by Khaled Abu Toameh
In his annual Christmas message to the world, Bethlehem mayor Victor Batarseh called for a comprehensive boycott of Israel, arguing that this would force the Jewish state to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians.
"It worked with Apartheid South Africa," Batarseh declared. "We call for boycotting Israel culturally, educationally, in sports, economics and trade. We want peace, but boycott is the only language that Israel understands."
The mayor's anti-Israel message came at a time when Christians throughout the Arab world -- and in Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip -- are facing serious threats. But of course Batarseh has chosen to bury his head in the sand and does not want to look around him and see what is happening to his fellow Christians.
The Bethlehem mayor's Christmas message completely ignored the fact that the "Arab Spring" has been anything but a blessing to Christians living in the Arab countries. According to Rita Daou, a reporter for Agence France Press, "The rise of Islamist movements in countries swept by the Arab revolutions has sent shudders throughout the region's Christians who fear for their survival and question the make-up of the Middle East."
The Palestinian Authority has done little to protect Christians against assaults by Muslims -- including rape, intimidation, land theft and financial extortion. But these are all "sensitive" issues that many Christian leaders do not want to discuss in public out of fear of being accused of serving the Israeli "propaganda machine."
This is why Batarseh and many leaders of the Christian community deliberately ignore what happened in 2002 in Bethlehem, when dozens of Muslim gunmen stormed the Church of Nativity to escape from Israeli soldiers. The gunmen hid inside the church on Manger Square for five weeks. Priests later complained that they and some nuns had been held hostage by the gunmen, who also desecrated the church by smoking, drinking alcohol and littering.
Christian leaders who ignore the torching of churches in Egypt and the persecution of Christians there and in Iraq and other Arab countries are betraying the cause of their people. Have these leaders ever asked what is happening to the few Christians who still live under Hamas in the Gaza Strip?
It is hard to see how boycotting Israel "culturally and educationally" could help solve the plight of Arab Christians.
Batarseh could have done a service to his people had he, for example, talked in his message about the fact that many Christian families continue to leave Bethlehem in search of a better life in the West.
The claim that Christian families flee the Palestinian territories because of Israel's security measures is irrelevant. Christian emigration started long before Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.
Also, the claim that Christians leave because of the bad economic situation is also invalid because the same would have applied to Muslim Palestinians.
The truth is that Christians leave Bethlehem mainly because they do not feel comfortable living as a tiny minority in their city.
In the 2005 Palestinian municipal election, Hamas gained the majority of the open seats of the Bethlehem municipal council, which consists of 15 elected members, including the mayor and deputy mayor.
Since its establishment in 1994, the Palestinian Authority has done almost nothing to encourage Christian families to stay.
Boycotting Israel "culturally and educationally" is certainly not going to solve the problems and dangers facing Arab Christians. For now, Israel remains the only place in the Middle East where Arab Christians feel protected and safe.
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