Palestinian Christians say anti-missionary bill is Israel's latest attempt to squeeze them out
Earlier this week, US-based Evangelical Christians raised concerns after a powerful ally in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition proposed a bill that would ban missionary practices in Israel.
Under the proposed legislation, Christians would face up to one year in prison for encouraging conversion to their faith, while coaxing a minor to convert would be punishable with a two-year sentence.
On Wednesday, following mounting criticism in the US against the bill, Netanyahu issued a statement assuring Christians that it wouldn't be made into law.
"We will not advance any law against the Christian community," Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.
Several US Evangelical groups welcomed the decision, but Palestinian Christians told Middle East Eye that anti-Christian sentiment ran high, with churchgoers being frequently attacked by far-right Israelis.
"The new bill proposed by Israeli lawmakers, outlawing the talk or attempt to spread Christianity in the birthplace of Christianity is just another layer of restriction on freedom of religion," Huwaida Arraf, a Christian Palestinian lawyer and activist based in the US, told Middle East Eye.
Jonathan Kuttab, director of Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), a Christian grassroots movement dedicated to Palestinian liberation, said that while the bill was unlikely to pass, it came at a time of increasingly violent rhetoric from Israeli lawmakers, following Netanyahu's return to power.
"The religious parties in Israel are vehemently anti-Christian. It's just that Israel is largely a secular country and they haven't had much influence in the past. Now they feel they have influence and leverage [in their bid] to turn the country into a kind of theocracy," he told MEE.
Likewise, Glenn Plummer, bishop of Israel for the Church of God in Christ, based in Memphis Tennessee, told The Times of Israel that even if the bill failed to pass, he was concerned that it could create hostility towards Christians.
Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which describes itself as the largest pro-Israel organisation in the United States, did not reply to MEE's request for comment.
The Palestinian Christian population has dwindled in recent years, with recent estimates suggesting that it's just one-tenth of what it was 70 years ago.
"People don't realise that there is a phenomenon of hatred against Christians [in Israel and Palestine]... it is something they routinely downplay," said Kuttab, highlighting recent attacks against Christian clergymen as well as restrictions on holy sites across Palestine over the past three months in particular.
Last week, two Israelis entered the Church of Gethsemane in occupied East Jerusalem and physically attacked a bishop and two priests during a religious service.
The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem released a statement condemning the incident and lamented about the lack of international media coverage of the attack.
"The Patriarchate also emphasises that terrorist attacks, by radical Israeli groups, targeting churches, cemeteries, and Christian properties, in addition to physical and verbal abuse against Christian clergy, have become almost a daily occurrence that evidently increases in intensity during Christian holidays," the statement read.
"This dismal situation hasn't drawn any appropriate reaction, locally or internationally, despite appeals, requests, and protests made by the Churches of the Holy Land. It is painfully clear now that the authentic Christian presence in the Holy Land is in great danger," it added.
Meanwhile, last month, a statue of Jesus was vandalised at the Church of the Condemnation in the Old City, with a Jewish-American tourist arrested over the attack.
"Despite Israel's claim that it respects freedom of religion, Christians have long been oppressed by the state," Arraf said.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which earlier this month released a report detailing laws banning conversions in a dozen states in India, did not respond to MEE's request for comment.
'Not free to practice'
Arraf said the plight of Palestinian Christians, like their Muslim counterparts, is routinely ignored by US Christians.
"Palestinian Christian villages have been depopulated and razed to the ground; thousands of Christians have been driven out of Palestine by Zionist forces and policies; and the Palestinian Christians that remain are not free to practice their religion," she said.
"It's been decades since members of my family have been able to enter Jerusalem, only minutes from their home, to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Christians in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, are imprisoned behind a massive concrete wall, also unable to visit Jerusalem or other holy places, like Nazareth.
"Christians in Gaza cannot even dream of visiting Jerusalem, Nazareth or Bethlehem," she added.
Kuttab said that Christian Zionists in the US, considered amongst Israel's biggest sponsors and supporters, were either unaware of Palestinian Christians' plight or deliberately ignored it.
Evangelical Christians, particularly those in the US, are among Israel's strongest backers, viewing the country as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy, with some seeing it as the harbinger of a second coming of Jesus Christ and the end of days.
Israel has long welcomed Evangelicals’ political and financial support and it has largely ignored concerns about any hidden religious agenda.
"Most Christian Zionists don't even know there are Palestinian Christians. They think it is a fight against Muslims and Jews," Kuttab said.
"Their theology looks at Israel not in political terms but as signs of the end times and they support Israel not because they think it's the politically correct thing to do but because they are doing God's will."
Kuttab added that attacks on Christians in Palestine are rarely highlighted in the US, and when they are, people tend to think that it's Muslims as the perpetrators.
"So when they hear the phrase Judeo-Christian, they think 'oh, we are like the Jews and we are fighting against violent, radical Islam'. So It is all tinged with Islamophobia," he said.