Christians in the Holy Land

I remain puzzled by the apparent indifference of American Catholics to the fate of Christians under attack around the world. Is race the explanation for why we pay little attention to the slaughter of Christians at the hands of Muslims in Africa and to the plight of Palestinian Christians living under Israeli rule?

At first glance, one might think that is the case. My guess is that if the scenes on the evening news were of thousands of whites, rather than black Christians, being hacked to death by rampaging black mobs in Africa, the American Catholic response would be more pronounced. I also wager there would be more anger in the United States over scenes of American and Irish nuns being forced out of their convents by Israeli soldiers than we find over Palestinian Christians being forced from their homes on the West Bank.

Then again, things might not be that simple. I may be wrong; perhaps race is largely a sidebar to this story. It could be that widespread expressions of anger come to the surface only when they are churned up by the media or by those in leadership positions, and that that has not yet taken place in regard to the Christians in Africa and the Middle East. It could be that the folks in the pews at American Catholic churches, occupied as they are with their families and careers, need to be awakened to atrocities taking place in distant lands before they put pressure on our government to act.

There have been many examples of this phenomenon. There was little willingness, for example, to support American military intervention in the Balkans until the scenes of starving Muslims in Serbian prisoner of war camps and the stories of the rape of Bosnian women hit the nightly news. The Bosnian victims of the Serbs were just as white during the months when few Americans were unconcerned about what was happening to them, as they were after it became an example of ethnic cleansing that we could not tolerate.

So if all that is needed is some consciousness-raising, recent efforts by Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, DC, may make an impact on American policy in the Middle East. Robert Novak reports in his syndicated column that McCarrick, who had been called into the White House to discuss foreign trade, brought up the condition of the West Bank Christians recently while talking to President Bush.

What was McCarrick’s concern? The West Bank village of Aboud, a community of Palestinian Christians with roots that go back to the days of Christ. According to local traditions, the residents of the area received the faith from Jesus himself. The village is threatened by the construction of Israel’s security barriers. Says Novak, “Following previous security barrier construction that effectively expelled villagers form olive groves, Israel in October 2005 ordered new land confiscation to extend the barrier. Aboud’s 2,300 residents, about half Christian and half Muslim, are being deprived of their water supply by the new construction.”

Israel offers the defense that these barriers are necessary to deny access to terrorists seeking to cross into Israel. The Holy Land Christian Society, a group formed to make the case for Palestinian Christians, refuses to accept this explanation. The group states flatly, “It is clear that the security barrier is not about security but the annexation of land for the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Israeli control over the water supply.” The Israeli settlements of Beit Arye and Ofarim were constructed on land previously taken from residents of Aboud.

Should the claims of the Holy Land Christian Society be accepted at face value? Probably not. But neither should the complaints of the Christians in Aboud be dismissed out of hand. McCarrick’s goal is to get them a fair hearing with the Bush administration. He recently told Novak, “I am afraid that what is happening in the Holy Land is that we’re losing the presence of the Christian community.” The recent victory of Hamas in Palestine only compounds the problems of the Christian minority. McCarrick will visit the West Bank later this month in an attempt to gain more information and dramatize their plight.

At which point things will get interesting. We should keep our eyes open. Will McCarrick’s trip generate support among American Catholics for the Palestinian Christians? If it does, it will demonstrate that all that was needed was for America’s Catholics to be shown the injustices being suffered by the Christians in the area; that they were ready to be rallied once a prominent member of the hierarchy that they trusted took the lead on this issue.

If, on the other hand, the American Catholic response is a nation-wide yawn, things will be harder to explain. What would a lack of response to McCarrick imply? One possibility is that his expression of concern for the Palestinian Christians will go unheard because he will get little play on the nightly news. This would mean that we have reached a stage where American Catholic leaders can no longer effectively lead without the cooperation of the mainstream media.

Another explanation could be that America’s Catholics, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, have developed a sympathy for the Israeli contention that there are hard things they must do to protect themselves from Muslim terrorism. If that is the case, it would mean that a significant number of America’s Catholics has come down in favor of the Israeli position on the Israeli settlements and against that of the Holy Land Christian Society; that they view Cardinal McCarrick’s concerns for the Palestinian Christians as well-meaning but unrealistic in a post-9/11 world.

But there is another possibility: that large numbers of America’s Catholics no longer take their Catholicism seriously enough to pay any attention to what Cardinal McCarrick says, or to take the time to view from a Catholic perspective the conflicting arguments made by the Palestinian Christians and the Israelis about the West Bank — that they are uninterested in the plight of Palestinian Christians because they are uninterested in what it means to think as a Catholic.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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