Thursday, November 28, 2013

The letter below was written to the Anglican Bishop of Wakefield a few months ago. I have had no reply from him.

FAO Rt Rev. Stephen Platten
Lord Bishop of Wakefield

Your Grace,

I believe you have a special interest in Northumberland, so I hope you will not take amiss an e-mail letter from Newcastle upon Tyne. I am writing from home, which is within easy walking distance of St. George’s Church in Jesmond, perhaps the most distinguished and certainly the most beautiful in the North of England, and which you may have visited on trips to the region.

I was for several years Lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Newcastle University, and I have written at length on Islamic subjects, including articles for the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Islam . As an Islamicist, I take on ongoing interest in modern aspects of the religion, including matters of Middle East politics. My specialisms are Iran (my PhD is in Persian Studies) and, for over a decade now, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, especially its religious features, which are too often neglected by the press and most commentators.

Because of this, I found myself taken aback by a remark you made in a recent House of Lords debate on The Arab Spring. Inter alia, you remarked that ‘In Israel, Arab Christians are fleeing their ancestral land and homes. Many of your Lordships will know the statistics, and the numbers seem to increase as the weeks, months and years go by. Alongside the events in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, it is a human tragedy of historic proportions.’

I wonder how you came by this conceit, for it is entirely untrue. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where, since 1948, Christian numbers have been growing, so that the Christian communities living there are now larger than they were before it became a Jewish state. In percentage terms, the Christian community of Israel, has increased by 1,000%. Christians are among the best-educated and prosperous sectors of the Israeli population. Nobody is fleeing. When Israel controlled the West Bank, the population of Bethlehem rise by 57%, but when the city was returned to Palestinian Authority control, a combination of death threats, acts of violence and desecration of holy places like the Churchy of the Nativity has seen the Christian community drop from 15% overall to 2%.

The same story is true across the Middle East, where general prejudice and Islamist murders have combined to produce an exodus that may yet result in a total disappearance of Christians from the region – except in Israel. Yet you chose to singlew out Israel as, seemingly, the on ly country that has conditions that force Christians to flee.

As regards conditions there, let me introduce something you may be unaware of. My particular academic contribution has been the study of the Baha’is and their predecessor sect, the Babis. As you may know, the Baha’is have been severely persecuted since the arrival of the Islamic Republic. Hundreds of leaders have been executed – including several women and a fifteen-year-old girl for the crime of teaching Sunday school). Young Baha’is are forbidden to enrol in university. Older Baha’is are denied their state pensions. They are not allowed to meet, to publish their scriptures, and more. Most shocking to me is the destruction (by which I mean bulldozing) of all their holy sites (most of which I have visited) and all their cemeteries (from which corpses have been exhumed) in acts of the purest spite.

Why mention the Baha’is? Well, one of the most popular tourist sites (a UNESCO World Heritage site) in Israel is the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, a complex of white marble buildings and splendid gardens that may be the finest in the Mediterranean region. There is another Baha’i shrine (their holiest, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site) across the bay, near Acre.

There is nowhere in the Muslim world where the Baha’is can openly declare their faith. But Israel has laws that prescribe equal treatment for the followers of all religions and the protection of Holy Places. Thus, the Baha’is are protected from any interference in the practice of their faith. I have to ask if you believe that a country that treats so well a religion that is hated across much of the world would have policies that have led large numbers of Christians, especially Arab Christians, to flee. Arab Christians, rather than flee the Jewish state, prosper, are the best educated group in the country, serve in parliament, serve (voluntarily) in the army and for national service. Why would large numbers of them flee?

Will you promise me that, when you have a chance, you will correct the statement you made? Israel suffers badly from the many outright lies that are told about it (‘A Nazi State’, ‘An Apartheid State’). It is, therefore, deeply disturbing to find an eminent, highly educated member of the clergy adding another falsehood, in blatant contradiction of what I know and expect from such a person. Perhaps this was just a slip of the tongue, and in that case, you have my apologies for having taken you so to task for a tiny error. But since the content of the error is greater than the slip, perhaps you will still honour Israel’s Christian population with an apology – and perhaps a visit sometime. A visit. Not to visit the anti-Semitic elements within the community, the supercessionist members of Sabeel or the supporters of the Kairos document, but just plain down-to-earth Christians who regard Israel as the best of homes, who have a sense of an ongoing relationship with the Israel of Jesus.

If you ever visit Newcastle, I’ll be happy to meet. I wish you the best in your work


Dr. Denis MacEoin

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a terrific letter, thanks for sharing it with the rest of us.