Every year around Easter, the world starts to think about Christian Arabs.
Christians in the Middle East are Arab and non-Arab, and ignored by everyone, including in the West.
This week, the issue of Christian Arabs surfaced again, in a political context driven by the right-wing political agenda of Israel's extremist government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel's parliament, the Knesset, approved a law that asserts Christian Arabs are a "separate minority" from Muslim Arabs. The legislation was introduced by one of Netanyahu's senior coalition leaders, Yariv Levin, of the Likud Party.
Levin describes it as "an important historic move that can balance Israel and bring us closer to Christians."
His views are driven by racism, as reflected in his comments to the media: "I am careful not to call them [Christian Arabs] Arabs, because they're not Arabs. Christians are our natural allies, a counter-balance against the Muslims who want to destroy the State from within."
Levin is only saying what many Israelis and right-wing American Jews believe, that Israel's occupation and policies harm Christians as much as they harm Muslims. They are concerned one day Western Christians might awaken to that reality and see Israel for what it really is.
The CBS program "60 Minutes" reported that Christian Holy sites and cities, like Bethlehem, may one day be devoid of Christians, occupied only by Muslims and Jews because of the conflict. (Click here to see the report online: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/christians-of-the-holy-land /)
The truth is Israel not only discriminates against Muslims, it also discriminates against Christians. Israel confiscates lands from Muslims and Christians. It uses violence against Muslims and Christians to enforce its occupation. Israel steals lands from Muslims and Christians, like myself. They do it in several ways, including through annexation, isolation and restrictions against non-Jews.
Ironically, the Arabs have made this an easy issue for Israel to exploit. Although the Arab activists are screaming (worthlessly, as they always do) that the move is racist and wrong, they have discriminated against Christian Arabs, too.
As a Christian Arab, I am attacked, vilified and libeled online, at public events and even in Israel and Palestine by Muslim Arab extremists who reject a moderate voice of reason and who fundamentally deep down hate Christians as much as they hate Jews. Fanatics like Ikhras, KabobFest, the Islamic Association for Palestine and Electronic Intifada, which have historically attacked me because I am a Christian Arab. Worse, because my wife is a Jew. They deny it just the way Levin denies he is politically exploiting the Christian religion. Many extremist Islamic and Israeli groups marginalize Christian Arabs who support compromise based on two-states.
Worse, is that moderate Muslims remain silent, refusing to confront these religious-driven fanatics.
I am tempted to embrace Levin's idea of having Israel protect Christians, except that I don't believe Israelis really care that much about Christians. Israel has treated my Christian relatives with the same discriminatory policies they use against Muslims.
The only real truth in the Middle East today is that Christians are oppressed by all sides: Israel, the Arabs countries, Jews and Muslims. Christian Arabs are fleeing. Christians in Israel and the Occupied West Bank have decreased significantly from more than 12 percent to slightly more than 2 percent of the population.
But Christian Arabs are often targeted by Muslim religious extremists in the West Bank and the Arab world. Taybeh, now the only Palestinian village that is all Christian, continues to be targeted by extremists. Over the years, the Christian mayor's car was burned to the ground. Christians there have been assaulted. The claimed reason is that the village produces the only native Palestinian Beer, Taybeh Beer, which fanatic Muslims consider "Haram," or a sin.
Moderate Muslims have refused to stand up for Christian Arabs against extremists who have targeted any public form of celebration of non-Muslim Christian lifestyles including, dancing and public celebrations. During Ramadan, Christian Arabs are expected to defer to Muslim practices, including by fasting and not eating in public.
While the Israelis refuse to allow me to lay claim to my family land adjacent to the illegal Israeli settlement of Gilo in the West Bank, Muslims in a neighboring village, Sharafat, are seeking to take the land from my family because we are Christian. The Mukhtar of the village has refused to speak with me about the status of my land even though, since 1967, my family has allowed its villagers to harvest olives from the 160 olive trees on the property, which is 33.5 dunum (or slightly over 8 acres).
The fact that my wife is Jewish means nothing to the Israelis. The fact I am Palestinian Christian means nothing to the Muslims. Both sides equally covet the valuable land, for the same religious reasons.
Neither side likes the fact that Christian Arabs are Arab by culture if not by Biblical history. Jesus, the first Christian, was a Jew. Over the subsequent centuries, Christians converted from Judaism and paganism, and even some from Islam after it was founded in the 7th century. Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christianity, is under a brutal Israeli military occupation. Christian holy sites are under siege by Israel, as they have been by Islam.
Neither side is any different. Muslims want to erase the issue, while Israel wants to exploit it.
Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian American columnist for the Saudi Gazette and the managing editor of The Arab Daily News at www.TheArabDailyNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @RayHanania. To find out more about Ray Hanania and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.
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