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?


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.



Bethlehem has become more densely populated than Gaza?


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?


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 (