libelous and the description of the celebrants is nonsense. First, the number of permits cited by Stearns is wrong by an order of magnitude:

“Israel has provided more than 20,000 permits this year for Palestinian Christians to enter Jerusalem for the Good Friday and Easter holidays. Five-hundred similar permits have also been issued to the remaining Christians of Gaza, though the area is under the control of the terrorist organization Hamas.

Second, the “dark cloud” he refers to is belied by the joyful pictures of the worshippers   inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the “Holy Fire” ceremony

Yes, there were police on hand to keep order, and protect against any terrorists who might feel this would be an opportune time to create a massacre in a crowded church that would discourage Christians from visiting Israel.

Moreover, police have been required, upon occasion, to intervene in violent confrontations between Christians of different sects over some slight or perceived infringement on their historical claims to some particular section of the Church or its property, as shown in the conflict between Greek and Armenian monks  in this clip from 2008 or this fight in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in December 2011, when Palestinian police had to intervene.

Third, I found particularly infuriating his insinuation that Israel is persecuting Christians, when in fact it is the only country in the Middle East in which Christians are not only free to practice their religion, but their numbers are increasing:

Again, WaPo

While the ancient Christian communities around Jerusalem await the miracle of the Holy Fire this week, I pray for another miracle — one that would give full religious freedom to the Christians in the West Bank and Gaza.

This is utterly outrageous. The reason that Christians in the West Bank and Gaza do not have religion freedom is because the Arab authorities there – the PA, Fatah, and Hamas – have made it their policy and practice to make it less and less acceptable for Christians to live there.

Moreover, in the main section of its own paper, not the problematic “On Faith” section, the Washington Post had the following article which describes the visit to Jerusalem this Easter by Copts from Egypt:

Defying church ban, Egyptian Christians defy church ban and travel to Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — After the death of their spiritual leader, more than 2,000 Egyptian Copts have poured into the Holy Land for the Easter holidays, defying a ban he imposed on visiting Jerusalem and other Israeli-controlled areas.

The influx — after decades when Egyptian pilgrims were a rarity — adds a new element to the already diverse mix of languages and faiths in Jerusalem’s Old City during the holy season. The pilgrims are clearly distinguished by the Egyptian accent of their Arabic and long cotton robes worn by many of the men.

The Copts, mostly middle-aged or senior citizens have been busy milling around the Holy Sepulcher throughout the week. They have trundled to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, built on the site where they believe Jesus was born. They have shopped and haggled on the way, charming many Palestinians with their Egyptian accents and humor, made familiar throughout the Arab world through generations of popular Egyptian movies and soap operas.

So what is going on at the Washington Post?

Once again I am left wondering, since it still has relatively frequent articles that fairly represent Israel from columnists like Jackson Diehl and blog extracts from right-wing bloggers like Jennifer Rubin and even occasional editorials that fairly represent Israel’s positions and concerns. There is even an Easter article by a Christian woman with a Jewish aunt pointing out the dangers that Easter has posed for Jews, At Easter, remembering Passover, due to the reading of the story of the crucifixion:

As at many churches, my church had just read the Passion narrative according to the Gospel of John: “[T]he Jews . . . cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ ” The vilification of “the Jews” in John’s Gospel has had murderous consequences through the ages — and although Christians turned on Jews at many times of year, the Triduum was especially violent. As the 15th-century Rabbi Joseph Cohen said about Good Friday, “Every year we live in fear of this day.”

As I left church on Friday, I was worrying about what we have forgotten: the killing that our ecclesial forebears undertook on Good Fridays past. We have forgotten that sermons and liturgies prompted this killing.

Yet the editors seem to be unaware of how articles like Stearns’ Easter article, usually found in the  “On Faith”  section, are put forward to revisit old Christian antagonisms to Israel and Jews and  a Guardian-like view of Israel and the Palestinians.

Data about Israel and the West Bank are copious and easy to find, and errors of a factor of ten and obvious bias and misrepresentation should not be tolerated. The Washington Post needs to tighten up its reviews of articles about Israel Judaism, especially in the “On Faith” section.

It should institute clear policies that demand accuracy, truthfulness, and lack of bias from all its contributors and journalists writing about Israel and Judaism if it is not to become a copy of the Guardian in its treatment of the Middle East and Israel in particular.

Easter in Jerusalem: reality and myth.

A guest post by Hadar Sela

Roman Catholics at Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Photo: AFP)

How unfortunate it is that participants in last month’s ‘Christ at the Checkpoint’ conference in Bethlehem such as Stephen Sizer and Ben White did not extend their stay. What a pity it is too that the ‘Global March to Jerusalem’ folks didn’t hang around a little longer.

Had they done so, they would have had to confront the fact that despite GMJ organiser Sarah Marusek’s off the wall claims about “limitations on Christians and Muslims from accessing holy sites” in Jerusalem, thousands of Christians are currently celebrating Easter in the city including – for the first time in years – Egyptian Copts.

The latter were apparently prevented from worshipping at the St. Helena Chapel (the Egyptian part of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher) – although by church officials, not by Israeli authorities, so we will probably not be seeing any headlines on that subject in the ‘progressive’ Western media.

Ben White – a denier of Islamist persecution of Palestinian Christians – and his fellow Sabeel star turn and promoter of the ‘Israeli apartheid’ myth Stephen Sizer would have had to somehow explain away Israel’s provision of entry into the country to 500 Christians from Hamas-controlled Gaza and a further 20,000 from the PA-controlled territories in order to enable them to celebrate their holiday.  

Would such a confrontation with reality have made a difference to the style and content of the rhetoric spouted by people such as Marusek, White and Sizer? Probably not.

After all, Sizer is one of the authors of the ‘Christ at the Checkpoint Manifesto’ which  – inter alia – provides the magical ‘get out of jail free’ card in the form of the statement that “[c]riticism of Israel and the occupation cannot be confused with anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of the State of Israel”.

But at least the rest of us can be sure that just about the last subject of concern for the Whites, Sizers and Maruseks of this world is the right of people of all faiths in the Middle East to freedom of worship. 

  • Christians celebrate Easter in Jerusalem (ynet.com)