The steep drop in the number of Christians living in the Palestinian Authority-controlled territories is often blamed on Israel. But Middle East historian and Israel's current ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, says that a similar erosion of Christian populations in other countries in the region suggests the Palestinian narrative is simply not true, and that Israel is in fact the safest place in the Middle East for Christians today.
"As 800,000 Jews were once expelled from Arab countries, so are Christians being forced from lands they've inhabited for centuries," Oren wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
"In Egypt, 200,000 Coptic Christians fled their homes last year after beatings and massacres by Muslim extremist mobs. Since 2003, 70 Iraqi churches have been burned and nearly a thousand Christians killed in Baghdad alone, causing more than half of this million-member community to flee. Conversion to Christianity is a capital offense in Iran... Saudi Arabia outlaws private Christian prayer. ...[and] since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, half the Christian community has fled," explained Oren.
By contrast, Oren sought to remind readers that prior to Israel's surrender of Bethlehem and other Christian cities to Yasser Arafat's PLO in 1995, the Palestinian Arab Christian population was actually growing. But today, Bethlehem's Christians have been reduced from 20 percent of the population to a mere 5 percent.
And that can hardly be blamed on Israel, considering that the Christian population in those territories still controlled by the Jewish state continues to flourish.
"Since Israel's founding in 1948, its Christian communities have expanded more than 1,000%," wrote Oren. "Christians are prominent in all aspects of Israeli life, serving in the Knesset, the Foreign Ministry and on the Supreme Court. They are exempt from military service, but thousands have volunteered and been sworn in on special New Testaments printed in Hebrew."
Instead, it is the same Islamic menace that is driving Christians out of the rest of the region that is also negatively impacting the Palestinian Arab church.
Oren recalls that as a government representative in 1994 he was sent to meet with clergy members in Bethlehem ahead of the city's handover. Anticipating their new position of power over local Christians, Hamas activists had spray-painted the terror group's name on the Church of the Nativity. The clergy "were despondent but too frightened to file a complaint," recounts Oren.
As a non-Jewish believer in Jesus living in Israel, I can fully support Oren's assessment. Israel is a safe haven for Christians. We are fully accepted and respected. Oren acknowledges that there are incidents of intolerance, and that is true, but it is also true of "Christian" nations like America, Germany or the UK.
To suggest that Israel is an oppressor of Christians, especially a purposeful oppressor, is a gross misrepresentation and a disservice to those Christians who truly are being oppressed and driven out by other forces.