Posted by Claudia Sandell-Gándara on September 20, 2018 in Blog

On Wednesday, September 12th, Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and the Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding hosted a discussion with four leading scholars and activists in the areas of Palestinian Christianity and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dr. James Zogby of the Arab American Institute, The Telos Group’s Todd Deatherage, Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan, and Fr. Drew Christiansen from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service spoke about American policy on Israel that has capitalized on faith-based motivations, obscuring the political basis of the conflict.

In the United States, the dominant narrative about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rests on a false Muslim-Jewish binary. Bishop Younan embodied contradictions that undermine this narrative. A Christian Palestinian refugee, Younan reminded the audience that many Palestinian Christians, like himself, “have always been Christian.” Younan highlighted an assumption in the U.S. that Palestinian Christians have, at some point, converted from Islam to Christianity. This assumption is related to the idea that Arabs have historically coerced people to practice Islam. Both assumptions falsely portray a monolithic Palestinian identity. They also suppose that Palestinian Christians in the territory remain vulnerable to Arab control and face exceptional circumstances to their Muslim neighbors. (Read Wajahat Ali’s piece on being Muslim among Israeli settlers, then Omar Baddar and Noura Erakat’s rebuttal to understand the danger of overplaying the conflict’s religious divisions.)

Prior to his January 2018 trip to Israel, Vice President Pence announced to Christians in the territory that, “help [was] on the way.” Pence appealed to an American Protestant Evangelical audience. But as The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek, NBC News, and The Times of Israel reported during Pence’s visit, Pence failed to appeal to the Palestinian Christian community in Jerusalem. The Custodian of the Keys refused Pence entry into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holy site marking Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, and a destination of Christian pilgrimage. Neither did Pence meet with the Palestinian leadership—a tradition American dignitaries have upheld since 1993.

Prior to Pence’s visit, Trump had announced his decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been a symbol of hope for a two-state solution. The city also represented a site of compromise among the region’s dominant faiths, divided into Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Armenian Quarters. Trump’s decision decreed that these compromises no longer mattered and preemptively legitimized Israel’s control over the contested territory.

Palestinian Christians understood Pence’s visit to Jerusalem in the context of Trump’s decision. Purporting a mission to save his fellow Christians, Pence attempted to use Christianity as a tool to promote his own agenda, effectively distorting the history of Palestinian Christians who have been living alongside their neighbors and under different occupiers throughout history. A Catholic parish priest of Ramallah, Father Jamal Khader, said to a reporter last December that he did not “agree with an ideology that looks at Christians as Westerners, or [that] wants [Christians] to side against Muslims.” Rev. Ramzi Sidawi, a theology professor and a Roman Catholic Church official in Jerusalem, echoed Fr. Khader’s concerns. When Christian Evangelicals “make declarations pro-the-state-of-Israel,” Rev. Sidawi said, they create harmful tensions between Muslims and Palestinian Christians. Bishop Younan reiterated this point. The new U.S. policy poses a challenge for Arab Christians—who “have been an integral part of Arab society”—to secure equal citizenship rights necessary for a democratic government.

Even the Vatican supports a democratic, non-religious-based solution. According to Fr. Christiansen, a Jesuit priest and spokesperson for the Vatican, the Vatican believes international law should settle the Israeli-Palestinian land dispute. After all, the conflict’s origins transcend religious affiliation. The conflict threatens to upend the human rights of all believers.

Dr. James Zogby provided further insight into Evangelical Christians’ convoluted interests in a blog post last June.

The conflicts of interest also ring true among American policymakers. During the panel, Dr. Zogby spoke of an experience as a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Outraged at requests for USCIRF to condemn Israel’s policies that have harmed people of all faiths, some members expressed desires to maintain favor with members of Congress who receive donations from pro-Israel constituents.

These policymakers and Pence share a common goal. Distinguishing Palestinian Christians from other Palestinians serves to enhance the religious nature of the conflict. Doing so also furthers the false religious-ethnic binary that underlies the American narrative on Palestine. U.S. policies attempt to erase Palestinian Christians’ Palestinian identity, further obscuring the political nature of the conflict. (Read more on this attempted erasure here, and here.) Religious reductionism becomes a justification for the U.S.’s pro-Israel, Anti-Arab policies.



Claudia Sandell-Gándara is a 2018 Fall Intern at the Arab American Institute.

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