"If I Forget You, Jerusalem"

            There are so many stereotypes and misconceptions in America about Arabs that I find it hard to know where to begin.

            Growing up in the era of Abbot and Costello, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby  movies,  like most kids,  I  formed an image of Arabs as swarthy, sinister,  and treacherous types to say the least.  They were all too often portrayed as stupid "towel heads,"  a derogatory term used not long ago by a well known WABC talk show host.  The stereotyping is on-going to this day. Witness the recent 20 th century Fox film, The Siege.

            My first realistic and indelible impressions were formed later in life  while on an archeological and biblical pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1957. The stereotypes began to shatter. There are many misconceptions about Arabs in America.  One is that being an Arab is the same as being a Muslim.  In fact, ten million Arabs are Christians and most Arabs living in America are Christians. There are Catholic Arabs of the Melchite, Maronite, and Chaldean rites.  There are Coptic, Orthodox Christians, Anglican and Protestant Arabs.  As far as the religion of Islam is concerned, Arabs make up only 15% of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. Iranians, Turks, Afghans are Muslims, but they are not Arabs.  Nor is the largest Muslim country in the world Arab - Indonesia.

            Aside from those areas where radical fundamentalist fanatics have power, Arab Christians and Muslims have been living well together for centuries.  In secular countries like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq (yes, even Iraq) and even Libya (where President Quadaffi was recently praised by the Vatican for his tolerance) Christian Arabs practice their religion freely and participate in the national life.  The only distress  for Christians in Iraq today is that faced by the general population suffering under the unjust and crushing sanctions imposed upon them. Since the Gulf Wars and so=called liberation of Iraq the Christian population has been further decimated because of  consistent attacks on churches, businesses and individuals creating a mass exodus from the country.

            The situation of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, however, is another story.  It deserves special mention.  Living within the confines and authority of the Jewish state of Israel can be precarious for Christians.  This is why so many Christian Arabs have fled and why traditional Christian villages like Bethlehem, Nazareth and Ramallah have seen their populations drastically decreased.  What has brought this about?

            First of all there has been physical violence - more instances than I can recount here. In Samaria, for instance, near Jacob's well a settler poisoned an Orthodox priest's dogs and then hacked Father Philloumenos to death with an ax. An Orthodox priest, Father Alexandros, found his cave chapel desecrated, his holy books and possessions burned. (The Spectator, 10/22/94)

            The Jerusalem Post records how in the same period two Jerusalem churches and a Christian bookshop were burned by ultra orthodox fanatics, how students from a nearby yeshiva vandalized the abbey of the Church of the Dormition. There was a failed arson attempt on an Anglican church in West Jerusalem,  attacks on a Greek Orthodox and a Protestant church in Acre.  A Russian nun was also knifed by a zealot in her Ein Karem convent.  And so it goes....

            More subtle forms of violence and oppression occur in the form of expropriation of private and church land, the diversion of water from ancient Christian villages to new settlements, bulldozing of houses, endless new settlements on traditional Arab land.  Before 1948 Arab Christians made up18-20 % of the area's population and 52 % of the old walled city of Jerusalem.  Today the Christian population in the Holy Land is less than 2%. The population decline in Jerusalem has been even more dramatic.  In 1922, Christians numbered 51% of the population of Jerusalem; in 1978, 10%; and in1990, only 4 %.

            The first major exodus of Christians occurred after 1948 when 60-70 % of the Palestinians either fled or were driven from their homes.  A second exodus occurred  after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967.  Some 18,000 (40 %) of the Christian Arabs left their home between 1967 and 1992.

            A note about these Arab Christians in the Fertile Crescent (from Iraq to Egypt). They have kept the faith from the beginning of the Christian era. Unlike most of the Arabs of North Africa or the inhabitants of modern Turkey these ancient Christian communities  resisted conversion to Islam in the 7 th century and remained faithful to the ancient liturgies and traditions of the early Christian church. They bear witness to faith handed down from the Apostles.

            Yet fundamentalist Christians persist in their scriptural literalism and their blind infatuation with the state of Israel as a fulfillment of prophecy.  The pleas of the churches in the Holy Land go unanswered. In 1989 for instance the leaders of over 40 Christian denominations in Jerusalem issued a joint statement "to make known to the people of the world the conditions of life of our people here in the Holy Land who experience constant deprivation of their fundamental rights... and to express our deep concern and alarm for the growing feeling of insecurity and fear among our people and churches... which constitutes a serious threat to the future of Christianity and its rights in the Holy Land."

            A subsequent statement signed by ten  Latin, Armenian, Greek, Coptic and Syrian patriarch, archbishops along with Anglican and Lutheran bishops (January 1992) called attention to the fact that "since April 1990, the St. John's Hospice adjoining the Holy Sepulcher has been occupied by settlers...we categorically condemn any attempt to modify the demographic and unique character and status of Jerusalem...collective punishment continues to be visited indiscriminately on the civilian Palestinian population...we condemn the stabbing of the Patriarchal Vicar of the Syrian Catholic Church on Christmas Eve and the assault on his convent...a rare 6 th century Byzantine mosaic was vandalized... two funerary chambers belonging to an Armenian 6 th century monastery were buried beneath a high pile of rocks...several Christian vestiges...have been denied posterity and buried under new highways," etc.

            You will not read about these events in Catholic New York  nor will you hear a public condemnation or any criticism of Israeli policies from the cardinal of New York.  Why? Is it really necessary to ask such a question? To his credit, Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore has spoken out on this subject.   "If I forget you, Jerusalem," the psalmist says, "let my  right hand wither ...let my tongue cleave to my mouth."  (Psalm 137) It would seem from the silence of many in this country that their tongue is indeed tied when it comes to speaking out on behalf of their fellow Christians.

            A more recent development in the present Middle East conflict bears further consideration.

             When Christians sing the familiar carol at Christmas,   "O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie"  their thoughts may well turn once more to the plight of their fellow Christians in the Holy Land?  I once stood in the Shepherds' Field in 1957 at night in a prayer service followed by Midnight Mass in the ancient Church of the Nativity. It was indeed a "silent night," a "holy night." All, indeed, was calm; all was bright. No longer today. Usually in discussions of the terrible violence in the Holy Land the Christian community is not factored into the equation. Yet they suffer as well as their neighbors.

    During October, 2001 Bethlehem was besieged and occupied by Israeli forces. Soldiers bivouacked in civilian homes and religious institutions. Tanks and troops roamed the streets of this Christian town. Machine gun bullets raked the Church of the Nativity and its Orthodox cross was hit by expert snipers from a mile away. The damage was truly ecumenical:  the pastor of the nearby Beit Jala Lutheran church was forced to leave his parsonage after his church was hit by three mortar shells and take refuge the church compound. The Methodist liaison in Bethlehem reported that the Beit Jala hospital was attacked four times in one day. One anesthesiologist was wounded and a man waiting in the emergency room was killed. Sister Sophia said that three tank shells hit the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem.  Bethlehem University was hit by 52 missiles.

    Over 30 civilians were killed including Johnny Taljieh, an altar boy playing with his 4-year old brother in Manger Square. Johnny had planned to study for the priesthood. "He was shot right in front of me," said Father Faltas, a Catholic priest. Greek Orthodox priest Theophanis added, "He was loving toward everyone...his heart was as a diamond or gold."  Just as on-going violence has riddled  Jewish and Moslem communities so too has it devastated the lives of our Christian brothers and sisters and filled them with despair.

    Bethlehem is the home of 25,000 Christians.  The Church of the Nativity, shared by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian community, is the oldest Christian church in continuous use. It may come as a surprise to many that there is such a struggling Christian community in the Holy Land.  These Palestinian Christians of the Orthodox faith, Eastern and Latin rite Catholics, Anglicans and various Protestant denominations are the "forgotten faithful".  In the universal Christian church they are unique because of their centuries of history and attachment to the Holy Land.  Many can trace their family lineage to the early days of the church. In fact there are more Christian holy places in Jerusalem than of the other two great Abrahamic religions combined.

    What happened in Bethlehem is but a microcosm of the terror and economic hardship that has been heaped upon so many who live in the Holy Land. Yet despite the cries of anguish of local religious leaders, echoed by the pope himself, there seems to be little awareness in America of their plight.  In 1948 Christians comprised about 18% of the population in the Holy Land.  Today they are less than 2%.  In 1922 Christians numbered 51% of the city of Jerusalem; in 1978 they were 10% and in 1990 only 4%. Those who remain deserve our recognition, prayers and support.  They may well serve as a bridge of reconciliation between their Jewish and Moslem brothers and sisters.

    Meanwhile, however, the mayor of Bethlehem has sadly for a second year been forced to cancel Christmas celebrations because of the violence. "There's nothing to celebrate," he said. The Latin Patriarch will offer a midnight mass and that's about it. Night in the Holy Land is no longer "silent".  All is not "calm"; all is not "bright."  No one sleeps in "heavenly peace" in the home of the Prince of Peace. As we sing our carols we would do well to reflect prayerfully on this tragedy and make our voices heard.

Richard Cross

 

In 1957 I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with ther Centre Richelieu of Paris. I am pictured here carrying the cross with others no the Via Dolorosa.

The main source for this article is an article in The Spectator (October 22, 1994) by William
Dalrymple, winner of the 1994 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.

The links given below represent the points of view from a Christian  Arab and an Israeli women's organization working for peace and justice.
 
Links:

for the Middle East

1. For a moderate and scholarly Christian Arab assessment  of the present crisis in the Middle East
as well as a chronological outline of the history of developments in this area consult the following
web site:

            http://www.mideastwatch.com/

2. For an Israeli women's Peace Movement which works with Palestinian women for justice and
peace in Israel consult the following web site:

            http://www.batshalom.org/

3. Churches for the Middle East Peace.  A website that discusses the future status of Jerusalem
            and the position of Christians in the area.

            Churches for Middle East Peace:

4.The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation:seeks to replace despair with hope, fear  with
             security and humiliation with human dignity.

            http://www.hcef.org

5. The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

            http://www.wrmea.com