Washington - Facing the growing influence of Christian Zionists in the United States, the dwindling Christian minority in the Palestinian territories is making a renewed push to capture American hearts and minds.
A delegation of Palestinian Christian mayors came to Washington last week on a lobbying mission, during which they argued the Palestinian cause. It was the first such mission ever.
The mayors attended a Washington conference of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, which has attempted to build bridges between Christians in the United States and in the Palestinian territories.
A week earlier, the Palestinian-Christian cause was taken up at the annual conference of the Sabeel Center, another group of pro-Palestinian Christians.
The commotion comes in advance of the American-led Middle East peace conference, which is set to take place later this month in Annapolis, Md. Christian evangelical leaders have been pushing the Bush administration to take a hard line against the Palestinians. The new Palestinian Christian campaign is designed to capture support from non-evangelical Christians.
“We are forging relations with Christian groups in the United States that support us,” said Yousef Nasser, mayor of the Palestinian Christian town of Birzeit, at a Capitol Hill briefing. “The fringe Christians scare me,” he added, referring to evangelical pro-Israel Christians.
The issue of Palestinian Christians has long been discussed among regional specialists but has been slow to capture the attention of the American public. That began to change in 2006 with an article by columnist Robert Novak and a letter to the White House by Rep. Henry Hyde. Novak and Hyde both argued that the Israeli separation barrier is threatening the existence of the West Bank Christian community. Similar views were echoed last week by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, who said in an interview in Israel that the fence is “driving Christians out of the Holy Land.”
Palestinian Christians have been struggling against the powerful Christian Zionist coalition led by evangelical churches and their pro-Israel lobbying arm, Christians United for Israel. While CUFI easily attracts thousands of supporters to mega-events around the country, the Palestinian Christians are still struggling to get out their message. At last week’s briefing on the Hill, organizers asked for a show of hands to count how many congressional offices sent staffers to the event. Not one hand went up.
CUFI’s main goal has been to support Israel, but recently it, too, has taken note of the Palestinian Christian population. Following the murder last month of Rami Ayyad, a Christian bookstore owner in Gaza, CUFI’s executive director, David Brog, wrote, “As CUFI stands with Israel, we cannot and will not be silent about the persecution of Christians by the same militants who have been at the forefront of the effort to destroy Israel.”
This has not won over the Palestinian Christians. At the briefing last week, Nasser took a strong line on the Christian Zionists in America.
“If any policy will be influenced by these people, you’re in trouble.” Nasser warned listeners at a Capitol Hill briefing. “Wake up. These people are crazy.”
Among the groups leading the call for Christian organizations to support the Palestinian cause is the Sabeel Center, a network of international organizations that draws support from key activists in liberal Christian denominations. During Sabeel’s conference at Boston’s Old South Church, the keynote speaker was Desmond Tutu, the South African Anglican Bishop.
The issue being discussed by Sabeel and other activists is the P.A.’s remaining Christians, who once made up almost 20% of the Palestinian population but have now shrunk to less than 2% due to steady emigration out of the area. The reasons for the Christian exodus from the West Bank and Gaza are in dispute. Palestinian activists claim that hardship caused by the Israeli occupation has made life unbearable and has led the generally more affluent and educated Christians to seek a better future elsewhere.
Bethlehem’s mayor, Victor Hanna Jubrail Batarseh, said that the recent rise to power of Hamas, the Islamic movement, has not been a danger to the Christian minority, though he did say that “at the end, we want to see a secular Palestinian state.”
Many Israeli advocates argue that Muslim Palestinians violently harass the Christian minority, causing the Christian exodus. Justus Reid Weiner, a lawyer who is a member of the hawkish Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank, equates Palestinian Christians with battered women who decline to recognize the problem.
“It’s classical denial,” he said in a phone interview from Jerusalem. “It is so obvious who is telling the truth and who is being squeezed.”
The message that the mayors carried was one of Palestinian unity, denying any tension between Christians and Muslims despite recent flare-ups of violence in the West Bank and Gaza.
“We as Christians and Muslims live under the same culture,” Nasser said. “The only way to differentiate us is to follow us on Friday or Sunday and see where we go to pray.”
Within the Bush administration, there are signs that alternative Christian voices are beginning to be heard. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met two weeks ago with a group of evangelical leaders who support a two-state solution and oppose the views taken by such Christian Zionists as the Rev. John Hagee.
A few days later, though, Hagee put out a call to CUFI’s supporters, asking them to contact the White House to urge America’s administration not to pressure Israel into making territorial concessions.
“President Bush has been a great friend of Israel,” Hagee wrote. “But he and his team are creating a situation that is likely to place Israel in great danger.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.