Arab Christians

Struggling to keep olive-wood traditions alive in Bethlehem (But why the big crisis?)

Struggling to keep olive-wood traditions alive in Bethlehem (But why the big crisis?)

At two very different points in my life, I had a chance to talk with Christians in Bethlehem, while looking over some of the wood-carvings and other gifts in their shops.

That first visit was at Christmas in 1972, when I was a Baylor University freshman in a touring choir. The second was in 2000, when I was in Israel and Jordan at a conference on religion-news trends -- linked to Pope John Paul II and his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

There were major changes between those visits. There have been more changes since then. But the olive trees remain and artists still turn the wood into crosses, Nativity sets, rosaries and other gifts that pilgrims and tourists take home as symbols of their visits. There's an olive-wood cross (simple and Protestant) from 1972 hanging next to my computer as I write this. My other olive-wood Jerusalem cross? It's in my family's Orthodox altar corner. Turn, turn, turn.

All of this is to say that I appreciated the Religion News Service feature focusing on the many current issues and challenges that swirl around the Christians of the West Bank. The headline: "In Christ’s birthplace, olive wood artisans carry on a Holy Land tradition."

Yes, the Christians (and some Muslim artists) carry on. But trends in the Middle East keep making the lives of Christians more difficult and even dangerous. What is causing so much pain and stress? Hold that thought. There is much to praise in this RNS piece, but there is one crucial passage that I found rather stunning.

Let's start with the overture and the family at the heart of the story:

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (RNS) -- Thirty years ago Bassem Giacaman, whose large extended family has lived in this town for generations, immigrated to New Zealand with his parents and siblings in search of a life far away from the turmoil of the Middle East.
They left behind a small shop and olive wood factory, one of a few dozen olive wood enterprises in and around Bethlehem, which Christians around the world revere as the birthplace of Jesus.
Most of these businesses are owned by Christian families that have been carving religious items such as crosses, rosaries and Nativity scenes for nearly two millennia.

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Concerning Jerusalem, Donald Trump, Arab Christian anger and, yes, American evangelicals

Concerning Jerusalem, Donald Trump, Arab Christian anger and, yes, American evangelicals

Trust me when I say that I understand why so many Christians in the ancient churches of the Middle East are frustrated with America, and American evangelicals in particular, when it comes to the complex and painful status of Jerusalem.

As I have mentioned several times here at GetReligion, when I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy two decades ago my family became part of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese -- which is closely tied to the ancient Orthodox flock based in Damascus. Then, from 2001-2005 (including 9/11), we were active in a West Palm Beach, Fla., parish that was primarily made up of families with ties to Syria, Lebanon and, yes, Israel and the West Bank.

I will not try to sum up their lives and viewpoints in a few lines. Suffice it to say, they struggled to understand why so many American Christians have little or no interest in the daily lives and realities of Christians whose Holy Land roots go back to Pentecost.

Thus, I am thankful that the Washington Post international desk has updated a familiar, yet still urgent, news topic as we get closer to the Christmas season. The hook, of course, is the announcement by President Donald Trump about the status of the U.S. embassy in Israel. The headline: "Trump plan to move U.S. embassy to Jerusalem angers Middle East Christians."

The overture is familiar, yet sadly newsy:

JERUSALEM -- Some of the festive cheer was missing this weekend at a public Christmas tree lighting near the site where Christians believe an angel proclaimed Christ’s birth to local shepherds. 
“Our oppressors have decided to deprive us from the joy of Christmas,” Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the former archbishop and Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, told the crowd in the town of Beit Sahour in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “Mr. Trump told us clearly Jerusalem is not yours.”
The Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there has provoked widespread opposition among Christians across the Middle East. When Vice President Pence arrives next week on a trip touted as a chance to check on the region’s persecuted Christians, he will be facing an awkward backlash.

Right there, you see, is the story that has loomed in the background for decades.

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Palestinian Christians: Why so little coverage outside of Easter and Christmas?

Palestinian Christians: Why so little coverage outside of Easter and Christmas?

Mainstream news coverage of the persecution of Middle East Christians -- including the lack of such coverage -- receives lots of attention here at GetReligion. Here's a sample in the form of one of our "Crossroads" podcasts.

Elsewhere, the level of coverage tends to ebb and flow with the degree of brutality accompanying the persecution. When a large number of Christians are murdered -- say, by the Islamic State in Syria or Iraq -- the coverage spikes. When the discrimination is merely pervasive but not violent in a spectacular way -- such as that endured by Egypt's Copts -- the coverage recedes.

Here are two examples of journalistic attention to the issue.

One is an editorial from Britain's The Guardian. The other is a news piece from Fox News.

Note that the latter underscores the possibility of the eradication of the Middle East's ancient churches from the lands that birthed them. (More recently arrived Protestant churches also are under assault, of course.)

What you generally hear less about is the plight of the Christian minorities living under Palestinian rule in the West Bank and Gaza. And when you do see a story it's likely to be timed to Christmas or Easter, when Palestinian Christians are most visible to the international media and a Holy Land dateline is a beloved trade hallmark, even if that means ignoring the fact that many Christians in this region are using the older Julian calendar and, thus, celebrate Christmas and Pascha later than the churches of the West.

Here's one Christmas piece published a few years back on the Wall Street Journal website. And here's 2015 Christmas story in The New York Times.

Why do Palestinian Christians living under Palestinian rule get so much less attention?

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The New York Times digs into 'Arab' sex problems (and all Arabs are alike, you know)

The New York Times digs into 'Arab' sex problems (and all Arabs are alike, you know)

At the time of 9/11, my family was part of an Eastern Orthodox parish in South Florida in which most of the members -- a strong majority -- were either Arab or Lebanese. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least.

One strong memory: The anger of grandparents noting that their grandchildren were being harassed at local schools -- in one case, pushed around on a playground -- because they were "Arabs" and "Arabs" attacked the World Trade Center. This American-born child from a Christian Arab home was wearing his gold baptismal cross at the time the other kids jumped him.

Don't people realize, parishioners kept saying, that "Arab" is not a religious term, that "Arab" is not the same thing as "Muslim"? Don't they know that Christians have been part of Middle Eastern culture since the early church? Don't they know that the "Muslim world" is not the same thing as the "Arab world"?

I thought of this while reading a New York Times Sunday Review article that ran with this headline: "The Sexual Misery of the Arab World." Here is how it starts:

ORAN, Algeria -- After Tahrir came Cologne. After the square came sex. The Arab revolutions of 2011 aroused enthusiasm at first, but passions have since waned. Those movements have come to look imperfect, even ugly: For one thing, they have failed to touch ideas, culture, religion or social norms, especially the norms relating to sex. Revolution doesn’t mean modernity.

Note the reference to "ideas, culture, religion or social norms." Let's continue:

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