Christian leaders condemn Israeli law to separate Christians and Muslims in Palestine
By Ray Hanania
A new Israeli law to separate Christians and Muslims that was approved February 23, 2014 by the Israeli Knesset has drawn the ire of Christian leaders who condemned it as a political act intended to further weaken Arab rights in Palestine and Israel.
Over the years, the population of Christians in the Middle East and specifically under Israeli occupation and control has diminished significantly. The causes range from exclusion of Christians from mainstream Middle East life and societies, and discrimination from both Muslim Arab countries and the Jewish State of Israel. The population of Christians has dropped significantly in Palestine and areas under Israeli control since the conflict began in the 1930s and today, Christians represent only 2 percent of the population inside the Holy Land.
The discrimination has forced Christians to flee, mainly to Western countries using support from Christian institutions and Church groups in Europe and the United States. In the past few years, the persecution of Christians has become the focus of several media stories which have put a spotlight on the discrimination. Israel has been the first country to try to address the problem, allegeding in propaganda that the Christians are only the victim of Muslim persecution, ignoring the discrimination against Christians that is inherent in Israel’s societies and laws.
Even before the law was approved by a Knesset vote of 31 to 6 members, Israel stole land and property from both Christians and Muslims. Observers say that the new law does nothing to prevent Israel from continuing to discriminate against Christians in Israel and in the Occupied West Bank and Occupied Jerusalem. The Knesset has never addressed that land theft or the rights of Christians or Muslims displaced by its creation in 1948.
Naim Ateek, the head of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, Palestine, issued a statement saying the bill wasn’t intended to benefit Christians but rather merely to cause more conflict between Christians and Muslims.
Ateek said the law ostensibly claims to “recognize Muslim and Christian Arab communities as separate identities, giving them their own representation in an employment commission.”
“The new law passed by the Knesset favoring Christians is, to say the least, a deceitful political stunt by Likud-Beiteinu members aimed at sowing seeds of division among Christians and between Christians and Muslims,” Ateek said in a statement recently.
“For the last sixty-five years, the government of Israel has not shown favoritism or bias towards the Christian community of the land, so why now?”
Ateek noted that both Christians and Muslim Arabs were discriminated against equally by Israel both as Israeli citizens and as occupied peoples in 1948 and 1967.
“During the Nakba of 1948, the Christians, like the Muslims, were dispossessed by the Zionists and were forced out of their homeland. Furthermore, during the military rule imposed by Israel on all Palestinians who stayed inside the Israeli state (1948-1966), Israel did not show favoritism to Christians over Muslims. Both were discriminated against and both were treated as unwanted aliens in their own land. There is a plethora of documentation to substantiate the history of that period. The problem for Israel in those days was not the Palestinians’ religious affiliation but their Palestinian national identity,” Ateek said.
“I believe that the new law reflects the moral bankruptcy of the government of Israel. Indeed, it must be in trouble to allow itself to stoop so low as to blatantly use this tactic to attempt to win the support of some Christians abroad, and, at the same time, sow dissent among Christians and Muslims. It is the old adage of “divide and rule.” This law is sinister in that it exploits the sensitive tensions among the religious communities of the Middle East, especially in light of what has been happening in Egypt and now is happening in Syria.”
Ateek said he hoped that Palestinian activists and the community as a whole would not fall victim to “such a despicable religious trap.”
“There is another dishonest and hidden angle to this law. Jewish religious tradition has always considered Christianity, not Islam, as the mortal enemy of Jews and Judaism. This is due to the fact that the Christian faith came out of the same foundation as the Jewish faith, namely, the Hebrew Scriptures, i.e. the Christian Old Testament. I still remember the Israeli religious establishment discouraging Jewish students from visiting Christian churches while encouraging them to visit Muslim mosques. The advisory pointed out that there was greater affinity between Judaism and Islam, while the gap was quite wide between Judaism and Christianity,” Ateek said.
“What has caused this sudden infatuation with Palestinian Christians to merit new legislation? Or is it just an ugly political stunt? What favors can the right-wing Israeli government give the Palestinian Arab Christians who are Israeli citizens? Will it restore their confiscated land to them? Will it grant them equality with their fellow Jewish citizens? Or are we witnessing another divisive Israeli ploy similar to when Israel set the Druze community apart from its Arab base?”
Ateek cited the circumstances of the Druze, a religious group based mainly in the Middle East that embraces the same monotheistic religious views as Muslims, Christians and Jews, and is considered an off-shoot of the Shia Muslim religion. Israel successfully has driven a wedge between the Druze community of Palestine and the Arab and Muslim population.
“It is worth mentioning that over sixty years ago, Israel managed to make the Druze religion a separate ethnic entity, thus separating them from their Arab roots. Through this new legislation, Israel wants to make the Christian religion a separate ethnic identity in order to separate them from their Arab Palestinian roots. But in spite of what Israel has done to the Druze community, an increasing number of young Druze men have been resisting imposed Israeli military service,” Ateek said.
“Israel has been very shrewd in concocting devious ways and means to impose its will on the Palestinians and keep them weak and divided. It continues to connive ways to limit and even deprive them of their rights to the land so they will give up and leave.”
Ateek added, “I am certain that the Christian community in Israel will see through this new Israeli legislation, will expose its sinister nature, and reject it. It is my hope also that our people’s resilience and maturity will foil the Israeli government’s insidious objectives. This we can do through our unity and solidarity, as well as through our determination to continue to work for a just peace, inclusive democracy, and human dignity for all the people of our land.”
(Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. He is the managing editor of the Arab Daily News online at www.TheArabDailyNews.com.)