Palestinian Christians protest Anglican chief’s occupation blindspot

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (center) pays a solidarity visit to Bethlehem, December 2006.

Fadi Tanas Maan Images

“We lived like brothers, but the Israelis don’t want to be brothers,” declared Father Emmanuel Awwad, the Orthodox priest of the village of Aboud, north of Ramallah. “We can live together. But they don’t want this. They say God gave them the land, that’s what they think like. The occupation is not good. We need to return God’s peace to the land.”

Aboud, a small town of approximately 3,000 inhabitants with a majority Christian population, is proud of its heritage as one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. The Orthodox church in the town dates back to the fourth century and a traditional festival celebrates the imprisonment of St. Barbara at a site on the hillside opposite the village.

But modern Aboud is also one of the many West Bank villages surrounded by Israeli settlements and military checkpoints. It was even bombed by the Israeli airforce on 31 May 2002.

Stephen Sizer, a Palestine solidarity campaigner and Church of England vicar, wrote on his blog about visiting Aboud in March this year, “I was going to entitle this [post] ‘the Ethnic Cleansing of Aboud,’ but that is not strong enough language to describe what I witnessed in this village. … Since 1967 the Israeli government has stolen the best land, depriving villagers access to most of their olive groves and income. They have built three large colonies exclusively for American and European Jews on the confiscated hills around Aboud. They have even stolen the village water pump, diverting the bulk of the water to the settlements” (“The Rape of Aboud”).

Despite the progressive approach of churchmen like Sizer, comments by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Anglican and Episcopalian churches worldwide, have aroused anger among Palestinian Christians. In an interview on the high-profile BBC Radio Four news program The World At One, Williams appeared to downplay the fate of Palestinian Christians in comparison to their brethren in other parts of the Middle East, such as Iraq and Egypt, where Christian communities have faced violence and discrimination.

In the interview, a transcript of which was published on the archbishop’s official website, Williams compares the Iraqi and Palestinian situations, calling the pressure on Palestinian Christians “steady and strong” but comparatively “undramatic”: “you can see why people feel that the Christian future of the region is uncertain,” he claimed.

Williams then appeared to blame the reduction in Christian numbers in Bethlehem on the local Muslim population, as well as on the Israeli occupation, saying that “What we’ve seen though is a kind of Newtonian passing on of energy or force from one body to another so that some Muslim populations in the West Bank, under pressure, move away from certain areas like Hebron, move into other areas like Bethlehem. And there’s nowhere much else for Christian populations to go except away from Palestine” (“Christians in the Middle East - Archbishop on World at One”).

Muslims blamed wrongly

In response to a direct question about whether he considered the situation for Palestinian Christians to constitute “ethnic cleansing,” the Archbishop said: “It’s not ethnic cleansing exactly because it’s been far less deliberate than that I think … The fact is that Bethlehem, a majority Christian city just a couple of decades ago, is now very definitely a place where Christians are a marginalized minority.”

The archbishop’s comments attracted a rapid and angry response from senior Palestinian Christians. In a public letter to Williams, Naim Ateek, head of the Jerusalem-based liberation theology organization Sabeel, called Williams’ concern for Middle East Christians “genuine and sincere” but went on to point out that most Palestinian Christians see themselves “as an integral part of the Palestinian people. We might be a very small religious community nowadays but due to our long rootedness in our land, we do not refer to ourselves as a minority. Moreover, as Palestinians, whether Christian or Muslim, we equally live under the oppression of the illegal Israeli occupation of our country.”

Ateek also criticized Williams for failing to mention more serious threats to Palestine’s Christian people and heritage, as represented by the Jewish extremism of the settler movement and the extremism of Western Christian Zionists.

“With candor,” Ateek stated, “the last two groups of extremists, i.e. Jewish and Western Christian Zionists are a greater threat to us than the extremist Islamists” (“Response to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams from Palestinian Christians,” 23 June 2011).

Williams’ comments were also condemned by Rifat Kassis, co-ordinator of Kairos, the Bethlehem-based alliance of Palestinian Christian groups. In an open letter to the Archbishop, Kassis said that Kairos was “deeply troubled” by the archbishop’s “erroneous and inaccurate” claims and failure to take the opportunity the BBC interview represented to raise issues such as “the Israeli occupation, the separation wall, Israel’s confiscation of Palestinian land, its policies that violate freedom of movement and worship (Palestinians in Bethlehem cannot, for instance, go to Jerusalem), or its brutal crackdowns on nonviolent protests as one of the major reasons that push not only Christians to emigrate, but also many other Palestinians” (Open letter, 18 June 2011 [PDF]).

In an interview with The Electronic Intifada several weeks after Kairos sent its letter to Lambeth Palace, the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Kassis confirmed that the organization had received no response to its points, “except confirmation that they did receive [it].”

Kassis reinforced his concern over the archbishop’s comments, saying, “Of course, someone with his weight has an influence on public opinion, especially that the public views him as someone who knows more than others, because of his connections with churches and Christians here in Palestine and Israel.”

In the past, Williams has criticized various aspects of Israeli policy, including its nuclear program and the “fanatics who destroy Muslim or Byzantine sites” (“Neighbors from hell,” Church Times, 12 April 2002) and on a visit to Palestine in 2006 walked through Bethlehem’s main checkpoint, commenting, “We are here to say that the sufferings of the people here are ours too. We want to share them, we want to do what we can to alleviate them, and we hope to see a Bethlehem that is open for all pilgrims” (“Archbishop voices Palestinian solidarity at Bethlehem,” The Independent, 22 December 2006).

However, according to Kassis, Williams’ latest failure to mention the Israeli occupation “as one source for Christian emigration doesn’t help the public to understand the real problem in our area. His comments will be misused and would act against the interest of Palestinians and mainly the Christians.”

Palace runs for cover

Lambeth Palace has remained tight-lipped on the controversy the archbishop’s comments have attracted. Requests by The Electronic Intifada for a comment have been met with silence, as were similar requests by other media outlets sympathetic to Palestine during the days following the initial interview.

An article in the Church of England’s in-house newspaper sought to downplay the issue, blaming the reactions of Palestinian Christians on misunderstanding and a misquote on the part of the BBC, without touching on the main objections of Kairos and Sabeel to the contents of Williams’ interview (“Fury over Dr Williams’ Palestine remarks,” The Church of England Newspaper, 1 July 2011).

In an effort to portray Kairos as an extremist organization, the Church of England Newspaper article cited uncritically the Israeli lobby group NGO Monitor, one of a number of organizations which seek to smear critics of Israeli policy.

The Church of England has been no stranger to controversy on the subject of Palestine. The church has been the focus of a long-running campaign, urging it to sell its shares in engineering equipment manufacturer Caterpillar over sales of military bulldozers to Israel. In 2006 the General Synod — the Church of England”s “parliament” — voted to divest from Caterpillar on ethical grounds (“Church votes to sell off shares in Caterpillar,” The Guardian, 7 February 2006). The actual divestment did not take place until 2009, and at the time the church’s fund managers stated that the action had been taken on purely financial grounds. In 2010 the Anglican ethical investment advisory group also advised the Church to scrutinize its holdings in Veolia over the latter’s involvement in the Jerusalem light rail project.

Despite Israel’s efforts at presenting itself as a natural ally of Western Christians, and as a responsible custodian of Palestine’s Christian heritage, Aboud is not the only significant Christian population in the West Bank to be threatened by Israeli settlements and military encirclement.

Bethlehem, along with one of the sites closest to the heart of the Christian faith, is now ringed by more than a dozen settlements, including the huge sprawls of Gilo and Har Homa, which now cut it off from Jerusalem. The Teqoa and Etzion settlement blocs also divide it from Hebron to the south. Planning permission was granted for 112 new housing units in the Bethlehem-area settlement of Beitar Illit on the same day in 2010 that US President Barack Obama’s envoy George Mitchell arrived in the region, ostensibly to demand a settlement freeze. And history shows that the threat posed by settlements and settlers to Palestine’s Christians is not a new one; in 1979 Philoumenos Khassapis, the Orthodox priest of Bir Yaqub (Jacob’s Well) in Nablus, was hacked to death and his body burnt in front of his church’s altar by extremist settlers trying to claim the site.

Speaking to The Electronic Intifada, Kassis also expressed his concerns about attempts by Christian Zionists to manipulate alleged threats to Palestinian Christians from the Muslim majority. “It doesn’t help in finding a just solution to the real and core issue, which is the occupation,” he said.

As previously reported in The Electronic Intifada, Christian Zionist organizations from the US and Europe have been instrumental in funding the displacement of Bedouin communities in the Negev and in lobbying politicians on Israel’s behalf.

But Kassis also expressed some optimism, stemming from the growing number of churches worldwide which have started to look in more depth at the issue of Palestine. Examples include the UK’s Methodist community, which voted last year for a boycott of settlement products, and calls by the Presbyterian community in the US for Israel to end its illegal occupation.

“I feel that there is growing awareness among churches and Christians to the level of differentiating between theologies — those which justify oppression and those which work for justice,” said Kassis. “We in Kairos are trying our best to ask the churches worldwide to provide us with a space to represent ourselves and not to let others talk on behalf of us.”

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine. Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, co- authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010. She is currently working on a new edition of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and a biography of Leila Khaled.