This is the week Jerusalem cleans up. Kodachrome boxes, gum wrappers, and bottled water containers are what's left of the tourist procession from the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
During Passion Week travel to the holy sites of Christendom did not noticeably abate even with terrorism on the rise, as Palestinians and Israelis continued armed clashes over Israel's plans to build a Jewish settlement in nearby East Jerusalem. The hordes of visitors noted well the steps of Christ as they navigated with metal detectors to trace the traditional path of his condemnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. What they did not see is how few local followers of Jesus there are among the landmarks.
Both Palestinian clergy and Christian worshipers from the nearby West Bank and other biblical sites are forbidden from traveling to Jerusalem to worship at the place where Jesus is believed to have been crucified. Israeli taxis weighed down with Western tourists crisscross the Old City, but Palestinian believers--their cars branded with special blue license plates--cannot leave the occupied areas even for the short excursion to Jerusalem.
Israel's policies toward Palestinians fail to distinguish between Muslim and Christian: All face limited access to jobs, schools, places of worship, and right to travel.
Palestinian Christians have long been the unattended victims in the Jewish-Muslim strife that engulfs Jerusalem and the West Bank. From the Israeli perspective, they are lumped with Palestinian Muslims like those responsible for the suicide bombing two weeks ago that killed three Israelis in a Tel Aviv cafe. From the Palestinian point of view, they are afforded scant representation under the recently formed Palestinian Authority, headed by Yasser Arafat.
This is the month Jerusalem considers whether evangelism will continue legally. Christian groups are gearing up to fight a law likely to be passed by the Knesset, Israel's parliament, that would forbid "illegal possession" of literature in which there is "any form of effort to persuade another to change his religion." It would make it illegal "to hold, print, copy, distribute, or hand out" printed material that seeks religious conversion. And the law carries a penalty of one-year imprisonment. Cosponsored by members of the Torah Judaism Party and the Labor Party, the bill passed a preliminary reading in the full Knesset in February. It has been referred to a committee and will be resubmitted to the full Knesset to pass three more readings before becoming law.
Opponents of the legislation criticize its vagueness as well as its infringement of civil and religious liberties. They say it could be used to eliminate all discourse about Christian ideas in the birthplace of Christ. They point out that it compromises Israel's reputation as a lone democracy among the strict Arab nations of the Middle East.
"It threatens to place Israel squarely in the company of pariah nations," said Baruch Maoz, a Messianic Jew who is heading up opposition to the proposed law. "It would subject the consciences of the citizens of Israel to the tyranny of a religiously motivated censorship and rob them of an essential freedom recognized by all free countries in the world."
The bill is a direct result of undiscerning evangelistic tactics used by American televangelist Morris Cerullo. Last year he mailed to one million Israeli households a Christian tract, "The Peace." Jews upset with his approach very publicly set fire to the booklets outside the Knesset building in Tel Aviv. For them, "it was just the moment of opportunity," said Mr. Maoz, who said opposition to outside ministries has been growing. Messianic and Christian communities in Israel, who were not consulted about the Cerullo campaign, were not pleased with it, either, he said. Ironically, opponents of the legislation say, Israel could be cutting off its nose to spite its face by risking the ire of American evangelical groups, who have offered strong support for Israel's autonomy in the region.
Local congregations and Christian ministries have formed a Messianic Action Committee to campaign for the legislation's reversal. They hope civil liberties groups that are just now becoming interested in the bill will join the coalition opposing its passage. So far the MAC has organized a day of fasting and prayer held on March 23, with another one scheduled for April 14; contacted overseas organizations to exert international pressure on Knesset members; met with cosponsor Nissim Zvili of the Labor Party to voice opposition to the bill; and begun to build a legal team ready to fight the restrictions in court should the bill become law.
The Hebrew daily HaAretz reports that 78 of the Knesset's 120 members will vote in favor of the bill. The momentum comes from Orthodox parties, composed mostly of rabbinical Jews, who hold the balance of power under the parliamentary system. These Orthodox parties share the coalition government with the ruling Likud Party, and the upcoming vote could be a test of the government's cohesion. Either the Likud or Labor parties could block the legislation, but both risk losing support from the Orthodox parties needed to gain a majority on any issue. So far, according to Mr. Maoz, the legislation has attracted little attention in the press or on the street, even though it threatens to alter radically the nature of Israeli society.
"The majority of the public does not realize that freedom per se is the issue," he said. "The orthodox community gained clout in the recent national elections and they have encouraged nationalistic expressions." That, combined with clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces over Jewish settlements, heightens a pervasive feeling that national integrity is at stake. Mr. Maoz says his group shares an interest in national integrity and warns its overseas supporters not to use the issue as an opportunity for "Israel-bashing."
This is the year, so far, that the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995 are becoming undone. The threat comes from unrest in East Jerusalem over Jewish settlements and continued terrorism on the part of Palestinians. A planned summit between Palestinian Authority leader Mr. Arafat and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu seems remote. Lost in the breakdown over border demarcations, water rights, Jerusalem, and the status of Israeli settlers and Palestinian refugees is any discussion of how Christians are to be treated by both sides.
In 1948 Christians made up 10 percent of the Holy Land's population. They make up only two percent of the contentious region from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank to the Lebanon border. While their population there has remained constant--at 150,000--the Palestinian Muslim and Jewish populations have exploded.
The Palestinian Authority has given six seats on its 88-member legislative council to Christians for representation in the areas it controls.
Baptist pastor Faud Sakhnini, who heads a church and school in Nazareth, says he will remain even though two of his sons have emigrated to the United States where they can practice their Christian beliefs more freely. Mr. Sakhnini said, "I always tell the Lord, `Lord, I am very unworthy to serve you in your hometown.' I feel this is a great honor and privilege."