Jerusalem Post Editorial, December 25, 2002
This is a sad Christmas in the Holy Land.  Bethlehem, the city that represents peace and hope for Christians around the world,
is today a measure of how far the world remains from redemption.  The threat of terrorism emanating from Bethlehem has forced Israel to defend the lives of its people and send its soldiers back into the city of Jesus' birth.  And so instead of finding its streets aglow with joy, those pilgrims able to reach the city are confronted with symbols of war and destruction.

Israel desperately wanted to avert this crisis.  In August, Israel gambled with the lives of its people and restored rule in Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority, which promised to prevent terror attacks from the area.  It was supposed to be a test case for the restoration of PA rule in other West Bank cities.

In November came the results:  A suicide bomber from Bethlehem detonated himself on a No. 20  bus in a Jerusalem
neighborhood, killing 11 people, ages 67 to 13.  Predictably, the PA reneged on its commitment, and terrorists once again began using Bethlehem as a base to commit atrocities.

Yasser Arafat, who likes to proclaim himself champion of Christian rights, has repeatedly allowed Christians to be used as 
human shields in his terrorist war against Israel.  Last year, Palestinian gunmen from his Tanzim militias transformed the largely Christian town of Beit Jala, adjacent to Bethlehem, into a base from which to shoot at homes in the nearby Jerusalem
neighborhood of Gilo.  Despite repeated pleas from Christian residents to control the gunmen, the Palestinian chairman waited
long months before finally ordering his men to stop shooting.

Caught in the crossfire of a seemingly endless conflict, the Palestinian Christian community is facing arguably the worst crisis in
its long history in the land.  No group embraced the Oslo process with as much hope as did the Palestinian Christians, who saw peace as their only chance for the survival of their community.  Now, though, emigration has accelerated and an ancient
community faces a tragic diminishment.

Within Israel, the prospects for the Christian community are considerably better.  Indeed, Israel is one of the few countries in the region where Christian communities have grown and thrived in recent decades.  The Arab Christian community maintains among the highest matriculation scores of any population; proportionally, Arab Christians also produce very high numbers of university graduates.  That is a mark of pride not only for the Christian community but for the State of Israel.

Still, Israel needs to be more attentive to Christian interests.  The shameful decision of previous governments to allow the fundamentalist Islamic Movement to build a mosque provocatively situated beside the major Christian shrine in Nazareth, the Church of the Annunciation, has finally been corrected, and construction has been halted.  Still, that decision would have never been made in the first place had the authorities been more alert to Christian needs.

Moreover, Christians from abroad who come here for extended periods to join religious and educational institutions often find it nearly impossible to renew their visas.  While a formal agreement with the Vatican allows Catholic clergy and laypeople involved
in church affairs to secure visas, other Christian denominations suffer from radom bureaucratic decisions.  Some Christian organizations, including those that have proven their friendship to the state of Israel, often find themselves battling with bureaucrats for the renewal of visas for crucial personnel.

Even as Israel can pride itself on providing a safe haven for Christians amid regional intolerance, it needs to aspire to a still higher standard.  Our responsibility goes beyond protecting the holy places and guaranteeing freedom of worship.  As custodians of a land revered by Christians, we have Jewish and democratic obligations to respect Christian sensitivities, along with Muslim religious rights.

Toward the end, the government's liaison office with local Christian communities and with the Christian world generally needs to be given far greater authority and stature than it currently enjoys.  Relations with the Christian world should be a priority for any Israeli government, especially at a time when there is a growing attempt to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish State.

Finally, to all our Christian readers, we wish you, despite everything, a Christmas of blessings and joy.

(c) Jerusalem Post
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