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'60 Minutes' report on Palestinian Christians gets it wrong

Palestinian Christians are no different than other Palestinians. We all suffer the same.

There have already been a number of articles written in response to CBS’s 60 Minutes report about Christians in the Holy Land. The sexy story in all this appears to be Michael Oren’s interview with Bob Simon of 60 Minutes, and the attempt by Israel, its embassy in the United States and syndicate of lobbying groups to prevent the report in some capacity from airing.

The real story told in this piece has been to some degree overshadowed by the Michael Oren story, but also lacks appeal because it does not ultimately stray too far from the accepted argument about why Palestinian Christians are leaving the Holy Land—only enough to make the Israeli government sweat and overreact in characteristic fashion.

While the report makes some good points and does counter the argument that Palestinian Christians are fleeing solely as a response to Muslim fanaticism and persecution, I still feel that the overall message of this piece is that Palestinian Christendom is being squeezed out of Palestine because of a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims—which is altogether false.

The piece does not properly identify Christians as a seamless part of the Palestinian population, which faces persecution from Israel without prejudice to religion—rather Christians are portrayed as the “collateral damage” of this inter-religious conflict between Muslims and Jews.

Contrary to this portrayal, Palestinian Christians are an integral part of the Palestinian people and have been at the forefront of the movement for national liberation. From the earliest days until now, Palestinian Christians have comprised many of Palestinian nationalism’s intellectual pioneers, advocates and political leaders—not the hapless minority caught up in a struggle in which they have no part, as this piece portrays them as being.

Taking a closer look at the meat and bones of Bob Simon’s report, we see that even though every Palestinian Christians interviewed in the piece point to Israeli occupation and not Islamic extremism as the root of the exodus, Simon still insists on drawing the conclusion that Islam is at play in the flight of Christians.

Truly there are historical tensions between religious communities in Palestine, as there are in countries throughout the world. Some of the worst of these tensions are actually between different Christian denominations inside Jerusalem. But the true culprit in this tragic phenomenon that is emptying the birthplace of Christianity from its indigenous adherents is a political battle being waged on all Palestinians alike, irrespective of religion.

Both Palestinian Muslims and Christians must go through the same arduous procedures to obtain permits to visit their holy sites in Jerusalem. Both suffer the endless growth of Jewish settlements, home evictions and demolitions, mass imprisonment, the circuitous route of the wall and the daily torment of living under occupation–not to mention the Nakba.

Yet Simon continues to frame the Christians as “squeezed between a growing Muslim majority and Israeli settlements.”

Even those elements of the occupation that put pressure on Christians to leave the country, such as the separation barrier, are portrayed as byproducts of that conflict and an outcome of Israel’s need to protect its citizens from Islamic terrorism.

Juxtaposed with Ambassador Oren’s statement that although the checkpoints are inconvenient for Palestinians, Israel needs to do what it must to survive (“it’s their inconvenience, it’s our survival”)—Simon posits the endangering of Palestinian Christian culture, the threat to which is the growing Muslim majority. “The veil is replacing the cross,” he narrates ironically as a Christian nun with a veil walks by in the following shot. In other words, while Israelis face a threat to their livelihood, Palestinian Christians face a threat to their culture brought on by the Muslim majority, as if it is Israelis that have the exponentially higher death toll as a result of this conflict and not Palestinians.

It is difficult to understand where Bob Simon gets his conclusion, given that every one he interviews except for Ari Shavit (and obviously Michael Oren), would counter this claim. Yet even Sharit’s second comment to Simon says, “Israel is not persecuting Christians as Christians. The Christians in the Holy Land suffer from Israeli policies that are a result of the overall tragic situation.”

Palestinians of all stripes face the Israeli occupation and colonial enterprise together. Some are leaving. Others remain steadfast.

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    1. A colleague in Bethlehem has just this minute shared a story about a Christian bus driver and tour guide from Beit Sahour, who faces bankruptcy because restrictions on his movement mean that he can’t get enough work even to cover his costs. It’s relevant here:
      “Today I spoke with the owner of a bus company in Beit Sahour. He faces bankruptcy because he cannot any more pay the Dutch and Belgian companies from whom he had bought the buses against ‘soft’ long-term paying conditions. He and his (Christian) family now plan to leave the country. The churches couldn’t help him. He got the buses at the end of the 1990s when the expectation was that peace would arrive and free traveling become possible. But with the elaborate checkpoint imprisonment system during and after the second Intifada he lost the competition from the Israeli buses. He told that during the 1970s he was held by the Israeli army for three years in ‘administrative detention,’ without court proceedings and without charge. A danger to the state.”
      The idea of Christians being put in admin. detention, denied work, having their kids arrested, getting their homes demolished – all this is widely unknown outside Palestine, and I think the CBS documentary was useful in that it gave a platform for these Christians to make themselves heard, in their own words. But overall I agree with your analysis.

      Reply to Comment
    2. the other joe

      I did make this point on the other thread.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Leen

      Unfortunately, 60 minutes forget that in the 1970s and 1960s, Christians participated in resistance against Israel. Afterall, George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh were raised as Christians. And after all PFLP and DFLP had Christian and Muslim members.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Mahidere

      I have been living in Israel for a while now and I have been to Bethlehem and Taybeh many times. Avi Shavit’s explanation is what is palatable to me with my experience in Israel. True, christian Palestinians face, like all Palestinians, problems arising from the conflict although some say that the fact that they are Christians earns them slightly better treatment at check points, for example. However, to deny that Palestinian Christians’s worst danger comes from political Islam is complete denial of reality. Just talk to the Christians in Bethelhem and Taybeh and you will get the whole picture. It is very understandable why they won’t air their views about political Islam in public. How else can one explain the hugely disproportionate decrease in the number of Christians in Bethlehem? On a related note, I believe non-Palestinian Christians should not take position on non-religious aspects of the situation. They should not endorse Palestinian/Jewish nationalism. They should ask of both sides tolerance of the christian population and stop there.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Michael W.

      Why is the Christian population in the West Bank declining while the Muslim population is growing? Do they not suffer under the occupation equally? Do the Christians have opprotunities to leave that the Muslims don’t? Does the occupation oppress them more?

      Reply to Comment
    6. Michael W., think birthrates. Statistics are difficult to find, but it’s not exactly a secret that the average Palestinian Christian marries later and has fewer children than the average Palestinian Muslim. And this, among other factors, leaves them with more money to help the children they do have emigrate.

      Reply to Comment
    7. the other joe

      @Michael, I discussed this in the other thread. Palestinian Christian families often have more investments and own businesses (it seems) and therefore more ability to move out. I don’t know why this would be different to the Muslim community, – possibly just that many Muslims have also left, but there were more of them in the first place.

      Reply to Comment
    8. palestinian

      Michael W :in reply to your “smart” question : The birth rate (most importantly),the baseline percentage (1948) ,connections with the Western world (num1 destination) (family members , churches, programs….)Now on a practical level :immigration requirements such as money(visa,ticket,accommodation,..),the visa itself (property ownership,education, bank account,criminal record “will the USA allow a Palestinian ex-convict (by Israel) to step a foot on its soil?!! (unless he/she collaborates with their spoiled daughter and preaches anti-Palestine/Islam hasbara,its easier for a young single man to immigrate than a father with 4-5 children (marriage age difference),the idea of leaving your extended family and people isn’t comprehensible to a large percentage of people ,Muslims tend to be more conservative ,religious people refuse the western lifestyle ,and mathematically if you have 100 people ,10 Christians (10%) 90 Muslims (90%) if 4 left the group ,2 Muslims and 2 Christians ,the result will be 8.3% vs 91.67% 

      Reply to Comment
    9. Oscar Shank

      It’s true all Arabs in Israeli-controlled land suffer equally under the Israeli jackboot. But let’s face reality; if you live in the USA, you know complaining about the plight of the Palestinians generally gets no traction at all with the American people who have been led by the MSM & congress bought by AIPAC to conflate all Arabs with terrorism–even while denying it. The only Christian Americans who have been given free rein to discuss Israel are the Protestant fundies, e.g., Hagee’s followers, Christian Zionists. #60Minutes deserves credit for breaking this taboo and at least allowing everyday Americans to hear the view of the Christian Palestinians, which the Hagee sect totally ignores. The 60Minuts segment joins the Methodists in Tampa now, traditionalists finally tackling the sujbect of rogue Israel enabled by US $.

      Reply to Comment
    10. the other joe

      @Mahidere, I have also spoken to many Christians in the West Bank, particularly in Bethlehem – and most tell me that they do not feel discriminated by Palestinian Muslims.
      I’m curious how you managed to visit Bethlehem and speak to Palestinian Christians if you’ve been living in Israel. Are you an Israeli citizen? If so, how did you get permission to visit Area A? If not, how did you get permission to stay for an extended period of time?

      Reply to Comment
    11. Mahidere

      @THE OTHER JOE, I am an expatriate and I am an Orthodox Christian. Political/militant Islam destroys other minority religious groups in several countries – has happened and is happening. There is no place for tolerance in political/militant Islam – not at least in the kind that is spreading like wild fire – Salafism!

      Reply to Comment
    12. Kolumn9

      This article is about 20 years late. When Arab nationalism was secular and socialist the Christians were a core part of it. That is the reason why they joined and created such communist leaning factions such as the DFLP and the PFLP. They were sponsored by the Soviet Union, Iraq, Syria, East Germany and other socialist bloc states. Those are all gone. Now Islamism is on the rise in the region and the Christians are left out and are marginal in Palestinian politics. This true of the Christians of other Middle Eastern states, like Egypt and Iraq. How does a Christian identify with a state that defines itself as Islamic?

      In Palestine, Christians currently have no role to play in the struggle against Israel other than as token mascots for Islamist tolerance. It is certainly true that they have better chances of leaving, but it doesn’t explain their willingness to leave. The naked truth is that the Christian Palestinian population is demotivated and has broken under the stress of conflict and is leaving en masse. I wish them the best of luck in their new homes.

      Reply to Comment
    13. delia ruhe

      The thing your critiquing is called “balance,” Omar. It’s the MSM’s stock in trade. Helluvalotta good it did CBS: they’ve had thousands of irate emails about the piece anyway. Simon might just as well have told the whole truth.


      “it’s their inconvenience, it’s our survival”

      It would have been nice to flash an image of the Tel Aviv beach with sunbathers at the same time.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Mary Folsom

      I HAVE “talk[ed] to the Christians in Bethlehem”, as well as Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, where I stayed in Palestinian Christian homes, and had long discussion with both Christian and Muslims. There is no connection between your having been to Bethlehem, and your axiomatic statements. It appears that you came with pre-conceived Fundamentalist Christian-Zionist notions, and have ignored anything that didn’t support them.
      Next time you visit Bethlehem, go to Bethlehem University, a Catholic University with 2/3 Muslim student body, and see the “reality.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Kolumn9

      Mary, strange, because I have heard the same notions expressed by a Christian from Bethlehem as Mahidere. This was when I visited Bethlehem in the late 90s, so something might have changed, but he was complaining of Muslim gangs from Hebron harassing Bethlehem Christians and the PA doing nothing to stop them.

      Reply to Comment
    16. palestinian

      Aha ,thats why Chris Bandak converted to buddhism,let me call father Atallah Hannah to face him with the truth “You are broken under the stress of conflict (aka Isghaeli terrorism)”.Funny

      Reply to Comment
    17. Kolumn9

      Palestinian, you referring to Chris Bandak, the only known Christian member of the Tanzim and of the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade. This in comparison to the 1960s when Christians Habash and Hawatmeh (not a Palestinian) were the leaders of the PFLP and the DFLP. Instead of being political leaders the diminishing Palestinian Christian community is now represented by priests. Yes, the Christians are now marginal to Palestinian society and yes, they are excluded, demotivated and broken. Best as I can tell they are running away because of the economic consequences of the second intifada launched by their Islamist brothers.

      Reply to Comment
    18. palestinian

      Kolumn9 ,I noticed that you decide who is marignal to our society (not yours) and you believe it trying to make it look as a fact !Hawatmeh is Jordanian ,whats your point ? that he isnt part of the Palestinian struggle only because he isnt Palestinian ? Why dont you conduct a survey among Palestinian Christians ?Lets pretend that the majority of them didnt state that they are leaving because of the Israeli occpuation(aka terrorism)… I didnt know Fateh ,DELP and PELP are Islamists (the word thats used worldwide to describe people who choose to follow Islam)but what I’m definietely sure about is that Kairos Palestine isnt an Islamic group. A moment of truth wasnt written by Muslim Palestinians,read it and enjoy your desperate efforts to marginalize the Christians in Palestine to present the conflict as Jews vs Muslims to get support and sympathy from the ignorant people abroad.A typical Zionist?

      Reply to Comment
    19. Leen

      My family is half Christian and half Muslims and quite frankly, no one on either side has expressed worry or said they felt pressure because of their said religion. If anything, the biggest problem both sides are facing is Israeli occupation. I’ve also went to a Catholic school actually, and the nuns have always stressed unity in face of the israeli occupation, and that the Palestinian cause is the Palestinian cause, not the ‘muslim’ or ‘christian cause’.

      And quite frankly, it makes me sick when people imply a divide and conquer technique to this society. Whether it is internally or externally. Palestinian Christians are not marginalized, nor are they caught in the middle.. yes they are the minority and as a result you won’t see them being dominant in certain groups.

      Plus Israeli occupational aggression has always been on Palestinian Christians and Muslims, they have bombed churches and mosques alike (as well as the Nativity church), they have destroyed muslim and christian houses, and they have lumped them in the same category ‘non-jews’.

      Some of the most active and passionate people t about the Palestinian cause that I know are Christians.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Ignatz

      I interpreted the story as banal proof that the in the current ideological climate the US media cannot do a story that makes Israel look bad unless they bend over backwards to make Muslims look bad at the same time.

      I did not see it as a serious attempt to get the facts right. I saw it as an attempt to get some wiggle-room to do a story that gave something less than fawning praise for Israel

      I don’t know whether this should make me happier or more depressed.

      Reply to Comment
    21. David T.

      Even in Israel the number of Palestinian Christians have reduced from 25% (of the 20% minority) to 10%.

      Israel’s Purging of Palestinian Christians

      Reply to Comment
    22. David

      You are correct: The aired report did not leave the impression that Christian Palestinians are persecuted just like Muslim Palestinians, by virtue of being Palestinian. But, the report did open the door to more discussion of the plight of Christian Palestinians, a direct counter-argument to Israeli hasbara, a discussion that makes the Israeli govt very very nervous. They worry that American Christians will react to the persecution of their co-religionists in the WB and Gaza and they are right to worry. Now, somebody with a big stick has to take up this issue and exploit it relentlessly so that Americans, of all faiths, wake up to the criminality of the “Jewish State.”

      Reply to Comment
    23. F Callen

      How are Christian Arabs *inside* the green line faring?

      Reply to Comment
    24. Kolumn9

      Palestinian, I don’t decide who is marginal, I just point out things that are already obvious. Your retort supports my position. For demonstrating that Christians aren’t marginalized in the Palestinian National Movement you point to a document put out by unelected Christian clergy. For arguing against the Islamist dominance of the movement you argued that Fatah who operated the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade which made a name for itself by using such Christian methods of fighting as suicide bombings is some kind of secular organization. You also pointed to the PFLP and DFLP as being secular. Even if they were once secular, they are marginal according to opinion polls, activities during the intifada and election results. There is no room for Christians in Hamas. There is shrinking room for them in Fatah. These are the dominant groups and they are both turning to Islamic symbols and slogans. Where could the Christians go?

      Leen, it is great that the Catholic school preaches Palestinian unity to its mostly Muslim student body. I would certainly prefer the Palestinian movement to be as influenced by secular and Christian elements as possible, however looking at election results, fighting methods, leaderships, regional trends and the simple fact of the massive departure of the Christians it is simply impossible to avoid the conclusion that Christians have been marginalized and have chosen to withdraw abroad.

      Reply to Comment
    25. Rafael

      It’s funny how KOLUMN9 contradicts himself. One moment he says it is true the Christians are leaving because of Muslim gangs… the other he says it’s because of the economy. Make up your mind already.

      Spin it like you want, buddy, but we actually have polls about Palestinian Christian opinion, and they don’t support the tale you trying to tell. According to the Palestinian Lutheran group Diya, 0.8% of fleeing Christians say anything about Muslims being the reason for their leaving Palestine.

      That Christians are (at least according to you) increasingly ill-represented in Palestinian groups may be only because of their shrinking numbers, not because of any change in their status as members of Palestinian society. In any event, the PLO is still there, with a fair number of Christian members, and not committed with any religionist agenda. It is a secular group by definition, though Israel’s enabling of Hamas in past decades did weaken secular militancy.


      @F CALLEN

      Go to the following link. A Palestiniasn Christian woman has the answer:


      “I am one of those Palestinian Christians that Mr. Oren refers to, who live inside Israel. At no time in my life have I ever felt the “respect and appreciation” by the Jewish state which Mr. Oren so glowingly refers to in his last paragraph. Israel’s Christian minority is marginalized in much the same manner as its Muslim one, or at best, quietly tolerated. We suffer the same discrimination when we try to find a job, when we go to hospitals, when we apply for bank loans and when we get on the bus. In my daily dealings with the state, all I have felt is rudeness and overt contempt.

      Fida Jiryis”

      Reply to Comment
    26. Lennart

      @ jack
      and therefor its justified that Israel cleans out the rest?

      then i agree with the writer but it was more Israel criticism then i thought it would be, its still an american TV station and the incident at the embassy shows me that a more critic report never would been broadcasted.

      Reply to Comment
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