Rev. Ateek letter to the editor to the Irish Times

Rev. Naim Ateek wrote a letter to the editor to the Irish Times on April 30 (see letter below); but unfortunately, his letter was not chosen by the newspaper for publication. Ateek was responding to an outrageous letter to the editor (written by Simon Mcilwaine from Anglican Friends of Israel on April 19), which can be read at this link:

Sir, – I was shocked to read Simon Mcilwaine’s letter to the editor (April 19th) criticizing the article, “Palestinian Christians dwindling in number due to political situation,” (April 16th). Mcilwaine’s letter is full of very disturbing inaccuracies about Christians in the Palestinian territories and Israel.

Mcilwaine says that Christians are emigrating out of the Palestinian territories because of systematic persecution of Christians by Muslims. This is an absurd generalization that does not reflect the facts. Yes, there are sometimes isolated frictions between Muslims and Christians in the Palestinian territories as there are within each of their communities themselves. However, both communities have lived peacefully together in this region since the 7th century. Christian and Muslim Palestinians live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same schools, and suffer equally under Israel’s 45-year occupation – including checkpoints, the Wall, and the loss of land and housing to Israeli settlements. They also both suffer from lack of freedom (including freedom of movement), unemployment and poor economic conditions, attacks from settlers, family unification problems, and collective humiliation.

Our Sabeel center’s surveys (2006, see and other surveys such as ” Palestinian Christians: Facts, Figures and Trends,” (Diyar, 2008) found the first reason for Christian emigration out of the Palestinian territories was lack of freedom and security, followed by the deteriorating economic situation, political instability, and the pursuit of education abroad. The last reasons were family reunification and religious extremism.

Arab-Israeli Christians in Israel are not as integrated into Israeli society as Mcilwaine describes. Arab Israeli citizens are second class citizens in every way and racism inside Israel against Arabs is on the rise. According to the recently released U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices for 2012, Arab-Israeli citizens face institutional and societal discrimination, including attacks on individual Arab citizens and discrimination in funding schools and allocating land and resources, (see In addition, while a few individual Arab-Israeli Christians and Muslims choose to serve in the Israeli Army, the vast majority do not serve. Even those who are drafted – like the Druze young men – do not enjoy the same benefits derived from serving in the Army as Jewish soldiers do. There also is no “genuine religious freedom” in Israel (as Mcilwaine argues) if thousands of Christians and Muslims in the Palestinian territories and East Jerusalem have limited access to their holy sites because of checkpoints, denials of permits by Israel, and sometimes blocked pathways to such sites during holy events. While the Christian population inside Israel is growing, their growth is attributed to the large influx of Russian Christian immigrants.

Arab-Israeli Christians do not live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The exception to this is in occupied East Jerusalem, where illegal Israeli settlements are built inside Palestinian neighborhoods, tearing these neighborhoods apart. Palestinians have their land confiscated or have no building permits (due to Israel’s discriminatory land allocation practices), all which forces them to rent from Jewish tenets in one settlement. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) recently petitioned against an unapproved document that is being used to limit Palestinian rights to build in East Jerusalem and justify demolitions of East Jerusalem homes. As ACRI aptly stated, “Palestinian residents face extreme limitations on building and planning, and suffer from acute shortage of housing, crowded living conditions, and an across-the-board lack of public spaces and institutions.” (see

Mcilwaine goes on to say that it was the Palestinian terrorists who took over the Church of Nativity and desecrated it. This statement lacks serious context. The church was a refuge for the Palestinians during Israeli’s invasion into Area “A” of the West Bank in 2002, including Bethlehem. The Palestinian fighters, surrounded by Israeli forces, were defending their town and sought safety inside the church. The church authorities granted them permission. The desecration took place because of the length of Israel’s military siege – over 40 days – with no food or adequate facilities inside the church.

A most disturbing question Mcilwaine asks is, “What is the magic ingredient that makes Palestinian Muslims immune to the depressing drive to torment Christians which so characterizes the rest of the Muslim world?” This generalization concerns me because it expresses ignorance and prejudice, and contradicts Jesus’s teachings of love of neighbor. Such inaccuracies create unnecessary damage and community divisions that are not conducive to peace, which is so badly needed in this region. – Yours, etc,

Rev. Canon Naim Ateek
Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center
Jerusalem, Israel
April 30, 2013