The Sad Plight of Christians in the Middle East
By: Michael Curtis
At this time of uncertainty and political vacuum in the Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East, more light should be shined on the disturbing and deteriorating situation of Christians in those countries. It is unfortunate that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, created in 1998 to advise the president and Congress on the plight of persecuted religious groups, is being closed. The president is now therefore unable to be given such advice and to take specific action, such as economic or other sanctions, travel bans on government officials, and limits put on foreign aid, against countries designated by the Commission as of "particular concern" because of religious persecution in their territory.
Christians are not an exogenous entity intruding into a homogeneous Arab Muslim world; they have been present in these countries for two millennia.
Christian communities and individuals have played a vital role in the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity, as of other religions. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in Castelgandolfo on September 2, 2007, is not alone in warning that "[c]hurches in the Middle East are threatened in their very existence."
The outlook for Christians is indeed bleak. The Arab countries have not abided by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18) of December 1948, which states that "[e]veryone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion." Discrimination against non-Muslims has always been present in the Arab Muslim world. In the Ottoman Empire, as elsewhere, Christians were second-class subjects, except for a short period after 1856 when the sultan conceded the principle of equality of the law to all subjects.
No reliable census has been available in Arab countries for many years, but the estimate of Christians in the Middle East numbers about 12 million. Accused of identification with Western colonialism and imperialism, they are now facing aggravating hostility and persecution of various kinds. The Christians and their institutions, in a context of internecine wars in the area, a falling birth rate in the midst of an increase in the number of Muslims, and the political rise of extreme Islamist groups, face physical brutality; destruction of their churches; discrimination in basic rights as well as in employment opportunities; boycotts of their businesses; and malignity in many forms of popular culture, television programs, and school textbooks. They are unable to practice or have difficulty in practicing their faith and fear prosecution by law for offences of apostasy and blasphemy, devices intended to intimidate or prevent critical speech.
Even those regimes and ideas, such as Nasserism, Pan-Arabism, and Arab nationalism, which in the past exemplified to some extent moderation in religious matters regarding Christians, now play a less significant role.
Increasing violence and brutality against Christians is now evident in almost all the Arab countries, except Jordan under the relatively benign King Abdullah. Even there, those Muslims who converted to Christianity face severe discrimination.
In Egypt, the Christian Copts, members of a church dating from 451 A.D. and doctrinally similar to the Eastern Orthodox Church, constitute about ten percent of the 84 million population. In the past they have been active in political and cultural affairs. They suffer from attacks individually -- in recent years, over 200 have been killed -- and from assaults on their churches. Among the most egregious attacks were the murder of Copts in January 2011; the slaughter on New Year's Day in the church in Alexandria, the worst outbreak in a decade, which resulted in 21 dead and 79 injured; and the brutal police action against Christians protesting in central Cairo, in which 27 were killed and over 300 injured. Other churches have been burned as in the Aswan area, or have been cordoned off. In a country which is now witnessing the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (Freedom and Justice Party) and the more extreme Salafis (al-Nour Party), a bloc that won 60 percent of the votes in 2011, the Copts fear that they are a endangered species.
In Iraq, violence against Christians, who have been present there since the second century, continues with killings and kidnappings. In the last five years, eighteen priests and two bishops have been kidnapped. The archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped and killed in 2008. Since 2004, over 70 churches, 42 of them in Baghdad, have been subjected to some form of attack. A recent notorious instance was the slaughter of 58 Christians during evening mass at the Syrian Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad in October 2010. Churches have been bombed in Baghdad and Mosul, seven on one day in July 2009 in Baghdad. The Christian population in Iraq, once a million and a half, is now less than 150,000.
The intolerant theocracy in Iran, the constitution of which states that all laws must be based on the Islamic sharia, has in the past year arrested over 300 Christians, some of whom remain in prison. Christians, about 100,000 in 1979, are now almost nonexistent in the country's population of 75 million.
Saudi Arabia, the fount of Wahhabism, is probably the most repressive country because of the total ban on religious practice by non-Muslims and even the prohibition on bringing a Bible into the country. School textbooks promote religious intolerance in general, as well as anti-Semitism. This bigotry is made even more unacceptable when one witnesses the large sums spent by Saudi Arabia in building and sponsoring mosques and madrassahs abroad.
Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Christians feel safe. It is only in Israel that Christians, of all denominations, are able to practice their religion as they wish. They not only have full legal rights and religious freedom. They also play a role in political and social affairs and in academe: Israeli Christians include a justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, members of Parliament, diplomatic representatives, and the recipient of the Israeli prize for literature. Moreover, contrary to the experience in the Arab countries, the Christian population in Israel, about 10 percent of Israeli Arabs, has increased fourfold in the last fifty years.
To escape persecution in Arab countries, some Christians have converted to Islam; reports are that a considerable number of university graduates in Egypt have done so. Many have supported and influenced secular political groups in the hope of being protected, but these efforts have been unsuccessful. Above all, Christians have emigrated from those countries -- some voluntarily, but most because of the violence, threats, inability to practice their religion, and intimidation. The Arab countries are almost judenrein; now they are becoming devoid of Christians.
The fate of those Christians will be an important litmus test as to the consequences, agreeable or not, of the events that began in the Arab Spring. Will the winds of change in the fluid politics of the Middle East allow the existence of a cultural and religious mosaic there, and a religious and political pluralism in which Arab Muslims can recognize the authentic status of citizenship and equal rights for non-Muslims? The West, especially the United States, should not be complacent or indifferent regarding the plight of Christians in the Middle East.
Michael Curtis is distinguished professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University and a member of the America-Israel Friendship League's Board of Directors.
NYSE hosts Israeli business conference
NEW YORK – The New York Stock Exchange celebrated its fifth annual Israel Day on Tuesday by hosting a conference on Israeli business innovators and start-up industries.
Leaders from the America-Israel Friendship League – along with a delegation of Israeli and American chief executive officers – rang the market’s opening bell Tuesday, signifying the beginning of the trading day.
START-UP NATION” ISRAEL CENTER STAGE AT AMERICA-ISRAEL FRIENDSHIP LEAGUE DINNER
“We are here tonight to celebrate Israel and today’s New York Stock Exchange designation of ‘Israel Day,’” said America-Israel Friendship League Chairman Kenneth Bialkin at AIFL’s 2011Partners for Democracy Award Dinner on November 29. The evening’s honorees included Dan Senor and Saul Singer, authors of the New York Times best-seller, “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” (2009, Twelve).
Read more: http://www.forward.com/articles/147895/#ixzz1hCkVKr7B
Presbyterian Leader Partners with AIFL to Educate the Public about Israel—Jim Fletcher
On September 9, 2010 the Presbyterian Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment, PC (U.S.A.) announced that they will propose that the 2012 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. divest from three companies (Motorola Solutions, Hewlett Packard, and Caterpillar) for doing business in Israel. They are being targeted because “they supply products and technology to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The claim is that doing so represents a ‘non-peaceful pursuit’ and an ‘obstacle to a just peace in Israel/Palestine’.”
In anticipation of this vote, Rev. Bill Harter is leading an AFIL delegation to Israel consisting of major Presbyterian clergy and lay leaders who will participate in the upcoming General Assembly which will be convene from June 30 to July 7, 2012. Harter believes that the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) is counter-productive, and is eager for this distinguished group to determine for themselves how best to respond.
Bill Harter comes from pioneer stock .The Pennsylvania Presbyterian hails from Clarence, New York, in Erie County. The early settlers in that area literally carved-out lives and careers in what was once the western frontier.
That pioneering spirit is very much with the Rev. William Harter today. A leading light in the mainline advocating strongly for orthodox faith, he is also a bit of an anomaly, especially in those circles “back East.”
Harter, you see, loves Israel and the Jewish people.
A tireless activist for the Jewish state, Harter is a long-time member of the executive committee for the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel (NCLCI), and for the past half-dozen years, has lent his expertise in interfaith dialogue and advocacy for Israel to a powerhouse New York group, the America-Israel Friendship League (www.aifl.org). In particular, the latter group is most appreciative of the passion Rev. Harter brings to his work.“He is a great friend of Israel and to the Jewish people,” said AIFL Director, Alex Grobman, himself a bridge-builder between the Jewish and Christian communities. “Bill has led some of our important delegations to Israel and will do so again in a few weeks—a major priority for us— his knowledge and compassion for all people is helping break down walls of misunderstanding.”
So, just how did a nice mainstream boy from New York find himself in the thick of Jewish-Christian dialogue?
“As a young kid growing up in western New York, about 20 miles east of Buffalo, my community had exactly one Jewish family,” Harter remembers. “They were the Sterns, (both MDs) who had managed to escape Germany in 1938. And they had a daughter my age and a son my younger sister’s age. We grew up together from first grade on. The Sterns were the doctors who went to rural areas that didn’t have a full-time doctor; he became the classic small town doctor. Greatly beloved in the community! She was one of my mother’s best friends.”
That background and influence provided an opportunity for young Bill Harter to develop a lifelong love for Jewish studies.
“We were part of their family during Shabbat and holidays, and came to know Judaism. When I went away to school, I had a professor named Sydney Eisen. He was an advisor and a European history professor who was immensely appreciated and respected at Williams college in Williamstown (MA). I became close to their family and did child care and they introduced me intellectually to Judaism and to the theological significance of Jewish practices. He became a mentor and my rebbe [teacher].”
These influences, and his biblical study, led Harter to a new awareness when he entered seminary.
“At Union Seminary…that was a new journey! I intended to go into medicine, but later went into education [at Harvard]. Then, the orientation was education and public policy, but in actual teaching I realized I was being led into ministry.”
At one point along the journey, Harter became even more immersed in Jewish studies, and a major turning point was just around the corner.
“I was fortunate to receive a fellowship, which could be used to study anywhere in the world. I wanted to go on for a doctorate in the area of Jewish-Christian studies. I did doctoral work in terms of Jewish wars against Rome and the impact on early Christian literature.”
And then he heard the “magic” words:
“I asked my professor where to study and he said, “In your field, you can go to one of two places: you could go to Germany and learn a lot, or you can go to Israel and it will change your life…”
His life’s work since is a testimony to the power of a fateful decision. Eventually, through numerous trips to Israel, he developed a deep theological understanding of the People of the Book.
Harter spent two months in Jordan on his first trip, and 10 months on the Israeli side, studying at the Hebrew University.
“It was extraordinarily transforming in terms of my personal faith and my commitment to ministry.”
Another pivotal moment came not long after that—the Six Day War, in which Israel faced-down neighboring armies to win an astonishing victory. In fact, so complete was the victory that many began to debate the theological significance of the modern Jewish state.
“Well, ’67 was a major watershed in Christian-Jewish relations,” Harter remembers, particularly because of the reaction [mixed] that Israel’s victory received from mainline churches. A number of leading theologians were extremely critical of Israel. Prior to that time the Jewish-Christian relationship in the U.S. was focused on social issues, civil rights. On this issue of the Six Day War, a tremendous divide took place.”
Besides being part of scholarly study groups navigating the question of Israel’s place in history and modern geopolitics, Harter became involved in another issue.
“In late 1970s, the U.S. government realized that the issue of Soviet Jewry was front-and-center and I became involved in that cause.” And in 1975, the notorious “Zionism equals Racism” resolution in the U.N. led to the formation of NCLCI, which remains perhaps the key advocacy group for Israel within the mainline.
“From that point, the AIFL helped us find a home base in New York City, and with them (the AIFL), issues we worked on were support for Soviet Jewry, the refutation of Zionism is Racism, and the status of Jerusalem.” The new partnerships were quite beneficial.
“AIFL helped us get that message around.” The intervening years have been rich with productivity and new friendships.
“A number of our members helped with delegations to Israel that AIFL arranged. The Presbyterian group that went in 2005 had a very significant impact on the Presbyterian Church USA. A lot of our statements would run counter to mainline views, but there are times when we were in one accord.”
The trips to Israel have had real, practical effect.
We took a group and it was a really key group of people…a number of the people on that trip were not only more intensively educated on the reality of Israel as we know it, but they have continued to be leadership people on this issue in the church—people like Jim Roberts and Gary Green. The AIFL played a role in helping develop and equip Presbyterian leaders who have since become major figures in the denomination.”
Harter’s beloved wife, Linda, a brilliant partner his entire career, went to be with the Lord in 2006, but their work together lives on in her husband’s tireless efforts for Israel and for justice for all.
Chicago Law Professors Participated in Delegation to Israel
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Dr. Alex Grobman
Phone: (212) 213-8630
STATEMENT OF KENNETH J. BIALKIN, CHAIRMAN AND DR. ALEX GROBMAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE AMERICA-ISRAEL FRIENDSHIP LEAGUE.
New York, January 31, 2012...This past December, a delegation of ten professors from schools of law throughout the United States completed a one-week mission to Israel sponsored by the America-Israel Friendship League (AIFL).
Among those who participated were Bernadette Atuahene, assistant professor of law at the Chicago-Kent Law School whose major research deals with confiscation and restitution of property; and her Chicago-Kent Law School colleague, Prof Joan Steinman, who teaches courses in civil procedure, complex litigation, and appellate courts. Prof Steinman has authored articles on the associational privacy privilege in civil litigation, class actions, and suits for financial damages to vindicate First Amendment rights.
They were joined by fellow professors of law from the University of Virginia, Stetson University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Michigan, Tulane University, and the University of New Mexico.
Jews and non-Jews, they represented interests ranging from land restitution to taxation and medical-legal issues to family law.
According to former New York Attorney General Robert Abrams, who serves as chair of the AIFL's Delegations Committee, the goal of the organization's missions is "to strengthen the bonds and reinforce the shared values between these two great, vibrant democracies."
"AIFL brings Americans, representing a wide variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds, to see the miracle of Israel, a nation of extraordinary growth and beauty, thriving despite real existential threats. AIFL mission participants see a nation filled with vibrant cities, impressive infrastructure, great universities, and state-of-the-art medical facilities. But they also see that, despite the headlines, Israel is a country in which Arabs and Jews live and work in harmony. The media likes to focus on the sparks on dissension; we show these American leaders the everyday truth about peaceful Arab-Israeli coexistence," he said.
The law professors' itinerary in Israel was planned to fulfill this goal while presenting legal issues facing the Jewish state. Thus, the trip included many briefings, such as one given at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with Arthur Lenk, director of the ministry's legal department; Dr. Chaim Koren, an expert on Middle East Affairs; and Danny Ayalom, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.
After a tour of the Israeli Supreme Court, the Americans had a meeting with Justice Elyakim Rubinstein and Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem, chairman of the Knesset's Committee for Law and Justice.
At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the group met with Prof Barak Medina, dean of the law faculty; Einat Hurvitz, director of the Israel Religious Action Center's legal department; and Uri Bar-Ner, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey and the current special advisor to the chairman of the AIFL.
In Tel Aviv, they met with David Benjamin, an expert on international law and a former member of the International Law Department in Israel's Military Advocate General's Office, and, in Haifa, they met with Moti Mironi, professor of law at Haifa University and a renowned Israeli mediator and arbitrator.
The group met with Neil Lazarus, an expert in Israel advocacy; Prof Dan Ben David, executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, a Jerusalem-based socio-economic research institute; and Prof Aharon Barak, the former president of the Israeli Supreme Court who now serves as professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
The itinerary did not shield the participants from exploring some of the more controversial issues challenging Israel. In Jerusalem, for example, they were given a tour of the Security Fence by Col (Res) Danny Tirza, who was in charge of planning the barrier which was erected to provide a measure of protection for Israeli citizens against Palestinian suicide bombers and other terrorists.
In Tel Aviv, the group met with Ifat Zamir, executive director of WePower, a feminist group devoted to helping women gain political power in Israel.
Others who addressed the group included Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian journalist for the Jerusalem Post; David Horowitz, former editor of the Jerusalem Post; MK Einat Wilf of the Independence Party (the faction, a recent breakaway from the Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak); Druze leader Zaidan Atashi; Muki Zur, an historian and researcher of the Settlement Movement in Judea and Samaria; and Likud Minister Dan Meridor, who serves as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy in the Israeli Cabinet.
The trip allowed abundant time for individual and group tours of the sites for which Israel is renowned throughout the world, including the Western Wall, the Western Wall Tunnels, and the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem; Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in western Jerusalem; Masada and the Dead Sea; the holy sites on the Sea of Galilee, including Kibbutz Ein Gev; the ancient city of Jaffa; and the Peres Center for Peace.
The day before leaving the Jewish state, the group had the opportunity to glimpse into the future with a visit to Better Place, a venture-backed American-Israeli company that aims to reduce global dependency on petroleum through the creation of a market-based transportation infrastructure that supports electric vehicles. To accelerate the transition to electric cars, Israel has already enacted policies which create a tax differential between zero-emission vehicles and traditional ones.
Asked how the trip affected them, most participants said it was "life-changing."
"I cannot envision a more interesting or diverse group of speakers. The agenda was full and thought-provoking. We will always appreciate the friends we made in Israel and among our group," said Prof John Cooper, associate dean of International and Cooperative Programs at the Stetson University College of Law in Deland, Florida. He participated along with his wife, Professor Denise Cooper, a professor of molecular medicine at the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa.
Prof David D. Meyer, dean of the Tulane University Law School agreed. "The frank and deeply thoughtful conversations have been enormously valuable and deepened my appreciation for both the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for Israel and the region. I am eager to follow up on future opportunities to be of assistance and to build stronger ties with the Israeli legal academy and community," he said.
Calling the trip "informative and important," Prof Michele Bratcher Goodwin of the University of Minnesota Law School said she, as well as other members of the group, plan not only to keep in touch with one another but also to follow-up on some of the Israeli programs with which they became familiar.
Her colleague at the University of Minnesota Law School, Prof Gregory Shaffer, called the trip "extraordinary," and Prof Edward Goldman, of the University of Michigan School of Law whose career has combined law, ethics, public policy, teaching, writing, and community service, said it was "fabulous" and "full of unbiased information and good fellowship."
Despite the presentation of "difficult questions on the ground," Prof Goldman said the mission showed that, in the Jewish state, "daily life can and does continue."
Prof Charles Barzun, associate professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law, said he felt "so fortunate to have been a part of [the delegation] and to have met so many interesting people, both those whom we met and the others in the group."
It was exactly the reaction Mr. Abrams expected. "AIFL's unique Leadership Delegations allow people to go beyond the headlines, to see the reality and learn the truth about Israel. Delegation participants discover Israel's human face and heart and each mission participant returns as a goodwill ambassador for Israeli-American support and friendship," he said.
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