Month: April 2009

Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to Israel and the Holy Land

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Israel and the Holy Land will begin May 8-15, 2009. I’ve set up a special blog devoted to the papal pilgrimage — where I’ll be posting from now until the duration of the Holy Father’s journey.

Please pay a visit (and link, if you’re so inclined).


Deal Hudson on Israel and Palestinian Christians, Revisited

In his latest article for, Deal Hudson presents Ten Hard Facts Confronting Benedict XVI in the Holy Land concerning the plight of Palestinian Christians.

One would expect that — when presenting a list of “hard facts”, particularly a topic as provocative as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — elementary journalistic standards would require the citation of a source.

Furthermore, one might expect the placement of such statistics in context to further enable a moral evaluation.

That Hudson completely neglects to do this is frustrating, to say the least.

Consequently, we have such indictments as

“Palestinians have been the subject of frequent attack [by Israel] — often with civilians and their homes in the direct line of fire”

Such a statement, on its face, leaves out notable mitigating factors. Taking the most recent case of Gaza, for instance, Hudson could have mentioned Hamas’ penchant for deliberately locating its troops and rocket positions in close proximity to civilians, even so far as housing weapons in schools and within its own mosques.

Other factors which might be brought to bear in the evaluation of Israel’s targeting of Palestinians in civilian-populated areas is that Israel sought to warn civilians prior to impending attacks via Arabic-language voice mails on their cell phones, urging them to vacate homes where militants had stashed weapons. (Conversely, Hamas displayed complete disregard for civilian welfare, to the point of hijacking ambulances).

Again, Hudson states that:

“Israel’s 21-day incursion into Gaza left an immense humanitarian crisis: More than 50,800 Gazans were left homeless; 80 percent of the population are now dependent on assistance”

But certainly at this point, might our appraisal of this fact be influenced by the knowledge that, even while Israel was fighting to protect their own cities against Hamas’ rockets, they were bringing assistance to citizens of Gaza impacted by the conflict?

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, provides regular weekly reports on humanitarian aid to Gaza during the IDF operation and increased humanitarian aid to Gaza following the IDF operation as well.

In a February 2009 post (“Dispatch from the border of Gaza”), Michael Totten wrote about his tour of a temporary field hospital set up by the State of Israel at the Erez Crossing at the northern end of Gaza:

Palestinian civilians who needed medical attention were invited to come to Erez for treatment by Israeli doctors.

Humanitarian goods facilitated by the IDF also went through Erez into Gaza throughout the conflict, and the crossing was open to Palestinians with dual nationality who wanted out.

“We were asked by the government and the Ministry of Health to operate this regional medical clinic,” an Israeli doctor told me. “We’ve put everything here we can provide in a first-line clinic. It’s not a hospital. We won’t be able to operate here. But we need a humanitarian clinic to treat patients who need medical assistance.” [According to the Jerusalem Post, the clinic “offered not only medical specialists but also x-ray facilities, a lab and a pharmacy, meant to treat about 50 patients at once – both wounded Palestinians and those suffering from physical ailments”].

The Israelis had to close the place down. Only a handful of patients ever came through, which didn’t surprise me. I didn’t see any Palestinian patients there when I visited. Hamas didn’t allow their wounded to be treated by Jews.

Consider also, for instance, that the blog Elder of Zion together with PTWatch have documented 86 some terrorists killed by the IDF that have been reported as “civilians” by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (the source of statistics cited by Hudson in his prior article).

All the more reason to regard “facts” — and the mere citation of statistics absent of context — with caution.

* * *

According to Hudson:

“Tension with Muslims is not the primary reason for the exodus — only 11 percent of Palestinian Christians cite it as a reason for immigration.”

With all due respect, I have reasons to approach this statistic with some skepticism. Most curiously, Hudson himself has previously cited (approvingly!) the work of Justus Reid Weiner, an international human rights lawyer who has made the plight of Palestinian Christians a subject of personal research. You can read an interview with Weiner here; a monograph, Human Rights of Christians
in Palestinian Society
is available for free download as well.

Weiner speaks of “intimidation, beatings, land theft, firebombing of churches and other Christian institutions, denial of employment, economic boycotts, torture, kidnapping, forced marriage, sexual harassment, and extortion” — not, however, at the hands of Israel. (See the aformentioned links for documentation).

According to Weiner:

[Over a 10 year period] my research assistants and I have interviewed scores of Christian victims. Many of those interviewed were too terrified to tell their stories. In an effort to reassure them, I promised to conceal their real names, professions, and places of residence.

Suffice to say this doesn’t strike me as an opportune environment for a persecuted minority to register open complaints about their condition. In fact, says Weiner, the silence and suppression of Palestinian Christians remain the norm when it comes to such persecution:

Weiner says he became aware of the many crimes against Christian Arabs under the Palestinian regime when, ten years ago, a Christian lay pastor said to him, “You’re a human rights lawyer, what are you doing for the Christian Arabs?” Weiner replied that he was not doing anything for them as he was not aware they had any problems. The pastor then said: “Let me send you some people to interview and once you’ve done that make up your own mind.”

Weiner remarks: “That began my education process on this subject. The problem I had the most difficulty understanding was why the large, powerful, populous Christian world has permitted this to go on for so long. This is the more surprising as the PA is in such need of funds and political support. Ten years down the road I can only say that it is a sad testimony for contemporary Christianity.

“I discovered a wide gap between the Palestinian Christian leadership and their flock. The former tended, for many years, to put on their nice robes and hats to meet Arafat for religious occasions. They are the same people who keep touring around the United States and being feted in different locations where they repeat the false story that everything is fine.

“These patriarchs and archbishops of Christian Arab denominations who are currently deceiving the international community are self-interested people. They collaborate with the Muslim perpetrators of intimidation and violence. Against all evidence they claim that the Christians Arabs are living comfortable and prosperous lives. In fact the present situation is growing worse by the day.”

The numerous incidents of Muslim persecution told by Weiner stand in stark contrast to the testimony of, say, Michael Sabbah (former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem 1987-2008), who in a December 2003 interview dismissed such accounts:

Is it difficult being a Christian Palestinian in a predominantly Muslim and Jewish land?

Christians are part of Palestinian society, and the Palestinians are Christians and Muslims. No one is going to flee because of Islamic influence, but because of the lack of work, or the political tension provoked by the curfew. But there is no Muslim persecution of Christians, and in fact they share the same hope of one day having an independent state.

Don’t you see a desire on the part of Muslims to dominate and convert other faiths?

Just a moment. This isn’t easily understood in the West. We Palestinians know how to live together and how to understand this relationship. We are one people, even if there are some difficulties.

But aren’t you isolating the case of the Palestinians? This isn’t a relationship that is easily exported. To find Christians who are persecuted it’s enough just to look at Vatican reports. Think of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iraq.

In Arab countries there is no persecution of Christians. I don’t speak of Pakistan, but in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon—no. Historically there have been some massacres, beginning when Europe entered the Mideast. …

Not even any effort at the conversion of Christians?

There’s always that, but much of it is social pressure, that’s all. Nowadays we cannot say there is persecution. There are problems of the majority and minority, disputes of a social nature. These governments are very vigilant about relations between Muslims and Christians. There’s a lot of propaganda in the West; I don’t know why. Let us live in peace and don’t foment fear, it’s fear that weakens us. Our vocation is to live among Muslims and to give testimony to Jesus in a Muslim society. It’s difficult, but we accept it.

Rod Dreher, a journalist and [Orthodox] Christian blogger, conveyed his own first-hand encounter with the self-imposed censorship of Palestinian Christian prelates in 2005:

When I was in the Holy Land covering John Paul’s visit, I spent time talking to Palestinian Christians. They have hard lives, no doubt about it, and all blamed Israel. But a funny thing happened when I put my notebook away after one of these interview sessions. The Christians with whom I was speaking suddenly started talking about how terrified they were of the Muslims, and said how life would be far worse for them if the Islamists took power within the PA. They wanted me to know that, but did not want me to quote them. They (correctly) saw things as hopeless all around for Palestinian Christians, and just wanted to move. There are no Christian suicide bombers, but the Christians have to pay the price for what the Muslim suicide bombers do. And so forth.


At my newspaper a couple of months ago, the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, a Palestinian, came by for an interview with the editorial board. It was pathetic to watch. He was dhimmi-ized through and through. Couldn’t bring himself to condemn anything Muslims did. Everything was the fault of the Israelis. If a Muslim blew himself to bits and killed scores of Israeli civilians in so doing, that was Israel’s fault. No, there is no enmity between Muslims and Christians there, he insisted; we have always gotten along wonderfully, couldn’t be better, he said.

I couldn’t figure out if he was lying to himself, or to us. But when he said that Abraham wasn’t Jewish, well, that just took the cake.

Weiner concedes that Israel does bear some responsibility for the situation and cites several issues (which Hudson raised in his article), such as visa restrictions which hamper foreign and local Christian clergy from traveling between parishes, and “economic hardship and unemployment is caused by the cutoff from outside aid due to Israeli security measures that bar most Palestinians from working inside Israel.”

Nonetheless, to reiterate my prior post: any moral evaluation of the restrictions on movement imposed by Israel must take into account the reasons why they were established and imposed in the first place.

There is no disputing that life would be easier for Palestinian Christians and their counterparts if Israel were to dismantle the checkpoints and the security fence. But such a removal would, of course, be predicated upon the willingness of organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad to disavow terrorism.

And that’s something Hudson hasn’t actually addressed.

* * *
In closing, perhaps as an incentive to further discussion, permit me to pose some questions:

What do you anticipate would happen, were Israel to suddenly dismantle its security measures — the checkpoints? the security fences?

How would Palestinians react? — Fatah? Hamas? Islamic Jihad?

Noting that the Vatican has itself formally recognized the State of Israel, is such a recognition incumbent on Palestianian Christians and their Muslim counterparts?


Should Pope Benedict visit Gaza? – A response to Deal Hudson

In February, a group of Palestinian Christians asked Pope Benedict XVI to call off his planned visit to Israel and the West Bank, concerned that his visit would “help boost Israel’s image and inadvertently minimize Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation.” (Haaretz).

Adopting a different approach, Ma’an News Agency reports that a petition raised by the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, the University of San Francisco, and several other U.S. peace organizations asking Pope Benedict XVI to make a stop in the Gaza Strip has received over 2000 signatures.

In a recent post to, Deal Hudson raises the question: Should Benedict XVI Include Gaza in his Holy Land Visit? — answering in the affirmative:

[A]dding Gaza to the papal visit to the Holy Land would indeed send a message to all concerned, including Hamas, which some Christians fear was strengthened by the three-week Israeli offensive. Benedict XVI could visit Holy Family Parish in Gaza City, where Msgr. Manuel Musallam and his parishioners lived through the bombing that began on Dec. 28 and the ground invasion a week later on Jan. 3, 2009. Msgr. Musallam and his parish minister to the 200 Catholics remaining in Gaza (there are approximately another 3,000 Christians, most of whom are Greek Orthodox.)


The visit of Benedict XVI will be viewed by the Christians living in the Holy Land through the lens of 1417 deaths in Gaza, including 313 children, during the 22-day Israeli campaign. With the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, Christians in Bethlehem expressed fear that their city could become another Gaza. “We already live surrounded by walls and check points. Why shouldn’t we think that what happened in Gaza could happen to us?” said a young woman in her mid-twenties who comes from one of the oldest, and most prominent, Christian families in Bethlehem.

Palestinian Christians will be deeply disappointed and demoralized if Benedict XVI simply repeats the itinerary of John Paul II. “There will be bad consequences for the Church if he does this,” Abu Zuluf told me. He did not explain this comment, but when I asked an American priest who had lived near Bethlehem for over a decade he related it to a comment he heard from a Christian woman in Bethlehem. She said to him, “Tell the Holy Father not to lose his dignity when he comes here.”

Readers familiar with my opinions on the Israeli-Palestianian conflict (full disclosure: I maintain the blog Catholic Friends of Israel) will likely be surprised to note that I am in tentative agreement with Hudson: I think that a Papal visit to Gaza — taken as an expression of solidarity with the Christian communities there — may be a good thing.

This is not to say, however, that I have some concerns — both with Hudson’s reasons for taking the stance as he does, as well as issues involving the proposal itself.

Questionable Statistics

In citing the casualties from Israel’s campaign to prevent rocket attacks from Gaza, Hudson links to a Reuters article which in turn relies upon the findings of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. The numbers cited by this source have been heavily disputed by CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) and the official accounting of the IDF:

According to the data gathered by the Research Department of the Israel Defense Intelligence, there were 1166 names of Palestinians killed during Operation Cast Lead. 709 of them are identified as Hamas terror operatives, amongst them several from various other terror organizations. Furthermore, it has been found that 295 uninvolved Palestinians were killed during the operation, 89 of them under the age of 16, and 49 of them women. In addition, there are 162 names of men that have not yet been attributed to any organization.

It is disconcerting, then, that Hudson simply takes the Reuters’ / PCHR figures at face-value without any qualification.

“Harsh restrictions on movement”

According to Hudson, the problem with retracing the steps of Pope John Paul II is that the Holy Land has changed dramatically since 2000:

Ever since the uprising (Second Intifada) that followed the visit of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000, the West Bank has been in a state of lock-down enforced by hundreds of miles of security walls, checkpoints, settlements, settler roads, and harsh restrictions on freedom of movement.

It is indeed lamentable that “Palestinian Christians have virtually no access to the holy sites in East Jerusalem, Galilee, and Nazareth”; that students in religious classes of Bethlehem University are routinely denied visas to travel outside the city, or that Gazan students are prevented from attending school in Bethlehem. Nonetheless, any moral evaluation of these admittedly-difficult conditions would have to take into account precisely WHY these “harsh restrictions on movement” are enforced — and that is a lengthy and complex discussion Hudson’s article does not go into.

For example, it is a fact that the Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal cited “freedom of movement for priests and religious between these regions is a primary pastoral concern” and declared: “it’s time to put an end to the Wall, the Checkpoints, it’s time for a Palestinian State, it’s time for an end to our problems with visa’s.” No doubt Hudson would concur.

But any discussion of the moral relevance of Israel’s Wall should take into account that approximately 75 percent of the suicide bombers who attacked targets inside Israel came from across the border where the first phase of the fence was built; that since construction of the fence began, the number of attacks has declined by more than 90%. The number of Israelis murdered and wounded has decreased by more than 70% and 85%.

During the 34 months from the beginning of the violence in September 2000 until the construction of the first continuous segment of the security fence at the end of July 2003, Samaria-based terrorists carried out 73 attacks in which 293 Israelis were killed and 1950 wounded. In the 11 months between the erection of the first segment at the beginning of August 2003 and the end of June 2004, only three attacks were successful, and all three occurred in the first half of 2003.

and that the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad has admitted to the fence as an effective deterrent to suicide-bombing.

All of course, at the cost of “harsh restrictions on movement.”

Oppressed by Israel?

One aspect of the plight of Palestinian Christians is glaringly absent from Hudson’s latest article: the fact of the persecution of Arab Christians by Muslim extremists. Hudson relays the fears of a Christian resident of Bethlehem over the election of “right winger” Benjamin Netanyahu. But what might also be contributing to the precarious situation of Christians in Bethlehem? — An article in the UK’s Daily Mail in 2006 speaks of “the sense of a creeping Islamic fundamentalism” pervading the city:

[Bethlehem’s] Christian population has dwindled from more than 85 per cent in 1948 to 12 per cent of its 60,000 inhabitants in 2006.

There are reports of religious persecution, in the form of murders, beatings and land grabs.

Meanwhile, the breakdown in security is putting off tourists, leading to economic hardship for Christians, who own most of the town’s hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. …

Bethlehem’s hotel owners estimate that tourist numbers have dropped sharply, from 91,276 each month for the millennium celebrations in 2000 to little more than 1,500 a month now.

During the past six years, 50 restaurants, 28 hotels and 240 souvenir shops have closed.

Samir Qumsieh is general manager of Al-Mahed – Nativity – which is the only Christian television station in Bethlehem.

He has had death threats and visits from armed men demanding three acres of his land – and he is now ready to leave.

“As Christians, we have no future here,” he says.

(See also: “Bethlehem Christians fear neighbors” Jerusalem Post 2007).

What is confusing is that Arab persecution of the Palestinian Christians is something of which Hudson is undoubtedly aware. In 2007, he blogged about this very issue, noting international human rights lawyer Justus Reid Weiner’s observation that

“The systematic persecution of Christian Arabs living in Palestinian areas is being met with nearly total silence by the international community, human rights activists, the media and NGOs.”

Hence the confusion over his latest article, presenting a one-sided picture of Israeli oppression.

On this topic, see:

Returning to the question of whether Pope Benedict XVI should visit Gaza, I think that — taken as an expression of solidarity with the Christian community — it may be a positive thing.

My concern would chiefly be one of security — to whom would be entrusted the security of the Pope? Is the controlling authority (Hamas) demonstrably reliable in ensuring the Pope’s safety? Or in cooperating with Israel in this regard?

An Easter Rescue for Captain Richard Phillips

On this Easter, I would like to join in a commendation of Captain Richard Phillips — profiled here in the New York Times.

According to Reuters, when the U.S. Cargo ship Maersk Alabama was attacked by Somalian pirates on Wednesday, Captain Phillips told his crew to lock themselves in the cabin and offered his own life in exchange for their safety. The crew having disabled and regained control of the ship, the pirates resorted to holding the captain hostage in the lifeboat, negotiating for his release:

[Maersk Line Limited President and CEO John] Reinhart said the 19-member crew was challenged with the order to leave the captain behind and head for safe harbor in Mombasa, Kenya, where they arrived Saturday night.

“But as mariners, they took the order to preserve the ship and they knew the Navy would preserve their captain, so they did that tough choice and they took the ship away,” he said. “When I look at it, I think Richard has exhibited the true spirit of an American.”

Captain Philips was in turn liberated by snipers of the United States Navy on Easter Sunday. Three pirates were killed and the fourth captured during the rescue:

Captain Phillips was pulled out of the water — details were not clear on whether he had jumped in — and was transported to the Bainbridge, where sailors delivered him a note from his wife, Andrea.

“Your family is saving a chocolate Easter egg for you,” she wrote, according to Vice Admiral Gortney. “Unless your son eats it first.”

According to John Reinhart, the Maersk Line president and chief executive, Mr. Phillips told him by telephone: “I’m just the byline. The real heroes are the Navy, the Seals, those who have brought me home.” President Obama, making his first comments on the situation, praised Mr. Phillips’s “selfless concern for his crew,” who had been freed when the captain let pirates take him off his cargo ship. “His courage is a model for all Americans,” Mr. Obama said.

News of Phillips’ rescue is of particular relief to his wife, Andrea, and members of St. Thomas Church in Underhill, Vermont:

Drawing a parallel between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and Phillips’ predicament, the church pastor told about 170 congregants that just as Christ triumphed over evil after being crucified, Phillips was attempting to triumph over the evil of his captors.

“Evil and death and sin do not have the final say,” Danielson said. “That is the essential message of Easter. Love and life, goodness and life, they always are the true realities. The world of terror and war and greed, the world of pirates and criminals large and small who prey on individuals, whole nations and regions of the world, they are the ones on the wrong side of history.”

"He is not here, but is risen!"

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came unto the tomb, bringing the spices which they had prepared.

And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb.

And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.

And it came to pass, while they were perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel:

and as they were affrighted and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead?

He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee,

saying that the Son of man must be delivered up into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.

(Luke 24: 1-6)


As we enter into the Holy Triduum, I’d like to invite a reading of Pope Benedict’s catechesis given during yesterday’s general audience, appropriately deemed by Sandro Magister “A Handbook for Holy Week”:

Dear brothers and sisters, Holy Week, which for us Christians is the most important week of the year, offers us the opportunity to be immersed in the central events of Redemption, to relive the Paschal Mystery, the great mystery of the faith. Beginning tomorrow afternoon, with the Mass “In Coena Domini,” the solemn liturgical rites will help us to meditate in a more lively manner on the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord in the days of the Holy Paschal Triduum, fulcrum of the entire liturgical year. May divine grace open our hearts to comprehend the inestimable gift that salvation is, obtained for us by Christ’s sacrifice. [Read the rest]