Palestinians who suffer economic and social hardships in Israel have received little help from Christians in the West because of political and theological concerns, according to leaders of Christian groups working in the Holy Land.
During a speech in London last week, Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem Riah Abu El-Assal rebuked Christians in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom for being "very quiet" in the face of an economic meltdown. During the current wave of violence, tourism ? the area's main income source ? has nearly dried up and unemployment has skyrocketed, rising as high as 81 percent in Gaza, for example. "We are desperate for support these days; we are desperate," Riah told a gathering of church leaders, agency staff, and journalists.
Palestinian Christians lament that few Christians know they exist. "It's quite hard to move people from the accepted view of what's happening in the Middle East. Palestinians are seen as Muslims, yet even at the highest level there are Christians working in Palestine," said Sue Plater, associate director of the Amos Trust, a British Christian charity. "Muslims around the world are supporting Muslims, but Christians aren't supporting Christians."
A significant reason for that lack of support is a fundamental divide in Christendom over how Israel is perceived, some Christians contend. A report published this week by the Anglican Church in England, "Sharing One Hope? The Church of England and Christian-Jewish Relations," spells out that rift.
Christians who subscribe to a system of biblical interpretation known as dispensationalism believe the formation of Israel in 1948 was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies rooted in an eternal covenant God made with the Jews that granted them the Holy Land. This view is held by a majority of American fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. Others, primarily mainline Protestant and Catholic church members, believe promises made to Israel have been fulfilled in a symbolic way through the church, which is God's new covenant people.
Though evangelical groups such as World Vision support church-based projects in Palestinian areas, most focus on Jews. Kimberly Williams, the director of an evangelical Protestant group in Colorado called Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, recognizes that Palestinians are "suffering very badly" and should be helped but believes the solution is for them to recognize Israel's sovereignty over the land and view themselves as foreigners.
"Israel needs to be the ruler," said Williams, whose group supports Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. If the Palestinian people would "begin to cooperate and really work at a peace, living side by side, being neighbors, sharing land, sharing water, sharing country, there would be a whole different perspective," she said. "Unfortunately, the Palestinian government's definition of peace is a land free of Jews."
The sympathies of conservative Christians and Jews largely have shaped American public perception of the Holy Land, according to Husam Misleh, board member and past president of the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine. "They're the majority," said Misleh, whose 35,000-member group is headquartered in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. "(Conservative Protestant leaders) Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are on the air all the time portraying Israel to be our best friend; at the same time, there are Palestinian Christians dying daily, and they don't speak out on that subject at all. It's an atrocity in itself."
Rateb Rabie, director of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation in Silver Springs, Maryland, a group that raises support from American churches, said he generally agrees with Riah's indictment of Western Christians. Rabie said he has received little response from American churches to appeals during the current violence. "It breaks your heart when you get calls every day from churches (in the Holy Land), and the priests and the clergy are asking for help, and you are tied here; you cannot help them."
Rabie said that while assistance for Israelis is in the billions of dollars, for Palestinians it amounts to thousands. Through his foundation about $300,000 to $400,000 has been channeled to Palestinians since October, he said. "We send appeal after appeal, and we don't hear anything," he said. "The amount of help ? is not enough for thousands of people who are starving, with no work."
The economic situation is so bad, Rabie said, that in the past four months 400 Arab Christians have emigrated from the Bethlehem area. The percentage of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 17 percent of the population in 1900 to less than 2 percent in 1999. "Christians in Palestine are in great decline because the Christian community is ignored by the Israeli or Palestinian authorities," said Canon James Rosenthal, director of communications for the Anglican Communion in London. "Little resources are given to Palestine and fewer to the Christian community."
Over the long-term, however, Protestant churches in the United States have made an impact through pronouncements and educational events, he maintained. "Fifteen or 20 years ago there was the perception that Israel was unquestioningly in the right, and the major problem was the threat posed to Israel by the Arabs rather than any injustice that Israel might be committing against the Palestinians," Weaver said. "So there has been a major shift in perception, but it has not necessarily spilled out into the broad political mobilization from the grass roots."
Corinne Whitlatch, director of Washington, D.C.-based Churches for Middle East Peace, said the 15 mostly mainline denominations and groups her agency works with try to avoid partisan politics, which may be frustrating to Riah and others. "I think that there is a strong feeling on the part of the Palestinian Christians that since the American government is such a strong player in Israeli-Palestinian affairs that we should be able to have more influence over our government," she said. "And we would agree with that, but it's not for lack of trying."
Whitlatch, a member of the delegation that met Riah in December, said from her experience informing churches across the country about the situation of Palestinians there is "quite a bit of solidarity support and understanding" from people. "We find that Americans are very concerned about this." Financial support, she concedes, may be a different story. "Many of these mainstream Protestant churches have experienced over the past couple of decades decreasing numbers of members, financial problems in their headquarters, and they're not flush with money," she pointed out.
In Canada, the Middle East situation is not on the agenda of most church leaders, according to Alan Lazerte, executive director of Canadian Friends of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ). "When it is, some lean for the underdogs (Palestinians), some small percentage lean toward Israel," he said. "I think more lean toward Israel than are prepared to speak out because they have congregations that contain both sides in the struggle sitting in their pews. They're not looking for trouble, and to take up the issue is certainly to cause friction, to say the least."
Weaver believes part of the problem may lie with the Palestinians. "The Palestinians themselves have not been as good at mobilizing public opinion on their behalf as the South Africans were," he said. "My own perception is that the Palestinians historically have preferred to treat this as a situation that can be dealt with through diplomacy with the U.S. government rather than a mass mobilization of the people of the United States."
Some groups are concerned about the control the Palestinian political leadership has over funds. "I know that a lot of money that goes to the poor, if it is not siphoned off by the systemic corruption within the PLO apparatus, goes toward feeding the propaganda mill," asserted David Parsons, spokesman for the ICEJ in Jerusalem.
The ICEJ applied about $1 million of its annual budget to dozens of projects to assist Palestinians, Parsons said. The evangelical Protestant group has about 20 years of experience assisting Druze, Muslims, Christians, and Bedouins. "We know the need, and we know you have to go directly to that grass roots level, and there aren't many ministries that do that," he said. "The government money, all the big charities, they may have their projects that help, but the overall situation would be very improved if the Palestinian leadership had the political will to come to a compromise with Israel."
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