‘Did Israel spoil Christmas again?’ I only ask because the claim that they did is becoming a modern tradition in Britain.
The softest and most commonplace expression of the claim comes from those vicars or congregation members who claim that they find it ‘hard’ to sing ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ nowadays because of how dreadful the situation in Bethlehem is today compared with how little, still and dreamlessly sleepy it was back in Jesus’s time.
This Christmas I had already attended one church which perpetuated this new conceit. And earlier this week I went to the church of St James in Piccadilly, which has made anti-Israeli propaganda its signature dish in recent years.
The central London church has previously hosted events where opponents of Israel go to sing versions of carols which decry the Jewish state. But this year they have outdone themselves by building a replica of the security fence which Israel built in order to successfully stop a spate of suicide-bombings carried out by Palestinian terrorists. The London church is made almost invisible by the replica ‘barrier’ and this is meant to represent the way in which Bethlehem today is ‘cut off’ by the security fence. The ‘installation’, surrounding exhibition and events is called ‘Bethlehem Unwrapped.'
As it happens, I have seen much of the real security fence, passed through the checkpoints many times and been to Bethlehem and most of the rest of the West Bank. I have spent time talking with Muslim and Christian Palestinians. So I also turned up in London, spent some time looking around, read the displays and the graffiti people are invited to write on the wall, and spoke with volunteers from the church. All in all I would say that a morning spent there is a good way to understand one modern variant of absolute moral squalor. Only made worse by the fact that the volunteers think they are doing a good and moral thing.
Three things particularly stood out.
First – the visitor is invited to believe that all the problems of Bethlehem’s Christians today stem from Israel’s security fence. There was absolutely no mention of the fact that the reason why the Christian population of Bethlehem has declined so rapidly in recent years is not because of this but because the Christians are being gradually cleansed from their historic homeland by Muslim Palestinians. I have spoken with Christian Palestinians and heard their stories myself. And even if St James’ didn’t care about this little human fact, if they were so concerned about the holy places of Bethlehem it is strange they find no place to highlight Islamic desecration of Christian holy sites. Such as the occasion in 2002 when Islamist gunmen holed themselves up in the Church of the Nativity, desecrated it, defiled it and damaged it in ways which can still be seen today.
Second – St James’ seem distinctly unbothered by who they ally with in their anti-Israel hate-festival. A member of the St James’ congregation who I spoke to assured me that she thought all their partners had been properly vetted. Yet one of their ‘partner organisations’ is ‘Interpal’, an organisation which is designated as a terrorist entity by the United States. (However, it should be noted that Interpal rejects that designation entirely, and that no allegation of terrorism has been proved against it in the UK.)
Yet the greatest moral stink emanating from St James’ is caused by something else. It is this. In every country in the Middle East other than Israel Islamic extremists are currently chasing out, murdering, persecuting and otherwise ‘cleansing’ the native Arab Christians. Indeed as the historian Tom Holland said recently, our period of history appears to be witnessing the extinction of Christianity in the region which gave it birth.
As it happens, Israel is the only country in the Middle East whose Christian population is actually growing.
I asked a member of the congregation who was a volunteer about this. She said that one shouldn’t really single out individual cases. Yet that is exactly what St James’ have done. I asked if at any point in the past or at any conceivable point in the future St James’ might highlight the persecution and murder of Christians in every country in the Middle East other than Israel? For instance in Syria? Or Iraq? Or Egypt? If St James’ are bored with the Middle East why not highlight the massacres of Christian communities in Pakistan? Or Nigeria? Or in almost any number of other countries I could name. I was told this is unlikely. And I am sure it is.
It is utterly disgraceful that St James’ church has presented this partial view of Israel while ignoring the plight of their co-religionists. Here are some festivals we are very unlikely to see taking place at St. James’s Piccadilly anytime soon.
A festival set up to highlight the victims of suicide-bombings which murder Christians while leaving church in Pakistan.
An installation — ‘Borno Unwrapped’ — commemorating the 12 people killed last weekend (whilst ‘Bethlehem Unwrapped’ was going on) in two Christian villages in northeast Nigeria, including the eight Christians murdered by Islamists at a wedding reception in Tashan-Alede village.
A small event organised to condemn the savagery which led Islamists in Iraq to plant three bombs at churches and other Christian areas in Iraq on Christmas Day, and which murdered 37 people as they were celebrating the birth of Jesus
I have been trying to get hold of Lucy Winkett, the Rector of St James’. But she does not appear to be available.