During John Paul II’s jubilee pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I spent a week in Jerusalem with NBC News. After one morning staff meeting to plan the day’s coverage, a producer from WNBC in New York asked me if I thought the Holy Father would apologize for the Crusades. I replied that, while I hadn’t a clue about John Paul’s intentions, if I were the pope, I’d apologize for losing the Crusades. She was a bit taken aback.
I then explained that the Holy Land had been a Christian territory for centuries, until it was conquered by the armies of Islam — and that the Crusades began in part as a response to Muslim marauders who were raping, robbing, and murdering Christian pilgrims. As for what winning the Crusades might have meant, did my WNBC friend really think the Middle East was better off today because Islamic regimes of various sorts had been in charge throughout the second millennium?
Those conversations came to mind recently as concerns over the dwindling Christian population in the Holy Land have led to criticism of Israel, and particularly the security fence being built to separate the State of Israel from the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). And there are surely things to criticize on that front, including the way Israel handles visas for Christians from the P.A. who want to come to Christian holy places in Israel for Holy Week and Easter. But is that all there is to the story?
That the Christian holy places in the Middle East might, for the first time in history, become religious museums — places without living Christian communities — is a very real and very unhappy possibility. Christian populations are plummeting throughout the region; but the Christian population of Israel is increasing. That alone suggests that the situation is more complicated than sometimes suggested.
Why are Christians leaving Arab Islamic lands? Economic pressures are perhaps the most important reason. While there is no legal discrimination against Christians in the Palestinian Authority, there is discrimination nonetheless — discrimination aimed at creating an Islamic Palestine free of any notable Christian presence. As I was told in 2000, Christians can’t buy land or other forms of property in the P.A., not because of the law, but because it just isn’t done, and everyone knows that doing so means retribution. So the economic pressure on Christian families increases to the point where, in order to survive, they emigrate.
There are other reasons for Christian emigration from the Middle East, however, and they were brought to light by a courageous Washington Post article by Nina Shea, who directs the religious freedom program at Freedom House, America’s oldest human rights organization. Freedom House obtained and translated copies of the textbooks used in Saudi Arabian schools — and exported elsewhere. In those textbooks, first graders are taught that “every religion other than Islam is false.” Fifth graders are informed that “it is forbidden for a Muslim to be a loyal friend to someone who does not believe in God and His Prophet, or someone who fights the religion of Islam.” Eighth graders learn that “the apes are Jews, the people of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christians, the infidels of the communion of Jesus.” Eleventh grades are warned that “the greeting, ‘Peace be upon you,’ is specifically for believers; it cannot be said to others.” And, as they complete high school, twelfth-graders are taught that “jihad in the path of God … is the summit of Islam,” because “this religion arose through jihad and through jihad was its banner raised high.” (As I had tried to explain to the WNBC producer…)
And all of this, mind you, is in textbooks that Saudi authorities insist have been scoured of expressions of religious intolerance, which a Saudi royal commission had acknowledged to be a problem.
Is that a neighborhood you’d like to live in? Or try to practice your Christian faith in? Christian emigration from the Holy Land is a serious problem. Let’s keep the primary source of the problem in focus.