The outrageous invasion of the Church of the Nativity by several hundred Palestinian gunmen and wanted terrorists is a desecration of our collective sense of the sacred, similar to Taliban gunmen taking up positions inside mosques. But with increasing frequency it is Israel, rather than Yasser Arafat's regime, that Christians choose to blame.
Using one of the holiest Christian sites as a shield from Israeli counter-terrorism--and holding priests hostage while shooting at Israeli soldiers from within the church--is typical of Arafat's tactics. For the last 18 months, his Tanzim militiamen have taken over homes in the Christian village of Beit Jala near Bethlehem, shooting into Israeli homes in the adjacent Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo and provoking Israeli retaliation.
Cynically, rather than condemning the Palestinian Authority for using Beit Jala as a cover from which to terrorize Israeli civilians, mainline churches have blamed Israel for trying to defend its citizens. In so doing, the churches only encourage the Tanzim: Evoking Christian outrage against Israel is one reason why they chose Beit Jala in the first place. The Christian-Jewish dialogue is one of the great movements of reconciliation of our time, healing two millenniums of pathological estrangement between two sister faiths. Jewish organizations have often been grudging in their recognition of the remarkable theological changes toward the Jewish people undertaken by Christian denominations, especially the Catholic Church.
Recently, those of us within the Jewish community who have argued for a more positive Jewish attitude to Christianity have begun to sense a new receptivity toward dialogue. Yet that precious dialogue is now being threatened by a one-sided Christian approach to the Middle East conflict.
It is time for mainline churches to reconsider their anti-Israel bias, which undermines the credibility of Jewish proponents of dialogue and jeopardizes our historic reconciliation.
On the face of it, an anti-Israel stance among liberal Christian churches is understandable. The natural tendency of Jesus' followers, after all, is to side with the underdog. And in this conflict, the underdog seems to be the Palestinians.
We Israelis, though, are convinced that we're the underdog. That's because Israel doesn't only confront relatively powerless Palestinians but 22 Arab dictatorships, some armed with unconventional weapons.
Nor do most Israelis believe anymore that the Palestinians' goal is limited to a state in the West Bank and Gaza--which was Arafat's for the asking. Instead, we're convinced that this is a war against the existence of a Jewish state in any borders.
Yet mainline churches continue to ignore Israeli fears and offer simplistic judgments. An example: There was a recent uproar when Israeli soldiers fired upon Palestinian ambulances that refused to stop at checkpoints, with tragic results. Some church leaders accused the Jewish state of crimes against humanity, ignoring Israel's insistence that Palestinian ambulances are sometimes used as a cover for transporting terrorists and weapons. Then, on March 27, Israeli soldiers stopped an ambulance on its way from Ramallah to Jerusalem and found 10 kilos of explosives hidden under a child lying on a stretcher. What did these Christian critics say then? Nothing; just silence.
Like any country, Israel shouldn't be immune from criticism. But in their obsessive attacks on Israel, some churches are inadvertently reawakening old anti-Semitic instincts that, since the Holocaust, much of Christianity has tried to uproot.
For example, an Episcopalian church in Scotland, seeking to express solidarity with the Palestinians, has just unveiled a painting showing a crucified Jesus flanked by Roman and Israeli soldiers. Such an image deliberately plays to historical Christian accusations against Jews, holding them responsible for the death of Jesus.
And where was the Christian outrage over the massacre of 26 Jews at a Passover Seder? It was a Seder, after all, that was Jesus' last supper.
Christian sympathy for Arafat--who told Al Jazeera TV that he hopes to die a martyr like the suicide bomber at the Passover massacre--is not only morally perverse but self-defeating. Even as Arafat presents himself as defender of the Holy Land's Christians, he presides over the erosion of the Christian presence in the West Bank. Palestinian police routinely ignore extremist Muslim attacks on Christians. Meanwhile, police have jailed and tortured more than two dozen Palestinian Pentecostals who distributed New Testaments in West Bank villages. Scandalously, their fate has been ignored by church leaders, who reserve their outrage for Israel alone.
Yossi Klein Halevi is the author of "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God With Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land" (Morrow, 2001).