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Robert Novak: “Holy Land Christians blame Israel”

by Robert Novak, Chicago Sun-Times columnist, 3rd of July

On June 19, two young members of Congress received an extraordinary letter from Jerusalem. On behalf of Christian churches in the Holy Land, they were told a House resolution they were circulating blaming the Palestinian Authority for Christian decline there “is based on many false affirmations.” The Very Rev. Michael H. Sellers, an Anglican priest who is coordinator of Jerusalem’s Christian churches, said the real problem is the Israeli occupation — especially its new security wall.

Prior to hearing this, freshman Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin, Texas, and four-term Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York (Queens) had collected 21 co-sponsors (mainly conservative Republicans) for their resolution. Sellers’ communication was followed two days later by a letter from Rep. Henry Hyde, House International Relations Committee chairman. He told the two congressmen their claim of systematic persecution by the Palestinian Authority is “inaccurate and incomplete.”

McCaul and Crowley put their resolution “on hold” going into the long Fourth of July recess. So apparently ends an audacious effort by Israeli public relations to place full blame for the Christian exodus from the Israeli-controlled Holy Land on Muslims. Instead, problems caused by the security wall have been highlighted once again.

The House was pulled into this issue by Justus Reid Weiner, an Israeli lawyer with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Weiner, who long has blamed Christian misfortunes on the Palestinian Authority, contacted Ari Stein, a staffer in McCaul’s congressional office. Stein in turn brought in Crowley, a prominent Democrat, through his staffer, Gregg Shelowitz.

The result was a “Dear Colleague” letter from McCaul and Crowley blaming the Palestinian Authority for “the systematic destruction of the oldest Christian community in the world.” The staff-written letter asserted: “If we do not act now, Christians around the world risk losing control of and access to the most ancient and holy sites in Christendom.”

Their subsequent resolution spent three pages detailing alleged persecution of Christians by Arab Muslims, even assailing the State Department for failing to put “treatment of Palestinian Christians by the Palestinian Authority” in its annual report on human rights violations. The resolution immediately picked up 16 Republican co-sponsors and five Democrats.

This process was slowed by Sellers’ letter from Jerusalem. He said Christian churches in the Holy Land that he represents can take care of any problems with Muslims and “are not seeking your interference in their internal problems.” Where Congress could help, he added, was influencing Israeli government policy: “Your support for the Christian presence in the Holy Land will best be served by helping to remove the separation wall (which has converted all the Palestinian towns into big prisons for Christians and Muslims alike) and by helping to bring occupation to an end with all its inherent types of oppression and humiliation.”

After his letter to McCaul and Crowley, Hyde made an unscheduled appearance last Friday at an International Relations subcommittee hearing on the plight of religious minorities. He argued the problem for the Holy Land’s Christians is not Muslims but Israel. Long a steadfast supporter of Israel, Hyde testified: “I have been unable to understand how the currently routed barrier in Jerusalem — which rips asunder the existential poles of Christian belief, the Nativity and the Resurrection, and encloses 200,000 Palestinians on the Jerusalem side of the barrier — will improve the security of Israel’s citizens.”

Hyde was followed at the hearing by the Rev. Firas Arida, the 31-year-old Roman Catholic priest in the West Bank village of Aboud. Asserting that the Israeli security wall causes his parishioners to lose water and olive trees, he said “the Israeli occupation must end,” and “there must be no more settlements on Palestinian land.”

McCaul and Crowley did not attend Friday’s hearing and surely have not been to Aboud. Both Catholics, they might well visit the village and talk with Firas’ flock while prudently keeping their ill-considered resolution on hold.