Israel-based journalist Sharona Schwartz covers Middle East news for The Blaze:
In The Simpson’s episode The Greatest Story Ever D’ohed, Homer and the gang travel on a Holy Land pilgrimage at the urging of his Evangelical Christian neighbor Ned Flanders who wants to open his heart to religion. Predictably, Flanders is frustrated time and again by Homer, who after pigging out at the hotel breakfast buffet and goofing around at King David’s tomb, falls asleep at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site of Jesus’s burial and resurrection.
Homer: It’s so cool here in the Tomb of the Unknown Savior. Ned: Unknown? He’s the most famous person who ever lived! Homer: Porky Pig? Ned: Porky Pig isn’t a person! He’s a pig, and he’s not even a real pig! Homer: But he is buried here, right?
Irreverent animated jokes aside, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the most sacred sites in Christendom, situated in the Old City of Jerusalem which has been under Israeli control since the 1967 Six Day War. Since then, the Israeli government has shown commitment to maintaining the sanctity of all holy places – regardless of whose religion it’s holy to.
But take just a peek outside Israel and you see a different picture entirely. One by one, time and again, here is how some of Israel’s neighbors, Muslim-controlled countries, demonstrate their commitment to respecting Christianity and Judaism.
You need drive only an hour north of the Holy Sepulchre to observe how the Palestinian Authority has treated sites holy to Christians and Jews under its control.
The patriarch Joseph is believed to be buried in the biblical town of Shechem, which is today called Nablus. When the second Intifada started in 2000, a battle took place at Joseph’s tomb, killing 18 Palestinians and an Israeli border policeman who was left to bleed to death inside. To avoid further tension, Israel quickly withdrew its forces and handed control of the site to the Palestinian Authority, even though under the Oslo agreement, Israelis were supposed to have free access to Jewish holy sites. And what was the first act of self-determination the Palestinians carried out within hours of taking charge? They stormed the compound and devastated the site, using pickaxes and setting it on fire.
Jewish Virtual Library says, “…the Palestinian Police stood by as a mob ransacked the site, burned [prayer] books and destroyed reading stands; the mob also burned down the army outpost. On that same day, an American-born rabbi, who taught at the seminary, was found slain outside Nablus.”
The not particularly pro-Israel European Union condemned “without reserve” the site’s destruction by Palestinians, calling “for the absolute respect of holy sites for believers of all religions.”
The desecration did not stop there. Let’s travel from the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection to the site of his birth.
In 2002, trying to stem the plague of suicide bombings against its innocent civilians, Israel carried out military operations in cities under Palestinian Authority control. In Bethlehem, 39 wanted gunmen carrying explosives and assault weapons busted into the Church of the Nativity for a five week standoff, holding hostage 46 priests, church workers, and 200 civilians, including children. The church is believed to sit atop the cave where Jesus was born.
Despite the Palestinian terrorists’ cynical use of innocent civilians and this holy location as cover, Israel said it did not want to use live ammunition that might damage the sacred site. Instead the IDF imposed a curfew, took shots from the terrorists, and placed snipers on nearby buildings who succeeded in killing seven gunmen all the while doing their best to not hit the church. Subsequent interviews with the terrorists revealed they intentionally chose the church as their refuge to pressure Israel.
Priests held hostage said the gunmen stole gold, crucifixes and prayer books. When the siege ended, Israeli police reported finding 40 explosive devices – some booby-trapped – left by the Palestinians in the church.
How has the Arab Spring treated its Christian minority?
Within weeks of President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, the Two Martyrs Church in south Cairo was torched after being attacked by a Muslim mob.
In May, The New York Times reported on concerns among Egypt’s Christians, who due to the weakening of the Egyptian police “fear that the Egyptian revolution had made their country less tolerant and more dangerous for religious minorities.”
Then on September 9, The Assyrian International News Agency reported the intolerance is looking like an MO of the new Egyptian order, where Muslims in the Upper Egyptian village of Elmarinab in the Aswan province are threatening their Christian neighbors to demolish their church.
Dr. Naguib Gabriel, head of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organization (EUHRO), said this incident is one in a series of persecutions and attacks on Copts and their churches. “The Muslim Brotherhood announced immediately after the revolution that it is impossible to build any new church in Egypt, and churches which are demolished should never be rebuilt, as well as no crosses over churches or bells to be rung.”
Showing it’s not just the Israeli embassy that’s vulnerable, France 24 filed this report from Egypt on the targeting of Christians:
In 2009, 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon profiled Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, who feels “crucified” in modern Muslim Turkey:
Turkish authorities have seized Christian properties and closed Christian churches, monasteries and schools. His parishioners are afraid that the authorities want to force Bartholomew and his church – the oldest of all Christian churches – out of Turkey.
Lest we forget, Turkey’s largest city Istanbul “was called Constantinople and was the most important city in the Christian world.”
According to The Christian Post, in 2009, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was arrested for protesting the Iranian policy of forcing Christian children to participate in Muslim religious education. He was convicted of apostasy and sentenced to death by hanging. This summer, the Supreme Court in the Qom province annulled his death sentence but with a twist.
“The Supreme Court has annulled the death sentence and sent the case back to the court in Rasht (his hometown), asking the accused to repent,” said attorney [Mohammed Ali] Dadkhah.
Repent meaning renounce his faith in Jesus Christ.
The lower court is being asked to investigate whether Nadarkhani was indeed an apostate, that is, someone who converted away from Islam.
Perhaps the best example of religious intolerance comes from non-other than Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah calls himself the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” a pious title that gains him legitimacy in the eyes of Muslims as he controls Islam’s holiest sites of Mecca and Medina.
But what about other religions in the kingdom?
Guess how many churches there are in Saudi Arabia. Zero. While Christians are allowed in the country, they are not allowed to worship together openly or own any religious symbols like Bibles or crucifixes. Not to mention Jews, who if they admit to their religion are not allowed into the country.
And these rules aren’t never-enforced arcane policies on the books. Last year in Riyadh, Saudi police raided a secret Catholic mass and arrested a dozen Filipinos and a Catholic priest.
Yes, it’s true Israel is the only flourishing democracy in the Middle East, it shares core values with the United States and shares the burden of fighting terrorism, but don’t forget it is also the custodian of Christianity’s holiest places. This wasn’t the case before 1967 when Jordan held East Jerusalem and the Old City.
When you hear the Palestinians ask the United Nations this week to recognize them as an independent state with East Jerusalem as their capital, take pause to remember what Palestinian militants did at the Church of the Nativity and at Joseph’s Tomb.
When you hear President Obama talk about returning to the 1967 borders, make no mistake what that means.
The argument over Palestinian independence, control of East Jerusalem and 1967 borders boils down to this: who should be custodian to Christianity’s most sacred places?
The fight over Jerusalem is not just about the Israelis and Palestinians, it’s also about the Christian world. Can it afford to outsource protection of its holy sites to those who don’t share its values?
When did statehood become an entitlement? Doesn’t a populace first have to prove it respects international law, which at last check didn’t include a requirement to lob rockets at civilian neighbors. Has a Palestinian Authority that spends $5 million every month paying salaries to terrorists sitting in Israeli prisons for blowing up innocent civilians demonstrated it’s worthy of the responsibility that comes with statehood?
On 8/24, Glenn Beck asked us to “Stand with Israel” during Restoring Courage in Jerusalem – mere steps from the Temple Mount, the al Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, all sites that since 1967 have enjoyed Israel’s respect for freedom of worship.
Who should you stand with? The Palestinian one-sided declaration of statehood or the country that stands with you and all you hold holy and dear.