The unholy abuse of the Holy Land

The burning of a Christian church in Bethlehem by suspected Muslim extremists is ignored, while media and pundits persist in old canards about Jews and Christ. It's an unholy mess of bigotry over the Holy Land

Fire at St. Charbel’s Monastery in Bethlehem
Dexter Van Zile
On 3 October 2015 09:10

You would think that an act of arson against a church in Bethlehem would provoke a huge amount of media coverage and outrage in the Western world. Bethlehem is after all, the city of Christ’s birth.

Anytime Israel does something in or near Bethlehem that Western media outlets find offensive, it gets a lot of coverage.

When Israel built a security barrier near the city to stop suicide bombers from coming into Israel from the West Bank, numerous commentators repeated as fact false assertions that Israel had “completely surrounded” the city with a wall.

In 2012, Bob Simon, a reporter from 60 Minutes, an influential news show in the United States, falsely reported, “The wall completely surrounds Bethlehem, turning the little town where Christ was born into what its residents call an open air prison.”

The news show never corrected, and its executive producer, Jeff Fager, repeated this falsehood at his church in New Canaan, Connecticut a year later -- even after he was given definitive proof that the barrier did not completely surround the city.

The story of the Jewish state turning Bethlehem into a prison was too good to correct, even when it was a lie. The symbolism is just too powerful for people to say no to.

For example, when, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a prominent Lutheran pastor and author in the United States, posted a picture of the interior of the Church of the Nativity on her Facebook page in late 2012, she added the following caption:

“Just to be clear -- O Little Town of Bethlehem has a wall around it.”

She was on a trip to the Holy Land, actually went into the West Bank, into the city of Bethlehem itself and told her friends on Facebook something that was simply not true. People believed her because she was there.

Every year around Christmas time, cartoonists get into the act, drawing pictures of Joseph leading a camel into the city of Bethlehem. Mary, his pregnant wife, sits atop the camel, peering at a modern-day concrete wall, unable to get into the city to give birth to the Messiah.

The message conveyed by this trope is clear: Israel, the Jewish state, is obstructing God’s plan for humanity, just like the Israelites did back in the first and second centuries.

No doubt about it, there’s something about Bethlehem that enlivens peoples’ anti-Israel bias and arouses anti-Judaism even in the most enlightened intellects.

But when it comes time to use the Holy Land as a symbol to highlight the behavior of Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims, it simply does not happen. That’s for the Jews and their homeland.

Just recently, St. Charbel’s Monastery, a Maronite institution located in Bethlehem was set on fire. There is not much doubt that the fire, which took place on Sept. 26, 2015, was set intentionally. Given the location, it’s reasonable to conclude that Muslim extremists living nearby set the fire.

Arab-on-Arab arson attacks are all too common in the West Bank, including Bethlehem. Just a few weeks ago, a woman jumped to her death from a Bethlehem hotel that was set on fire as part of a dispute between two Palestinian families.

Local Christians seem pretty confident that the fire at St. Charbel’s was caused by anti-Christian hostility. A Maronite official told Asia News, one of the few news outlets to cover the fire at St. Charbel Monastery, that, “It was an act of arson, not a fire caused by an electrical problem -- an act of sectarian vandalism by radical Muslims.”

But for one reason or another, the fire simply has not gotten a lot of attention in media outlets that just a few months ago gave front-page, wall-to-wall coverage to an act of arson at the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes located just a few kilometers away in Tagbha, Israel.

To be fair, the Church of the Multiplication is more important as a religious site than St. Charbel’s Monastery in Bethlehem, but the difference in coverage between the two fires is simply astounding.

Major outlets in the United States and Europe extensively covered what was reportedly a “price-tag” attack perpetrated by Jewish extremists. For example, the New York Times published a number of articles on the church burning and the arrest of potential perpetrators.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem published a number of articles about the fire as well. Three days after the fire, Christians held a mass protest and and the Patriarchate demanded that Israel compensate the church for the fire. And Israel paid up.

By way of comparison, the fire in the church in Bethlehem has gotten hardly any coverage in the United States and Europe. Days after the fire, it hasn’t been mentioned in the so-called paper of record for United States.

It took four days for the the Latin Patriarchate -- which was so vocal about the fire in Israel -- to issue a statement about the fire in Bethlehem. And so far, no mass protests have taken place.

Such behavior is all too typical. Historically, Christians living in East Jerusalem and the West Bank have always been quick to point the finger of blame at the Jews and their state, but have been reluctant to say a word about the mistreatment they’ve endured at the hands of Muslim extremists in their hometowns.

In 2009, a group of Palestinian Christian radicals with a long history of anti-Zionist activism issued a document titled, “A Moment of Truth”, which asserted, “if there were no occupation there would be no resistance, no fear and no insecurity.”

This is simply a bad joke. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 only to be rocketed by Hamas and other groups repeatedly in the years since.

The one-sided nature of, “A Moment of Truth”, was highlighted in 2013 by Duane Alexander Miller and Philip Sumpter, two Christian scholars who noted that:

“The document claims that Palestinian Christians ‘… must resist evil of whatever kind’ […] But in 16 pages of single-space print, there is not a single mention of the intolerance and even violence that Christians in Palestine experience at the hands of some Muslims.”

What these Christian leaders are trying to do when they speak publicly against Israel, Miller and Sumpter conclude, is to portray themselves as loyal participants in the Palestinian struggle, and in so doing, put themselves in a position to demand respect and protection from their Muslim neighbors.

To further this strategy, which is becoming less effective as events progress in the Middle East, Christians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have proven all to adept at using the symbol of the Holy Land to depict the Jewish state as an affront to Christian sensibilities and ultimately to God’s plan for humanity.

Sadly, journalists who should know better have cooperated all too often with this strategy.

Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA)

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