A battle is being waged in Congress over the plight of Palestinian Christians and who is to blame–the Palestinian Authority or Israel.

The war of words began May 19, when Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House International Relations Committee who is retiring at the end of his current term, wrote a five-page letter to President Bush blaming Israel for suffering by Christians in Palestine.

“I cannot be blind when Israeli actions seem to go beyond the realm of legitimate security concerns and have negative consequences on communities and lands under their occupation,” Hyde said in a private letter to the White House made public in a column by Washington writer Robert Novak.

“The Christian community is being crushed in the mill of the bitter Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the letter alleged. The Israeli security wall and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, it continued, “are irreversibly damaging the dwindling Christian community.”

Representatives Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., answered with a resolution blaming the Palestinian Authority for increased violence targeting Christians in the Holy Land, thus prompting a mass emigration.

The resolution has not been formally introduced, but is being circulated in search of co-sponsors.

Churches for Middle East Peace raised “serious concerns” about the resolution, saying its treatment of the situation of Palestinian Christians under the Palestinian Authority “has serious inaccuracies, exaggerations and omissions.”

The findings “are not based on the concerns most frequently expressed by Christians in the Holy Land,” the group said in an action alert. It said major Christian churches in the Holy Land and their U.S. counterparts were not consulted, that the resolution “drives a wedge between Christian and Muslim Palestinians and risks making the minority Christian population even more vulnerable.”

Everyone agrees the Holy Land’s indigenous Christian population, which has been safeguarding traditional Christian holy sites for centuries, is in trouble. The Christian community in the West Bank has dwindled from 6 percent of the population 50 years ago to about 1.5 percent today.

Churches for Middle East Peace said 357 Christian families, or 10 percent of the Christian population, emigrated from Bethlehem alone between 2000 and 2004. The group says the flight is mainly due to fear generated by Israeli military incursions and economic devastation from Israeli closure of the city.

According to media reports, aides to McCaul and Crowley said they got their information from a paper by Justus Reid Weiner of the JerusalemCenter for Public Affairs. Weiner argues the rise of Muslim extremism in territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority is behind the mass exodus of Christians.

“A main cause of acute social unease among the Palestinian Authority’s Christian population is the growing strength of Islamic fundamentalism in the PA-controlled areas,” Weiner wrote.

Weiner said the “emergence of Islam as a strong Palestinian political force in the 1980s has relegated Christians to the margins of political life.”

“The alliance between the Palestinian political leadership and the Muslim fundamentalists provokes widespread concern that religious differences between Muslims and Christians will deteriorate into official repression of religious minorities,” he said.

“The growing strength of Islamic fundamentalism within the Palestinian national movement poses problems for Christians in that they might be deemed opponents of Islam and risk becoming targets for attacks by Muslim fundamentalists,” he continued.

“Attacks against Christians might also result from perceptions that Christianity is associated with Zionism and Western imperialism. Anti-Christian sentiment among Palestinian Muslims has heightened since 9/11 due to what the Muslim community sees as a ‘New Crusade’ against Islam by Western, predominantly Christian, countries…. Anti-Western sentiment can be translated into anti-Christian sentiment as Zionism is sometimes regarded as an extension of Christianity.”

But many Palestinian Christians identify with the struggle against Israel.

The Laity Committee in the Holy Land, a group of Christian men and women from various denominations in Palestine, urged Congress to vote down the McCaul/Crowley resolution.

“Christian Palestinians are grateful to those who, in good faith, take measures to protect their basic rights.” LCLH said in a press release sent to a Palestinian news service. “However, the most severe violations of Christian Palestinian rights stem from Israel’s policies and practices in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Accordingly, the greatest support to Christian Palestinians is support that aims to end Israel’s occupation of the PalestinianTerritory.”

Hyde, meanwhile, who has at times been a supporter of Israel in the past, is leading opposition to a House resolution marking the 39th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem being pushed by the Orthodox Union.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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