Holy Land

The sectarian violence that has rocked Iraq as that nation prepares for this month’s parliamentary elections has been a stark reminder of how tenuous the situation remains there—and across the Middle East as a whole.

When it comes to religious violence, most of the victims have come from the rival Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities. Yet the country’s small and once influential Christian community (about 5 percent of the population when the war started) has not been spared. Human Rights Watch reported that in one week last month, five Christians were murdered in Mosul, a northern city that has seen repeated violence against Christians, including the 2008 abduction and murder of its archbishop. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that since 2003, half of all Iraqi Christians have fled the country for neighboring Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. As non-Muslim refugees, these Christians are often unwelcome and lead precarious lives.

 Iraq is not an isolated case. In Egypt, Coptic Christians, who have thrived there since New Testament times, are a diminishing presence, constituting just over 10 percent of the population. Discrimination against them has become systematic. Some Egyptian colleges now limit the number of Christians who can attend. Far worse is the threat of physical harm. In January, six Christians were gunned down after attending midnight Mass at Nag Hammadi. Violence against Christians is a growing phenomenon not only in the Middle East and Africa, but also in Asia and India.

 Last September, at the end of a gathering of patriarchs and bishops at the Vatican concerning the plight of Christians in the Middle East, special attention was given to the role of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would be naive to think that the persecution of Christians in the Middle East will magically end if the sixty-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ever resolved. At the same time, no knowledgeable observer denies that securing a homeland for the Palestinians would fundamentally change the political dynamic across the region. At the moment, that conflict continues to fester and confound, with deadly consequences on both sides, particularly for Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinian Christians, whom the bishops call “the guardians of Christian origin,” are also increasingly vulnerable. Their leaders—Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic—issued a plaintive call for support last December, the Kairos Palestine Statement. It condemned all terrorist violence as well as Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank. “We have reached a dead end in the tragedy of the Palestinian people,” the group wrote, lamenting that “decision-makers content themselves with managing the crisis rather than committing themselves to the serious task of finding a way to resolve it.”

 The broad outline of a two-state solution is known to all; what remains missing is the political will to get a deal done. So far, the Obama administration seems to have achieved little. One sign of this failure was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement last month that Israel would add two important Palestinian holdings to Israel’s list of national heritage sites: Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Claims to both places are deeply contested, so much so that the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert H. Sherry, warned Netanyahu that his actions would further undermine trust and jeopardize negotiations.

 Meanwhile, Israel continues to construct its separation wall, quarantining large areas of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The barrier has been condemned by the International Court of Justice. Its effectiveness in curtailing terrorist bombings in Israel proper has been dramatic, but the wall now encroaches on more than 9 percent of the West Bank, affecting the daily lives of nearly half a million Palestinians. It has driven some from their ancestral lands, separated children from their schools, divided whole communities, and facilitated the transfer of Palestinian holdings to illegal Jewish settlements.

 Pope Benedict XVI has called for a special assembly of the synod of bishops this October to address the crisis facing the church in the Middle East, and to assess the social and religious situation of the region in general. Last May, while visiting the Holy Land, he reminded Israelis and Palestinians that they can live in peace only when both have a “homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders.” Until this happens, prospects for peace will remain dim, not only in Israel and Palestine, but throughout the Middle East.

 March 2, 2010

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