Walling off Christianity

Posted: Apr 18, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The venerable Rep. Henry Hyde is a staunch supporter of Israel, but he is also a prominent Catholic layman known for telling the truth. He did so two weeks ago to Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres. He made clear how unhappy he was that Israel's government had ignored his previous protests about the destruction of the Christian community in the Holy Land.

 At a closed-door session of the House International Relations Committee that he heads, Hyde told Peres that Israeli security practices "in the center of Christianity's most holy places" are "turning them into a military zone." Peres conceded to Hyde these are hard times for Christians in the Holy Land, but predictably blamed their troubles on the Palestinian Arabs.

 Actually, Hyde's tone is markedly softer than the desperate voices of Christian clergy who find themselves cut off by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security wall. Their fear and frustration stems from their inability to move anybody with power in the Bush administration and very few members of Congress.

 The Israeli embassy took issue with Hyde two years ago because his March 25, 2004, letter to then Secretary of State Colin Powell, protesting Israeli treatment of Palestinian Christians, had appeared in this column. Next time, the Israelis asked Hyde, please tell us first. He did so this time to Peres, who on April 6 was guest of the International Relations Committee in its small, unmarked conference room, not used for public hearings, on the House side of the Capitol.

 At that meeting, Hyde recalled his letter to Powell complaining about the Israeli security wall, which he said is still "drastically undermining the mission of Christian institutions and the social fabric of their communities in the Holy Land." He said he remains "concerned about the plight of the Christian narrative in the Holy Land" and the impact of the security wall and "growing illegal Israeli settlements and their infrastructure . . . on religious freedom."

 No Israel basher, Hyde stressed he does not oppose the security wall "that effectively separates Israelis and Palestinians" and believes it has improved security. What bothers him is that "in Jerusalem, the barrier separates Palestinians from Palestinians and not Palestinians from Israelis."

 Hyde concluded by noting "Jerusalem is home to the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam." Peres responded that "one of our brothers doesn't like Christians or Jews" -- that is, Palestinian Christians should blame Palestinian Muslims for their plight.

 An experienced diplomat, Peres then took a more conciliatory tone. He "acknowledged" that "Christians are in an uneasy situation." They are being "compensated," said Peres, for damage done by Israeli security. That provides faint comfort, however, after the Israeli bulldozers have moved in.

 It is certainly no compensation for Mother Agapia Stephanopolous, administrator of the Orthodox School of Bethany in Jerusalem, who recently visited Washington. A Russian Orthodox nun (and sister of ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos), she is a passionate advocate for the Christian cause. "Israel is destroying the local Christian community," she told me.

 In a letter to members of Congress, Mother Agapia took essentially the same position as Hyde but in much tougher language, describing how East Jerusalem has been cut off from the rest of the West Bank. "It is only a matter of time before Christians and Muslims will be unable to survive culturally and economically," she predicted.

 The nun reported that Israeli slabs of concrete, 9 yards high, have "shattered" Christian communities. As a school administrator, she said, "I witness the strangulation of East Jerusalem, and the deprivation of her non-Jewish residents' religious rights every day." Unlike Hyde, she would tear down the settlements and the wall "that favor one people's fundamental rights to the exclusion of others."

 "Even the United States seems to have been taken in by Israeli spin," Mother Agapia said. Last Thursday, as Sharon visited Bush in Texas, the Jerusalem Post described the two leaders dancing a little dance that promises no change on the settlements. If the born-again Christian president does not act to save the Christians in the Holy Land, the efforts of Henry Hyde and Agapia Stephanopoulos cannot be expected to change anything.