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Persecution | Each year Israel denies basic rights to its own citizens-because they are not Jews

Issue: "Crossing borders," June 23, 2007

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.

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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?"

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