Palestinian Christians say anti-missionary bill is Israel’s latest attempt to squeeze them out

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Palestinian Christians say they are being pushed out of Israel after two right-wing Israeli politicians proposed legislation that would punish Christian prisoners with prison time.

Earlier this week, US-based Evangelical Christians raised concerns after a powerful coalition in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition proposed a bill that would ban missionary practices in Israel.

Under the proposed legislation, Christians would face up to a year in prison for encouraging conversion to their faith, while enticing minors to convert would carry a two-year penalty.

On Wednesday, after growing criticism in the US against the bill, Netanyahu issued a statement assuring Christians that it would not become law.

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“We will not promote any law against the Christian community,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.

Some US Evangelical groups welcomed the decision, but Palestinian Christians told Middle East Eye that anti-Christian sentiment was running high, with churchgoers frequently attacked by far-right Israelis.

“The new bill proposed by the Israeli lawmakers, outlawing the speech or trying to spread Christianity in the birthplace of Christianity is just another set of restrictions on religious freedom,” said Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian Christian lawyer and activist based in the US, with an Avg. East Eye.

Jonathan Kuttab, director of Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), a Christian grassroots movement committed to Palestinian freedom, said while the bill was unlikely to pass, it came at a time of increasingly violent rhetoric from Israeli lawmakers. , after Netanyahu returned to. power.

“The religious parties in Israel are very anti-Christian. It’s just that Israel is a largely secular country and they didn’t have much influence in the past. Now they feel they have influence and leverage. [in their bid] to turn the country into a kind of theocracy,” he told MEE.

Likewise, Glenn Plummer, the bishop of Israel for the Church of God in Christ, based in Memphis, Tennessee, told the Times of Israel that even if the bill were to pass, he was concerned that it could lead to hostility. to prove to Christians.

Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which describes itself as the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States, did not respond to MEE’s request for comment.

‘Disappointment’

The Christian population of Palestine has declined in recent years, with recent estimates suggesting that it is only a tenth of what it was 70 years ago.

“People do not understand that there is a phenomenon of hatred against Christians [in Israel and Palestine]… it’s something they regularly downplay,” Kuttab said, highlighting recent attacks against Christian clergy as well as restrictions on holy sites across Palestine in the past three months in particular.

Last week, two Israelis entered the Church of Gethsemane in East Jerusalem and physically attacked a bishop and two priests during a religious service.

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem issued a statement condemning the incident and lamenting the lack of international media coverage of the attack.

“The Patriarchate also emphasizes that terrorist attacks, by Israeli radical groups, targeting churches, cemeteries, and Christian properties, as well as physical and verbal abuse against Christian clergy, have become almost daily which increases in intensity with during Christian holidays,” read the statement.

“This terrible situation has not drawn any appropriate response, locally or internationally, despite appeals, requests, and protests made by the Churches of the Holy Land. It is now very clear that the authentic Christian presence in the Holy Land is in great danger . . ,” he said.

A picture shows a wooden statue of Jesus that was pulled down and damaged in the Church of the Cornelius, in the Old City of Jerusalem on February 2, 2023 (AFP)
A picture shows a wooden statue of Jesus that was pulled down and damaged in the Church of the Cornelius, in the Old City of Jerusalem, on February 2, 2023 (AFP)

Meanwhile, last month, a statue of Jesus was vandalized at the Protestant Church in the Old City, and a Jewish-American tourist was arrested for the attack.

“Despite Israel’s claim that it respects freedom of religion, Christians have long been repressed by the state,” Arraf said.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which earlier this month released a report detailing laws prohibiting conversion in a dozen Indian states, did not respond to MEE’s request for comment.

‘It’s not free to practice’

Arraf said US Christians tend to ignore the plight of Palestinian Christians, like their Muslim counterparts.

“The Christian villages of Palestine have been depopulated and razed to the ground; thousands of Christians have been driven out of Palestine by Zionist forces and policies; and the Palestinian Christians who are still there are not free to practice their religion,” she said.

“It has been many years since members of my family were able to enter Jerusalem, just minutes from their home, to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Christians in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, are imprisoned behind a huge concrete wall, also not being able to visit Jerusalem or other holy places, such as Nazareth.

“Christians in Gaza cannot even dream of visiting Jerusalem, Nazareth or Bethlehem,” she said.

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Kuttab said that Christian Zionists in the US, considered among Israel’s biggest sponsors and supporters, were either unaware of the plight of Palestinian Christians or deliberately ignored it.

Evangelical Christians, especially those in the United States, are among Israel’s strongest supporters, viewing the country as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, with some seeing it as an expert on the second coming of Jesus Christ and the end of days.

Israel has long welcomed the political and financial support of Evangelicals and has largely ignored concerns about any hidden religious agenda.

“Most Christian Zionists do not even know that there are Palestinian Christians. They think it is a fight against Muslims and Jews,” said Kuttab.

“Their theology sees Israel not in political terms but as signs of the end times and they do not support Israel because they think it is the right political thing to do but because they are doing the will of God.”

Kuttab added that attacks on Christians in Palestine are rarely highlighted in the United States, and when they are, people often assume that the perpetrators are Muslims.

“So when they hear the phrase Judeo-Christian, they think ‘Oh, we are like the Jews and we are fighting against violent, radical Islam’. So it is all tinged with Islamophobia,” said he.

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