President Reuven Rivlin and the leaders of the Christian communities in Israel, Dec. 30, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/GPO) (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“I was never once discriminated against as a Christian living in Israel,” says Lela Gilbert.

By: Lela Gilbert, Exclusive to United with Israel

A recent article, “Christians no longer welcome in Israel – Land confiscated for Israeli settlements,” (no author’s name is provided) was originally published by ANA Newswire on July 23, 2018.

It was later forwarded to United with Israel.

The writer asserts that Palestinian Christians are being deprived of free worship at their holy sites. Furthermore, we are told, their population is diminishing because of Israel’s discriminatory actions against Christians.

As for the land confiscation? That subject isn’t addressed at all in the article – that’s most likely because it’s not true.

I am an American Christian woman who lived for more than 10 years in Jerusalem, departing in 2017.  Not only do I have more than a decade of experience in relations between Israelis and Christians, I am also a researcher and writer who has frequently written about these issues.

The accusations in the ANA article are not unfamiliar – they are entirely recognizable as typical, poorly-documented anti-Israel propaganda. I will provide further information about that in a moment.

But for now, let me say that I was never once discriminated against as a Christian living in Israel. I was required, as are all non-Israeli residents, to regularly update my visitors’ visa, and at times that meant providing documentation about my income, work and the lease on my apartment.

All civilized nations require similar documentation if not more.

Meanwhile, the accusations made that Christians cannot easily access their holy sites is simply untrue. There are two key factors missing from the ANA article.

Israel Made Jerusalem Accessible to Everyone

First, it is essential to note that until Israel won the rights to east Jerusalem – following their victory in the 1967 War/Six Day War – neither Christians nor Jews were able to visit any sites there, holy or otherwise, without specific permission from the Jordanian government.

Unlike today, there was no freedom whatsoever – for either Israeli residents or tourists, Jewish or Christian – to stroll peaceably through the Jaffa Gate and wander either into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Christian Quarter, or to visit the synagogues in the Jewish quarter.

First of all, the synagogues were all gone – blown to bits by the Jordanians.

Second, there was a no-man’s-land military zone between the Old City of Jerusalem and the western, Israeli sector of the city. Passage from one place to another made even the most pious and innocent pilgrimage impossible.

Barriers – Protection from Terrorism

So what is the article complaining about? Here’s what the author writes:

“….A Catholic pastor described how during Easter, one of the holiest times of the year for Christians, the sacred Church of the Holy Sepulcher – a site central to Jesus’s death, crucifixion and resurrection – resembles a military barracks. Barriers are set up in the early hours of the morning to keep people out of the courtyard of the Church.

Israeli army officers are present around the gates of the Old City and passages that lead to the Holy Sepulchre, as well as inside the Church itself and on its roof. These measures restrict freedom of movement for Palestinians, preventing Palestinian Christians from worshipping at the Church during this auspicious period. Even priests are not allowed to move freely.”

Now why, the writer seems to wonder, would a military presence, barriers and crowd control measures be in place?

To anyone who lives in Israel, it is very obvious: police and military, barriers and crowd control are meant to avoid terrorist attacks in crowded places. They are intended to protect pilgrims and other visitors from assault.

All visitors – Americans, Europeans, Russians, Africans, East Asians and Palestinian Christians – have to get in line and submit to moving slowly.

If there had been no Arab attacks on Jews from the time of Israel’s Independence in 1948 until now; if there had been no first Intifada in the 1990s; if there had been no second Intifada, beginning in 2000 – when more than a thousand Israelis were killed – there might well be no need for such carefully planned defenses.

The same is true for passage from Bethlehem and other cities that are under Palestinian Authority control into the State of Israel. Permits are required.

This, too, is due to terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians – not only in holy sites, but in cafes, hotels, shopping areas and any other places where people congregate.

It is unfortunate that such complicated steps have to be taken, but this is reality. And it is based on repeated incidents of bloodshed perpetrated by Arab terrorists – most all of them Muslim radicals.

Everyone pays the price for their misdeeds – including peaceful Muslims.

Christians Flee From Palestinian Territories

As for the rest of the article’s complaints, specifically regarding the departure of Christians from the Palestinian territories, with the permission of the Philos Project, I will quote my own article “Jerusalem Notebook: The Silent Struggle of Bethlehem’s Christians.”

For those who are interested, the following goes to some length to address those very issues.

Monday, August 1, 2016

It’s a surprisingly short drive from West Jerusalem to Bethlehem – 10 or 15 minutes, at the most. But on a hot summer night a couple of weeks ago, it felt like I had traveled light-years, setting out from a bustling city-center Jerusalem neighborhood and arriving at a modest home in a quiet Bethlehem village.

In my mind, the leafy, well-lit street from which I departed was quickly juxtaposed with my gloomy destination. I flashed back to a journey I had made from West to East Berlin in the late 1980s. Back then, the Stasi (East German secret police) were the threat.

Today in Bethlehem, it’s the Islamists.

After the guards glanced at our United States passports, my American friends and I were waved through the checkpoint that separates Israel from King David’s ancient hometown.

Upon our arrival, the wariness of our hosts also felt eerily familiar to me. I could almost read their minds: “Who saw them come into our house? Who might be listening? Can we trust these friends-of-friends?”

For me, having visited Berlin before its infamous wall came down, the mood was reminiscent of the bad old days: Life behind the Iron Curtain.

My friends and I spent time with, among others, a Christian woman and her small family. I wish I could tell you her name. And I would like very much to describe her circumstances – her needs, her struggle to keep financially afloat and her family’s specific fears.

I also wish I could use real names when I write about other Bethlehem Christians – those I’ve met and those I’ve heard about through trustworthy friends.

Why can’t I name names or cite locations? Because the slightest hint that Bethlehem’s Christians are “informing outsiders” about the troubles they face might very well endanger them, not to mention their friends and family members.

Who is to Blame for the Tension?

Today, much of the tension in Bethlehem and elsewhere in Judea and Samaria is blamed on the “Israeli occupation” and the security fence.

In some places, including Bethlehem, there is indeed a formidable military wall – also reminiscent of Berlin – officially called the “West Bank Barrier.” It divides Arab communities from the Israeli population.

It is true that the wall is an encumbrance on the people who live behind it. It is an eyesore and, in some places, has taken a heavy toll on business and commerce.

The checkpoints into Israel can be a nuisance. This is particularly so since Arabs and Israelis alike were able to come and go without restrictions until the ill-starred Oslo Peace Accords robbed them of their freedom of movement.

But the security wall has also saved Israeli lives. It was erected during the Second Intifada, during which a seemingly endless barrage of exploding buses, pizza shops, cafes and other public venues devastated Israel for well over three years, costing more than 1,000 lives.

It is widely reported that after the West Bank Barrier was constructed, the number of suicide bombings decreased by more than 90 percent.

Today, terrorism continues in Israel, but it wears a different face.

Palestinians primarily target soldiers and religious Jews who live in settlements. These attacks are sporadic and unpredictable, involving stabbing with knives or machetes, vehicles ramming groups at bus stops or the stoning and firebombing of cars and buses. One recent attack on a chic Tel Aviv café involved firearms.

Since September 2015, 40 people have been killed in these terrorist attacks and 517 people have been injured.

As for the security barrier, when the Palestinian cry of “Tear down this wall!” is heard in Israel, the response is defiant: “Stop the terrorism or forget about it.”

Palestinian Christian Population Diminishing

In the meantime, it is quite clear that the West Bank’s Christian population is diminishing. In 2013, Rosanna Rafel reported that “in British-mandated Palestine, before the establishment of Israel in 1948, the percentage of the Christian population stood at 18 percent. This figure has now dwindled to under 1.5 percent.”

This plummeting Christian population is invariably blamed on the “Israeli occupation.” But if this is so, why isn’t the Muslim population diminishing too?

Christians are escaping the West Bank because of anti-Christian persecution.

In Bethlehem, Christians are not just a minority population in an overwhelmingly Muslim community. They aren’t simply marginalized; they don’t just suffer discrimination. Too often, they are threatened and intimidated; injured or even killed. They are cautious. They are uneasy. Many of them live in fear.

In the March 2016 issue of Providence Magazine, The Philos Project Executive Director Robert Nicholson wrote a persuasive article, “Why are Palestinian Christians Fleeing?”

He explained that “the Palestinian Authority – the government created by the PLO to manage the West Bank and Gaza – is, by its own constitution, an Islamic state that embodies the principles of sharia.”

Christians living under the PA are “accorded sanctity and respect,” but, as is the case under all sharia-based systems, Christians are relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Of course, it is illegal to convert from Islam to Christianity. Let’s not even mention the fact that sale of land to Jews is a crime punishable by death.

Discrimination against Christians under the Palestinian Authority isn’t just legal – it’s also social. Living as a Christian, one is constantly reminded that he or she is not a member of the majority culture.

Bethlehem’s Christians are at risk of being detained by authorities based on vague accusations. An “interview” with local officials may lead to stern threats or, even more frightening, to an arrest on trumped-up charges.

During our visit in Bethlehem, my friends and I spoke to a workman – we’ll call him George – who does outdoor maintenance near a Bethlehem school. This year, despite an intense heat wave, and notwithstanding the fact that he is not Muslim, he was angrily threatened with physical harm for publicly drinking a bottle of water during Ramadan.

Elsewhere, we heard about a Christian property owner who had rented an apartment to a Muslim family. When the rent came due, the new tenants refused to pay. This continued for months. The local authorities were alerted, but they simply shrugged. “Nothing we can do about that,” they said. “Our hands are tied.”

In recent years, several church properties in Bethlehem have been vandalized, set ablaze or invaded by violent intruders during celebrations or worship services. PA law enforcement usually arrives long after the emergency call is made – if at all.

In a recent tragedy, a young man suffering from mental retardation and who lives in a Christian village (one of his friends refers to him as “a blessed boy”) heard offensive anti-Christian statements emanating from a local mosque.

Infuriated, he shouted an insult to Muslims.

Later, he posted something equally anti-Islamic on Facebook.

A few days later, the “blessed boy” vanished.

At the time of this writing, he has been missing for more than three months. His family is utterly traumatized, afraid to approach the local authorities. They fear both devastating news and deadly retaliation.

We ourselves were blessed, listening and learning from the Christians we visited. Meeting us was an act of great courage on their part. For us, it was an extraordinary opportunity.

As Nicholson wrote,

I’ve spoken to numerous Palestinian Christians who describe how Muslim terrorists would commandeer Christian homes and use them to direct sniper fire on Israeli soldiers. Others speak of systematic discrimination in hiring, housing and education. Of course, all of these conversations take place in private meetings and hushed tones.

Christians in Bethlehem rarely interact with Muslims beyond the marketplace, and are, in fact, very much afraid. But in public, Palestinian Christians equate their situation with that of their Muslim neighbors and laud the happy coexistence between the two groups.

They don’t have a choice.

They are hostages inside their own city.

* * *

Lela Gilbert writes a weekly Faith and Freedom column for Newsmax. She is an internationally recognized expert on religious persecution, an award-winning writer, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute who lived in Jerusalem for over a decade. Her book “Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner” received wide critical acclaim. She is also co-author of “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians,” and “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion.” Follow her on Twitter @lelagilbert.