Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Little Christmas Joy in the Middle East

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 23rd December, 2014

imageAs hundreds of millions of people around the world prepare to celebrate Christmas, spare more than a thought for the Christians of the Middle East, for many of whom 2014 has been a dire year. Two of the most vibrant Christian communities, in Iraq and Syria, have been traumatised by violent conflict, dispossession and displacement. And in Israel/Palestine, the fount of the faith, Christians are feeling under ever greater pressure to leave. The brutal Israeli onslaught on Gaza may be over, but its effects are still there, and in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem Christians and Muslims alike continue to suffer from the excesses of the occupying forces and the more extreme fringe of Israeli “settlers”. The symbolic confrontation between Palestinians dressed as Santa Claus and IDF soldiers has become almost ritualistic, but there is nothing joyful in the real gulf that still separates the people in the Holy Land. The rise of ISIS has undoubtedly made things worse across the Middle East and North Africa as a whole, but no one actor in the region’s turmoil is to blame alone. If Christians are to have a future in the Middle East, as they should, along with the other two Abrahamic faiths, then there needs to be a massive change of heart among political and religious leaders, as well as ordinary people, and an acknowledgement that what unites us all should be much stronger than that which divides.

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21 Responses to “Little Christmas Joy in the Middle East”

  1. so sad for me as an assyrian to see my assyrian nation (christians in iraq) being masscred,deported and sold as sexslaves by isis. I hope for peace in iraq, all the people of iraq need peace and help.

    Take a rare glimpse into the lives of the Assyrians after the ISIS attacks in Iraq: http://vimeo.com/112613760
    Documentary “the last plight” by sargon saadi.

    The Assyrians – A people without rights:

    http://www.atour.com/media/files/organization/IAIGO/IAIGO-2014–The-Assyrians-A-People-Without-Rights–English.pdf

    Who are the Assyrians and what are the Nineveh Plains:

    http://www.algemeiner.com/2014/09/19/who-are-the-assyrians-and-what-are-the-nineveh-plains/

  2. […] 11. Little Christmas joy in the Middle East by Jonathan Fryer on Jonathan Fryer. The outlook is pretty grim at the end of a terrible year. […]

  3. Thanks, Jonathan. Are you able to link to any news, comment or statistics that lend authority to your assertion that Christians are under ever greater pressure to leave Israel? This piece (http://www.jpost.com/National-News/CBS-report-Christian-population-in-Israel-growing) suggests otherwise, and I note also that you make no mention of how Christians are treated by the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas regime in Gaza. Surely Israel is the only country in the Middle East and North Africa to enjoy religious freedom, in contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia, where to be a Christian is a criminal offence?

  4. jonathanfryer said

    Hi Matthew, I am sure you are aware of how many Arab families are being squeezed out of East Jerusalem. Perhaps for clarity I should have said “Israel and the Occupied territories”. Naturally I condemn the religious intolerance, against Christians and others, in various Arab state in the Middle East/Gulf. One of the few relatively bright spots in the region is Iraqi Kurdistan, which has acted as a haven for many Christians fleeing other parts of Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. What I find really tragic, as well as reprehensible, is the move away from the natural religious diversity of the Middle East towards increasing segmentation by faith or sect in different countries or areas, including parts of Palestine.

  5. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/middle-east/15956-israel-is-strangling-christmas-but-does-the-west-care
    I have posted this article in response to Matthew. It is an oft repeated fact that it is the occupation and not Islam that is driving the Palestinian Christians out of both Israel and the West Bank.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwHVPMq6vpQ. I also attach a video I took of my interview with Mar Elias Chacour who was an Archbishop in the Melkite Church in Northern Israel until February 2014. Listen to what he has to say carefully and judge for yourself.

    • jonathanfryer said

      Thank you, Miranda. Very helpful.

    • Thanks, Miranda. I hear what you say about the West Bank, but, in terms of Israel proper (i.e. within Israel’s pre-1967 borders), what do you mean when you refer to “driving the Palestinian Christians out of…Israel”? Christians really are being massacred and driven out in many countries in the Middle East today, and nothing remotely like that is happening in Israel: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_Israel Even the situation in the West Bank does not remotely stand comparison with what ISIS is doing.

      • ISIS has little to do with Islam for start. ISIS is a political product of terrible empire building foreign policy on the past of the West. The modern history began in 1916 with the Sykes/Picot Agreement that divided much of the Middle East between Britain and France and came into force at the demise of the Ottoman Empire in 1922. That was followed by the repercussions of the Balfour Declaration with carved up Palestine. Israel may say that Christians within Israel are not suffering, but just looking at the example of Elias Chacour, He lived in a Christian Palestinian village in the North of Israel called Birem. He was thrown out of his village in 1948 and although the villagers managed to remain in what became Israel, Israel destroyed the village to prevent them returning to it and the villagers are still arguing in the courts over the remains of their village. Elias Chacour began a school and then colleges and a university in Ibellin in Northern Israel close to Nazareth. He accepted students of all faiths and his education became famous. Israel has taken what small state support away from them and indeed any non-Jewish educational establishments also fail to get any financial support from the state despite taxes etc. I interviewed the church warden of the Anglican Church in Nazareth. He described how Nazareth is being surrounded by Jewish settlements and how Israeli Christians are losing land to new settlements. Christians in Israel (I mean the original ones) are diminishing. The priests are spat on as a daily occurrence, the monasteries and churches are defiled by Jewish extremists etc. Israel is proud that other forms of Christianity are increasing so they say. The forms of Christianity that are growing are Zionist Christians who believe that the Second Coming of Christ will come when the 12 tribes of Israel are gathered into Eretz (Greater) Israel and then the Jews will be converted or destroyed. Sounds anti-Semitic, yet they join forces with jewish and political Zionism who also want to see the 12 Tribes of Israel return to Greater Israel for the coming of the Messiah! So we have many of these Christian Zionists living in the USA and providing a lot of money within Israel and the West Bank for Jewish settlements. They have little regard for the original Christians who live in an oppressive and precarious situation, just a little better than those who are still trying to live in the West Bank, which includes East Jerusalem, because East jerusalem is still as much Palestine as the rest of the West Bank and Gaza.
        What has any of this to do with ISIS?. Well the historic foreign policies followed by the war on Terror and the continued oppression of the Palestinians has been a very dangerous and counter-productive policy in the Middle East. ISIS is a product of a failed foreign policy that imagines that if you bomb enough people they will do your bidding rather than grow nastier and more extreme by the minute. The West has created ISIS in the same way that it created most of the current problems in the Middle East. Thankfully ISIS is not yet in Palestine, but in the same way that Israel tried to destroy Fatah by helping to create Hamas to divide the Palestinians, it is trying to destroy Hamas and each time Israel or the West tries to destroy yet again they just increase the antagonism and despair and people without hope become more extreme than ever. AND in the meantime Israel is trying to destroy the Bedouin within Israel and so it goes on.
        Does that answer you at all?

      • Thanks, Miranda. The word “bias” implies that I am supposed to be an unbiased commentator – I am not. I am a political activist, as are you, and your own involvement with anti-Israel campaign groups suggests that you do not lack bias either.

        Christians in Israel do not face violence or discrimination.

      • I have found that the difference between my so-called bias and that of those who blindly support Israel no matter what their behaviour to others, is that I believe in equality, human rights, autonomy and security for all living in the areas of land known as Israel and Palestine. I find the idea that I am biased towards only one side when what I want is for all to be treated the same is rather odd! I find that when challenged the bias of those who blindly support Israel lacks that sort of equality for those who are not Israeli Jews, whether in Israel itself or in land currently occupied and oppressed by that country. I want to see a secure, autonomous and successful Israel living side-by-side with a secure, autonomous and successful Palestine. Israel has never tried being a good neighbour to the Palestinians so cannot claim that its treatment of them is for purely security reasons especially as it largely consists of stealing Palestinian land and resources and treating everyone except Jews as second-class citizens in both Israel and elsewhere. So my bias if equality for both sides………. What is yours?

  6. Thanks, Miranda, you have said nothing to justify your claim that Christians are being driven out of Israel, for the simple reason that it cannot be justified, as it is not even slightly true. Nazareth is not in tje Occupied Palestinian Territories; it is in Israel proper and is home to thriving Christian communities (http://www.goisrael.com/tourism_eng/tourist%20information/discover%20israel/cities/pages/nazareth.aspx) that are beyond the wildest dreams of Christians living in any other country in the Middle East and North Africa.

    I do not know what you mean when you say that Nazareth is increasingly surrounded by “Jewish settlements”, given that Nazareth is in Israel proper, well within Israel’s undisputed, internationally recognised, pre-1967 borders – is there nowhere in Israel that Jews can live without your labelling their communities as “settlements”?

    Re:- funding for education, http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_Israel makes clear that Israeli Christians are more (not less) well-educated than other groups in Israel. Israel has universal, compulsory state education for all school-age pupils (apart from those pupils whose parents choose to send them to private schools) and that would apply as much to Christian pupils as to any other pupils – so Christian pupils’ schooling is paid for by the taxpayer, contrary to your suggestion otherwise.

    • I gave the example of Nazareth because it IS in Israel. Compared to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Christians are doing a lot better, but are hardly thriving. You seemed to have ignored the direct testimony of the 2 Christians I quoted and have you actually been there yourself? Do you just work with Israeli tourist propaganda? When I speak of settlements , I mean Jewish only settlements that do not allow Arabs, Christian or not, to live. I speak of areas where all modern services are provided, the schools properly funded and the roads repaired. Compare that with the more traditional Arab areas. The church where I live is sending extra money to the the Elias Chacour schools because all state funding has been withdrawn. Who is not telling the truth I ask you? He told me that himself. Do you only get your information via Israel or do you try to get independent information from those living in the area?
      Until recently the Christians and Jews in many Middle Eastern countries also thrived. What changed that? I gave you the answer in my last post.

      • Thanks, Miranda, could you please provide some evidence to back up your claim that “Jews Only” communities are being developed near Nazareth? If you, Miranda, went to live in, say, Tel Aviv and bought a building and opened it as a Christian church, nobody would stop you. Israel is one country in the Middle East in which a Christian could safely, legally do that – can you name a second? I can’t. At a time when Christians really are being slaughtered and driven out from countries across the Middle East, you choose to falsely claim that they are being “driven out” of Israel, a country in which Christians live as free and equal citizens. You also refer to Jews having “recently” thrived in many Middle Eastern countries – where? http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_exodus_from_Arab_and_Muslim_countries Your definition of “recently” must be a little different from mine.

      • Here is a quote from a letter from Elias Chacour in July 2014:
        ‘Presently the school is doing as fine as things could be fine. We face the very serious problem of drastic cuts from the meager subsidy the state gives us. This year the cuts were 19% of the budget. This makes things extremely complicated as we need to pay the monthly salaries for teachers. This cut leaves us with a monthly deficit of at least 250 thousand shekel (approx. £42,790). The only way to manage this situation would be to raise the
        tuition fee the parents pay. This is a complex situation. Some parents have a problem paying the tuition fee we have already imposed on them. If we raise the tuition fee, many among the parents would become our enemies. Why should we allow ourselves to become the enemies of those we try to help? There is no alternative but to reduce the hours of learning in the school. This obliges us to send the children home at around eleven in the
        morning (school starts at 8am). Meanwhile their mates at the governmental schools are given enough subsidies to keep the children until 14.30 pm. We are confused, what to do?
        By the way, this is not solely a problem for MEEI but for all the Christian schools alike in Galilee. There is a sharing of the problems together and even a contemplation either to go on into strikes or to close some schools. There is yet no final resolution of what to do.’
        Is he lying?
        The information about the Jewish only settlements in many areas of Israel is well known and the new laws will enshrine such a situation as part of the identity of Israel as a Nation, though hardly a democratic one.
        http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/high-above-nazareth-an-israeli-mayor-wants-to-keep-his-city-jewish-now-and-forever/2013/09/19/1a3fd172-2157-11e3-ad1a-1a919f2ed890_story.html. This from 2013 gives a small flavour of what I have described.

      • Thanks, Jonathan.

        Amnesty’s most recent Country Report for Egypt, re:- Coptic Christians, says:

        “At the end of January, three Coptic families from Sharbat village, Alexandria, were forcibly evicted from their homes by Muslims who suspected a Coptic man of possessing “indecent” images of a Muslim woman. Crowds attacked Copts’ homes and businesses. Village “reconciliation meetings” decided that the Coptic man and his extended family, as well as five neighbouring Coptic families, should leave the village and have their possessions sold on their behalf. The police did not intervene to protect the Copts from the attacks or forced eviction. Following a visit by a parliamentary delegation, only the five Coptic families unconnected to the original dispute were able to return.”

        For Kuwait, it says:

        “Prisoner of conscience Hamad al-Naqi, a member of the Shi’a Muslim minority, was arrested in April and sentenced in June to 10 years in prison with hard labour. He was convicted of posting Twitter messages criticizing the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and for “insulting” Islam. His appeal was ongoing at the end of the year.”

        I could go on to cite further examples of the appalling lack of religious freedom in all of the countries that you cite, especially in comparison to Israel.

        Israel’s Arab communities and other minorities (including minority faith groups and LGBT people) live in a Parliamentary democracy and enjoy rights that are unparallelled across the Middle East. Many democracies have full civil equality for minorities, without full social equality. The UK is one such democracy. Israel is another. In terms of the efforts that are being made to improve the situation in Israel in this regard, have a look at: http://www.uktaskforce.org/

        Indeed, Happy New Year

      • Matthew, are you suggesting that because you can find much worse examples of religious intolerance right now in Middle Eastern countries other than in Israel, that means that everything is fine for Christians in Israel? Based on that argument my theft should be allowed as I was not as violent in my actions as the other person?! Israel’s responses are longer term and more subtle, which does not make it a great country for Palestinian Christians even though they are ‘currently’ better off than those in Syria or Iraq etc. It is a rather spurious argument. Israel likes to present itself as a moral, superior, Western style democracy in the Middle East. The countries you keep citing do not make such claims about themselves and are in a very different situation to that of Israel. Not really a like for like comparison on any basis.

  7. jonathanfryer said

    Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country where a Christian church is verboten, Matthew — and rightly deserves condemnation for that. I have been to newly-built or converted churches in Bahrain and Kuwait, and of course Lebanon, Jordan, Syria (until recent traumas), Egypt and Palestine itself, to mention but five, have Christian communities, buildings and endowments. However, I am, as you know, very concerned about the pressure Christians nonetheless feel under in some of those states, not least Egypt.

    When I talk to Arab Christian friends from Israel, they are especially worried these days by the implications of the Basic Law, which, if it goes through, will, they feel, formalise their status as second class citizens as non-Jews.

    Linda Jack has done a lot of work with groups dealing with Israel’s Arab and Beduin minorities, so could doubtless point you in the direction of relevant material (which I don’t have to hand here in South America).

    I am sure we all agree that it is important to have accurate information and that we apply our standards regarding human rights etc universally, irrespective of race and creed.

    Best wishes for the New Year!

    • I somehow managed to post my reponse to Jonathan’s latest comment to appear before Jonathan’s comment instead of before it, thus appearing to have responded to his comments before he had actually made them, which is some doing even for a Liberal, but hopefully it still makes sense despite that

      • Thanks, Miranda, my argument is that your suggestion that Christians are being driven out of Israel is a calumny, and a particularly egregious calumny at a time when Christians really ARE being driven out of several other Middle Eastern countries.

      • So Matthew you are making the illogical deduction that I suggested in my previous posting. Your argument is that because one kind of discrimination and violence is not as bad as another, it can be dismissed as acceptable even though you are not comparing like for like?! You have chosen to ignore the direct evidence I have given even though it contradicts what you stated at the start. I find this sort of argument just spurious and ill-considered, in fact I would go so far as to say that it is an attempt to justify the unjustifiable and unacceptable and shows an unreasoned bias.

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