JERUSALEM- Dr. Salim Munayer is relaxed, leaning back in his small but welcoming office in South Jerusalem. He almost bumps his head on a bookcase sagging with volumes on Christian theology, history, and Israel. He is quick to offer coffee and other courtesies to guests with questions about Christians in Israel, his homeland.
He encourages the questions, but finally he leans forward and his voice, though not loud, takes on a fierce edge. He finds it "appalling and frustrating" that American evangelicals are ignorant about Israel's history and politics: "Yes, there is persecution against Christians and yes, the Israeli government is the source of much of it. That is the simple truth."
Munayer's ministry, Musalaha (Arabic for "reconciliation"), conducts seminars and extended retreats into the Israeli desert to bring together Messianic Jewish Christians, Palestinian Christians, and others. A recent trip took 38 Palestinian and Israeli teenagers into the Negev Desert. Musalaha also conducts young adult desert trips, summer day camps for children, and youth leader training that focuses on biblical principles and peacemaking.
But there is little that is "touchy-feely" or soft about Munayer. Evangelical Christians spend millions of dollars pointing out the sins of radical Islamic organizations against Israel, he says, while turning a blind eye toward the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians, many of whom are not Muslim, but Christian or secular.
Part of the problem is that Winston Churchill's maxim- "everyone can have his own opinion, but not his own facts"-does not seem to apply. Basic facts and even recent history are in dispute. Munayer, for example, says there are about 180,000 Christians in the combined territory of Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. That's less than 2 percent of today's population of 10 million. Most historians believe there were 200,000 Christians in the region-about 20 percent of the population at the time-in 1948, when the creation of Israel displaced both Christian and Muslim Arabs, creating a refugee problem that many believe is at the heart of Middle East disputes today. Why fewer Christians in Israel today than in 1948? While Israel and many in the West blame the rise of radical Islam, many Arabs believe it is because of oppressive Israeli policies.
Munayer is one of the latter, saying that many of Israel's policies incite hatred. "It is not a blessing to Israel to allow her to provide ammunition to those who seek to destroy her," Munayer said. He does not believe, as many do, that all Arabs hate Israel just because Israel exists. Munayer insists that such a position ignores the redemptive power of Christ and denies the existence of tens of thousands of Arab Christians in the Middle East, and millions of Arab Christians around the world.
He says that Israeli laws discriminate against non-Jews. Munayer, a native Israeli, married a British citizen. If he were Jewish, his wife could maintain dual citizenship. But because he is a Christian, his wife must choose between Israel citizenship and giving up her British passport. (She has elected to be a permanent Israeli resident while remaining a British citizen.) And he says that over the past 20 years, as more than 1 million Russian Jews have "made aliyah," which means they have "come up" or repatriated to Israel, as many as 300,000 family members-families whose native land is Israel but have no religious affiliation or their families are Orthodox Christian-remain in legal limbo, often denied basic citizenship rights.
But the laws that create the most problems in day-to-day life, and the ones that cause the most resentment, are those that subject Arabs who do travel into Jewish portions of Israel to checkpoints where Israeli policemen routinely stop Arab cars. In America, African-Americans complain they are often stopped for "driving while black." In Jerusalem, it is common to see someone pulled over by the police for "driving while Arab," Munayer said.
The checkpoints make simple commutes to work or shopping uncertain. But it's more than a matter of inconvenience: Allyn Dhynes, who is based in Jerusalem with the relief organization World Vision, says the checkpoints often cut off people in need from humanitarian and medical help, and children from their schools.
Israelis defend the laws, saying they are designed to protect the country against terrorism, but Christians and secular Arabs with no ties to terrorism are often caught in the net. A joke sometimes heard in Israel goes like this: An Arab, an Israeli, and an American go into a market and see a sign, "Sorry, but there is a shortage of beef." The Arab says, "What's beef?" The American says, "What's shortage?" And the Israeli says, "What's sorry?"
It's an anecdote that sums up Salim Munayer's frustration not only with American evangelicals but also with the two groups he hopes to reconcile: Arabs and Israelis. "Before religious or any other kind of reconciliation comes about," Munayer said, "all parties involved, including American evangelicals, are going to have to learn the meaning of-and get comfortable with-new ideas."
Sudha Simon undoubtedly began to worry when her husband did not return home after a Saturday evening errand run on June 9. The 4 a.m. phone call she received from him the next morning did little to assuage her fears: "Help, I have been kidnapped! They are beating me to death!" came the voice of her husband. Then the line went dead.
With the recent increase in attacks against Christians in India, the possibility exists that Charles Simon, an Indian national, was kidnapped by religious fanatics. The husband-and-wife team direct the high-profile Kids for the Kingdom ministry in the Indian city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras), a weekly outreach that gives more than 2,000 children warm, nutritious meals and spiritual truths through its Bible Clubs ("Poor but blessed," Sept. 27, 2003).
But details surrounding the kidnapping are sketchy. Police traced the frantic call to a cell phone tower near a Chennai slum. On June 12 a girl from the slum told police that on the night of the abduction she heard a man scream, "Jesus, help me!" As she peered out her window, she witnessed four or five men pushing a man into the darkness. Police have launched a neighborhood search, according to Kids for the Kingdom International Director Greg Dabel (who also is a correspondent for WORLD).
With no tangible evidence of radical religious involvement, it is possible that street thugs orchestrated the abduction. Police also told Dabel they suspect that Simon might have been kidnapped by a gang that harvests and sells human organs.
Attacks targeting believers are slightly less common in India's southern states where Christians comprise almost 5 percent of the population compared to less than 3 percent in the rest of the nation. Chennai, the fourth largest city in India, is the capital of Tamil Nadu, a major center of Christianity.
But throughout the rest of the nation there is growing anti-Christian sentiment and attempts to gain support for Hindu nationalistic goals. Several hundred Christians marched in the streets of New Delhi May 29, protesting the government's apathetic response to the growing persecution of minorities.
Recording and televising these attacks is the latest attempt to generate hostility. Private national news channels are now airing video of Christians being beaten by World Hindu Council militants and members of its youth wing, reports Compass Direct. While the televised beatings could incite more, they also give Christian activists the documented evidence they need to prove the existence of anti-Christian violence in the region.
Hindu doctrine teaches that the suffering of the poor-an estimated 200 million Indians-is penance for wrongdoings in a former life. Improving their circumstances could hinder advancement in the life to come. The Bible clubs led by the Simons and others in India tell a different story: The children recite verses, sing worship songs, and learn about biblical truths and hope in Christ.
As the Chennai ministry is put on hold while the search continues for Simon, the silence is deafening: "No one even knows the location or circumstances of the abduction," Dabel said. But as ministry directors mobilize prayer units, comfort Simon's wife, and assist police in the search, they are hoping-and praying-for a miracle.