One of the most enduring methods of de-legitimizing Israel is to portray it as a bad place for non-Jews, Christians especially, to live. Oftentimes, Palestinian Christians will describe Israel as behaving like Jews in First Century Jerusalem as described in the New Testament. Jews in Israel mistreated Jesus back in the day, and now Jews are mistreating his modern-day followers.
To buttress this narrative, anti-Zionists will play around with the numbers of Christians living in the country to falsely assert that Israel’s Christian population is “dwindling” when, in fact, it has grown substantially since the War for Independence in 1948/49.
Oftentimes, commentators point out that Christians amounted to 20 percent of the people who lived in the area that is now included in the Jewish State and that today, Christians are only two percent or less of the population and as a result, the population is decreasing. The implication is that Israel, the Jewish state, is inhospitable for Christians and is unworthy of Christian support.
The alleged decline of Christianity in the Jewish state is a prevalent theme that has been promoted in number of outlets such as the Catholic Near East Welfare Agency (CNEWA), the Associated Press, Sojourners, National Geographic, and by 60 Minutes.
Fair-minded Christians who want to respond to the notion that Israel is bad for Christians need to know one thing:
The number of indigenous Christians in the Jewish state has increased by almost 300 percent since the War for Independence.
The Statistical Abstract for Israel published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistic reports that at the end of 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, there were a total of 164,000 Christians living in the Jewish State. This same document reports that out of this total, a little more than 130,000 of these Christians are Arabs.
The Statistical Abstract of Israel reports that in 1949, there were approximately 34,000 Christians living in Israel.
This figure was not broken down by ethnicity, but the vast majority of these people were Arab Christians.
The upshot is that between 1949 and 2015, Israel’s indigenous population of Christians has increased by 282 percent. No other country in the Middle East has experienced a similar increase in its indigenous population of Christians. In fact, some countries have suffered catastrophic losses over the same time frame.
Yes, the percentage of Arab Christians as a proportion of Israel's population has declined since 1948, but that is the result of an increase in the country's Jewish and Muslim populations.
According to the Statistical Abstract of Israel for 2016, there were just over 1 million Jews and 113,800 Muslims living in Israel in 1949. At the end of 2015, there were approximately 6.3 million Jews and 1.5 million Muslims living in the country. (The population of the two groups increased by 521 and 1193 percent respectively.)
These increases go a long ways toward explaining why a fast growing Christian population is declining as a proportion of Israel's total population. As fast growing as it is, the two other groups in the country, are growing at an even faster rate. This does not mean, however, that Christians are in decline in Israel – as journalists, “peacemakers,” and human rights activists often declare.
The Gaza Strip and the West Bank
A similar strategy is used to blame Israel for an alleged decline of Christians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The message about Christians in the disputed territories is that this population is declining because of Israel’s occupation. The implication is that once Israel withdraws from the disputed territories and Arabs are in control of these areas, life for Christians will improve and the population will rebound.
There are three problems with this narrative.
First, the population of Christians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip declined between the War for Independence (which resulted in Arab control of these areas) and the Six Day War (which resulted in Israel control of these areas).
Second, the population of Christians in these areas stabilized and modestly increased in the years since the Six Day War – despite the departure of many young Christians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the years.
In other words, Israeli control over the disputed territories arrested and reversed the decline of the Christian population in these areas.
Third, since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal, the Christian population in this area has declined – it truly has dwindled.
All this counters the narrative that Jewish control of territory is bad for Christians and that Arab Muslim control of territory is good for Christians. In fact, the opposite is true.
Below are the numbers of Christians living in West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza for the years 1945, 1961, 1967, 1995, and 2007 culled from a report produced by the Jewish Public Relations Council published in 2011.
The JCPA's numbers are compiled from a number of sources, including the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, the Jordanian government – which controlled the West Bank until the Six Day War in 1967 – the Israeli government, and the previously mentioned Diyar Institute, an organization run by Lutheran Pastor Rev. Mitri Raheb – a fierce critic of Israel.
Number of Christians in Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip, by Year
These numbers reveal that there was a decline in the number of Christians in Arab-controlled territory after the War for Independence during which the Egyptians took control of the Gaza Strip and the Jordanians controlled the West Bank. This decline was reversed in the years after the Six Day War during which Israel took control of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Reliable numbers for the years after 2007 are difficult to come by, but the chart above clearly refutes the notion that Israeli policies have caused a decline in the population of Christians in the disputed territories.
The population of Christians declined by 29 percent under Jordanian and Egyptian (Muslim) rule and increased by 22 percent since Israel took control of the West Bank in the Six Day War.
Even the previously mentioned Diyar Institute has had to admit that the population of Palestinian Christians in the disputed territories has increased, albeit slightly, under Israeli control. In a 2012 report, this institute, an anti-Zionist organization, declared that “the number of the Christian population has grown ever so slightly in the past 50 years.”
And yet, commentator after commentator declares that the Christian population in these areas is declining because of Israeli policies!
While the Gaza Strip is included in the above numbers, it should be noted that the number of Christians in this territory is not very big. An Israeli census conducted in 1967 revealed 2,478 Christians. In 2014, an English charity called “Embrace the Middle East” conducted a survey that revealed that Gaza’s Christian population totaled 1,313 people, indicating that the population of Christians in this area has decreased by 47 percent over the past fifty years.
In fact, the decline might even be more pronounced because in 2006, the year before Hamas took control of the territory in a violent civil war with Hamas, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center estimated that there were 3,000 Christians living in the Gaza Strip. Sabeel’s estimate lends further credence to the assessment that Christian populations recovered under Israeli control and the decline recorded by Embrace the Middle East indicates that Christian populations decrease under Arab and Muslim control.
Christians In Rest of Region
By way of comparison, Christians have had a terrible time in the rest of the Middle East. This is particularly true in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. Iran is another country where Christians (and other religious minorities are brutally mistreated.)
The two worst places to be a Christian in the Middle East are Iraq and Syria. On March 16, 2016, then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that ISIS was guilty of the crime of genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims in these two countries. ISIS, he said, “is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions in what it says, what it believes and what it does.” Kerry also declared that ISIS “kills Christians because they are Christians, the Yazidis because they are Yazidis, Shia because they are Shia.”
The impact of jihadist violence against Christians in these two countries has been brutal. A New York Times article published in July 22, 2015 described ISIS violence against Christians (and Yazidis). Rapes, massacres and mass graves were commonplace. Women from minority communities were sold into sexual slavery by ISIS, whose actions were very similar to the atrocities perpetrated against Armenians, Assyrians and Pontic Greeks during in the Anatolian Peninsula between 1915-1922.
As a result of the violence, Christians in Iraq may soon disappear altogether without help, reports Andrew Walther from the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization that serves beleaguered Christians communities in the Middle East. “Christianity in Iraq is on the brink of extinction. They have gone from 1.5 million people to somewhere south of 200,000,” Walther said in August 2017.
A similar decline has manifested itself in Syria. Prior to the start of the civil war in 2011, there were approximately 1.5 million Christians living in Syria. In March 2016, Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo reported that this number had declined to 500,000.
In an effort to prevent the collapse of Christianity in Iraq, activists are promoting the establishment of the Ninevah Plains Province. It is hoped that this province, which would serve as the home of Iraq’s religious and ethnic minorities (including the Yezidis), will play a role similar to what Israel does Jews in the Middle East – provide dignity and safety for previously beleaguered people groups in the region.
Now onto the case of Egypt, where Christians have been the target of jihadist violence for centuries. Things started to get really bad in the months before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek was ousted and replaced by Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring, which took place in 2011. Soon after midnight on December 31, 2010, terrorists bombed the Two Saints Church in Alexandria killing approximately two dozen Coptic Christians attending a New Year’s Eve mass at the church.
As Morsi was installed in the office of the Presidency and then subsequently ousted, Christians became the target of choice of Salafist or extremist Muslims in the country and the violence continues today even as current president Abdel Fatah Sisi attempts to bring jihadists under control. Christian churches and their parishioners are the targets of regular bomb attacks.
Coptic Christians from Egypt who were working in Libya were murdered en masse in 2015 and in May 2017, 28 Coptic Christians were murdered while traveling in a bus to a monastery in the Egyptian desert. In the previous month, two churches were the target of bomb attacks that resulted in the deaths of approximately 50 people.
Numbers are difficult to come by, but there are numerous reports that 100,000 Coptic Christians have left the country in 2011 alone. "There is no body counting those who leave the country, neither on the Coptic side nor on the part of our embassies abroad, so it's all just guesswork," Ahmed el-Qoasni, former assistant foreign minister for Egyptians abroad told The Telegraph in 2013.
Christians and other religious minorities, such as the Bahai, are also badly mistreated in Iran, with little if any condemnation from the institutions that promote the “Israel is Bad for Christians” narrative. According to the 2016 State Department report on religious freedom in Iran, Christians, evangelicals especially, are subject to arrest and imprisonment. Christians who use wine for communion have been arrested.
Muslim violence directed at Christians in the Middle East is not a new phenomenon, but a persistent aspect of history in the region. One of the most notorious outbreaks took place in the Anatolian Peninsula between 1915 and 1922. The founders of the modern state of Turkey, the Young Turks, murdered between 1.5 million Armenian Christians, 250,000 Syriac-speaking Christians and between 450,000 and 750,000 Greek Christians were killed as well. That’s between 2.2 million and 2.5 million deaths.
These murders, which have been typically described as The Armenian Genocide (even though a significant number of the victims were not Armenians), have had a huge impact on Christians from the Middle East, leaving them with lasting psychological and spiritual damage that afflicts the descendents of the survivors today.
This damage is documented in a very important and authoritative text, Let Them Not Return: Sayfo – The Genocide against the Assyrian, Syriac and Chaldean Christians in the Ottoman Empire edited by David Gaunt, Naures Atto and Soner O. Barthoma (Berghahn, 2017).
In this text, Önver A. Cetrez writes that the Assyrian victims of the genocide (referred to as “The Sayfo” or “The Sword” in Assyrian), suffer from (and pass on to the next generation of Assyrians) feelings of distrust and fear. Part of the distrust is motivated by the world’s silence about the genocide which limits the ability of the Assyria to “express and articulate feelings of trauma in a constructive way linguistically." Assyrians also suffer from a continuing fear of annihilation that undermines their ability to connect with people outside their families.
Sadly enough, the trauma is being repeated again today, a fact some Israel-obsessed commentators would rather ignore.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).