I hadn’t been awake very long last Sunday morning when I opened a rather cryptic email from my friend Dexter van Zile, a talented researcher and writer based in the United States.
His subject line read, “So what do we know about the fire in the monastery in Bethlehem?” The email text asked me, “Got anything substantive?”
At that point I was still half-asleep – mostly focused on a cup of very strong coffee. But Dexter’s message was a literal wakeup call, and I bolted upright, thinking, What fire?
I quickly wrote to two friends in Bethlehem who I was sure would know about a local inferno. One sent me some photos from an Arabic-language media source, but said that no details were available. Another said that the Palestinian Authority was blaming an electrical problem.
A few hours later, the Israel National News (Arutz Sheva) featured a rather ironic headline, “PA Strangely Silent after Muslims Set Bethlehem Church Afire”
The story continued,
The Palestinian Authority has been curiously silent over a major fire at a Christian church in Bethlehem. In its sole statement, the PA said that the fire at the St. Charbel Church in the city was caused by an “electrical malfunction” – a description that is at odds with an account by Israeli Christian Arab Father Gabriel Naddaf, who said that the church was burned down Saturday night by “Palestinian extremists.”
I posted the story on Facebook, and almost immediately received a string of responses – most of them mocking the “strangely silent” wording of the headline. My friends’ comments all said pretty much the same thing: “What’s so strange about that? Of course they aren’t reporting the real story!”
It took a day or two more to collect further details: the St. Charbel Maronite Monastery in Bethlehem had been intentionally torched. And Sobhy Makhoul, the chancellor of Jerusalem’s Maronite Patriarchate, wasted no words: “It was an act of arson. An act of sectarian vandalism by radical Muslims.”
Asia News, a Catholic site, went on to say,
The fire caused no casualties or injuries because the building is currently unoccupied and under renovation, but the damage is evident and the local Christian community is now fearful of further violence. The arsonists “got inside a room that had a lot of stuff, including furniture … because the building is undergoing restoration work. The fire reached it and spread quickly throughout the structure.”
Police sources said that Muslim extremist groups have been active in the area and the culprits are already known and should “be soon apprehended.”
Meanwhile, a reliable source informed me that although thieves had ransacked the Maronite Monastery two days prior to the fire, the police neither responded nor investigated. And, contrary to the PA’s report of an electrical fire, St. Charbel has no electrical supply.
All this reminded me of another fire at a Bethlehem church – the Church of the Nativity. After Pope Francis’ visit to Bethlehem in May 2014, a blaze did substantial damage to the grotto where tradition says that Jesus was born.
I also received photographs of that incident from someone in Bethlehem who indicated more harm than what was described as a “curtain set ablaze by a lamp.”
Friends of Fox News posted the photos on Facebook. The entire area appeared to have been seriously torched.
Still, the lamp-curtain story stuck, even though Christians who live or work in Bethlehem remain convinced that radical Muslims set the church alight in defiance of the Pope’s visit – and that the destruction was far greater than the widely reported smoke-damage.
More recently, the beloved Tabgha Church in Galilee was also set on fire by vandals and was badly damaged. The historic church is cherished by Christians all around the world because of its beautiful setting and its fifth century mosaic portraying a basket of bread and two fishes. This mosaic recalls Jesus’ miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes, which is believed to have taken place at that same seaside location.
In a Philos Project article, I wrote that the church sanctuary itself was, thankfully, not too badly harmed. However, the roof, some storage areas and a few meeting places were significantly damaged.
But deeper injury was inflicted on the tenuous alliance between Israel’s Jews and Christians. The bold red graffiti marking the incident indicated that the attack was the work of “price-tag” vandals; this term generally describes vandalism carried out against non-Jews in response to Arab attacks, government decisions or disapproval of Christian activity.
The Tabgha Church fire was widely reported internationally. The assumption was that Israeli Jews had harmed a historic Christian site, providing just the kind of sensational hook that news editors rely on for headlines, as well as for multiple tweets and likes.
In sharp contrast, radical Muslims attacking a church that is supposed to be under the protection of the Palestinian Authority is an entirely different matter. Unless there is serious bloodshed or celebrity involvement, such episodes remain largely unreported.
Unlike the press freedom in Israel, where reportage and commentary are freewheeling and unrestrained, all news outlets in PA-controlled areas are carefully monitored – including social media. It is perilous for Christians and their families, who live in those areas, to write or speak openly about radical Islamist threats, injustices or violence.
At times, the powers-that-be aren’t even satisfied with silence. In a recent article, a prominent Protestant minister in Jerusalem accused the Palestinian Authority of coercing the Christian leadership in the Holy Land into speaking out against Israel.
Wishing to remain anonymous, this senior clergyman told The Algemeiner that the release of a “Statement from the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem” – signed by 13 church leaders and demanding that Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan take custody of all holy places in Israel to maintain the “status quo” – was the direct result of an “unholy” relationship between Arab Muslims and the Christians who live in fear of their wrath.
The Christian leaders in Israel and the Palestinian Authority “are put under threat by the Palestinian-Muslim authorities … so much so that today there was a meeting of the heads of the churches, begging the PA to be nice to the Christians in Bethlehem, who live under severe threat.”
In exchange for temporary relief from Islamist harassment, the Christian leaders signed a document that falsely accused Israel of “threats of change to historical (status quo) situation in the Al-Aqsa Mosque (Haram Al-Sharif) and its courtyard, all buildings and in the city of Jerusalem.”
Dhimmitude is a term for the obligatory discrimination and subjection of minorities – dhimmis – under Islamic Sharia law. In the days of the Ottoman Empire, both Christians and Jews were required to submit to their Muslim overlords with regards to their clothing, their places of residence, their finances, their means of transportation – in short, every conceivable Islamic demand required their abject capitulation.
Those who did not submit suffered harassment, physical abuse and perhaps even death. We see this acted out horrifically before our eyes in today’s world: the cruelty of Islamist terrorists such as ISIS toward Christians, Yazidis and other minorities is widely reported, including graphic videos of beheadings and mass executions.
To a lesser degree, we also see dhimmitude in the Palestinian territories. Likewise, it is evident on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, where Jews (and Christians) are required – like dhimmis – to obey the demands of the Jordanian Waqf. They are denied the right to pray or worship, and even have been accused of defiling the holiest site in Judaism with their “filthy feet.”
After centuries of subjugation, Christians who live in Bethlehem and other PA-administered cities habitually live in dhimmi-like fear. Most do not openly oppose Muslims. Those of us who write about Christian persecution in such places are well aware that we cannot provide real names or cite organizational sources.
This is the primary reason for media silence about Muslim attacks on churches and individuals in Palestinian-controlled areas. Few Christians are willing to take the risk of speaking openly. In the meantime, by many accounts, the pressure on Christians is increasing exponentially.
With these realities in mind, and after concluding his research, van Zile passed on to me his personal observations about the monastery fire – and the grim picture of intensifying Christian subjugation in the Palestinian territories.
It's hard to talk about the fire at St. Charbel’s without implying that the chickens are coming home to roost. But that's what is happening and it needs to be said openly.
For decades, [Palestinian] Christians have been pointing the finger of accusation at Israel, where Christians are able to participate in politics in a free and open manner. Meanwhile, they remain silent about the mistreatment they endure at the hands of radical Muslims in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian Christians have aligned themselves with a Sharia-inspired nationalist movement in hopes of protecting their lives and property. This was always a short-term strategy, because Sharia enshrines Islamic supremacism over non-Muslims. And now those attitudes are manifesting themselves in an undeniable manner.
“Such,” van Zile concluded, “are the wages of dhimmitude.”