Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), whose group participated in the recent "Christ at the Checkpoint" conference in Bethlehem in the West Bank, insists, based on his observations, that the way forward for the dwindling number of Palestinian Christians is dangerous and limited.
The "Christ at the Checkpoint" conference held March 5-9, brought together more than 600 international and local Christians to discuss the future of Palestinian Christians. It also addressed how to keep hope and faith in Christ amid the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and studied biblical ways of viewing the issues that have historically divided the two communities.
Tooley, who worked for eight years as an analyst for the CIA before joining the IRD to found its United Methodist Committee, explained recently to The Christian Post that for all Christians currently caught up in the Middle East crisis, "the greatest challenge is survival."
The IRD president explained that the Christian population in that region has been declining for a century or more, due to persecution, political turmoil, low birth rates among Christians, and ties to the West that facilitate emigration.
"Since the Islamic conquests of the Middle East 1400 years ago, once dominant Christian communities there have had to resign themselves to a status of cultural and political subordination, sometimes called dhimmitude," he said, providing some historical background.
"The old Ottoman Empire, which collapsed after World War I, at least gave some protection to Christian minority communities even while limiting their freedom to operate outside their own churches," he added. "Since the early 20th century, Christians in the Middle East often sided with repressive Arab nationalist movements and regimes like Saddam in Iraq and the Assads in Syria (or the PLO among Palestinians), believing they were preferable to Islamist rule."
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In regards to the Arab Spring and the collapse of many nationalist regimes in recent times, the IRD President remarked that many Christians throughout the region have been left vulnerable.
"Sadly, Western Christianity has mostly been indifferent to their plight. But some Western Christians, including organizers of 'Christ at the Checkpoint,' have given unique attention to Palestinian Christians, who comprise about two percent of the Palestinian population (down from perhaps 25 percent 100 years ago), possibly because they serve as a useful template to portray Israel as oppressive," he claimed. "Focusing on Israel as the main regional problem is ultimately not helpful to Christians or to anybody else who wants stability, human rights, and better living standards for Arabs of all faiths."
Tooley also explained that contrary to increased talk in the U.S. about the current Middle East crisis being linked to biblical prophecies related to the end times, the focus of "Christ at the Checkpoint" generally steered away from such claims.
"Some Christian Zionists who are dispensationalist do believe that Jewish Israel is important to God's plan, now and in the future. Other pro-Israel Christians focus on God's promises of land to Abraham and to his descendants and believe these promises are still binding," Tooley said.
"Some pro-Israel Christians are not motivated by a specific theology but simply believe the Jewish people and the land of Israel are providentially and intrinsically linked. And still other pro-Israel Christians, along with most Americans, are sympathetic to Israel because it is democratic and pro-American, in contrast with many of its neighbors," he added.
On the intricacies of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the IRD President revealed that there were many extremist views on both sides that are unlikely to lead to a compromise, especially with the dilemma Palestenians find themselves in between protecting their territory and recognizing Israel's right to exist.
"Many claiming to speak for Palestinian Christians believe their future demands ardently espousing Palestinian 'liberation' and loudly denouncing Israel. As a beleaguered and very small minority, Palestinian Christians lack the freedom to seriously dissent from majority Palestinian opinion. Most Palestinians still seem to nurse the ultimate hope that a Jewish Israel can be eradicated, if not militarily, then more gradually through demography and continued resistance," Tooley shared.
"Most Palestinians seem not to want a two-state solution in which they would fully rule the West Bank and Gaza, but instead dream of a united Palestine that is ultimately free of a large Jewish population. These views are fueled by Palestinian nationalism and by Islamic beliefs that assert that Islamic-controlled lands must never revert to non-Muslim control.
"If there ever is to be peace, most Palestinians will have to adjust their attitudes and accept that a Jewish Israel will continue. They will have to focus on building their own country in the West Bank and Gaza and living as a peaceful neighbor with Israel. Unfortunately, some organizers of 'Christ at the Checkpoint' give the impression they prefer to stoke the hopes of ultimately eradicating a Jewish Israel in favor of a 'one-state' solution rather than changing Palestinian attitudes towards acceptance of peaceful co-existence," Tooley charged.
He suggested that for the small and dwindling minority of Palestinian Christians, the church's options are not very many.
"They can mostly just be faithful through worship, praying and [being a] loving witness to their neighbors. They can perhaps model what peaceful co-existence among different faiths might look like," Tooley concluded.