BBC’s ‘Vatican expert’ misleads on Pope’s speech at Yad Vashem

One of the later items in the BBC’s extensive coverage of the Pope’s recent visit to the Middle East was an article by the corporation’s “Vatican expert” David Willey titled “Pope Francis cements reputation for deft diplomacy” which appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on May 26th.Willey Pope visit

As was the case in much of the earlier BBC coverage of the visit, in this article too the real reason for the construction of the anti-terrorist fence was concealed from readers and context-free emphasis was placed on the topic of “separation”. In addition, readers were encouraged to make a bizarre – and, some might say, tasteless – comparison between the anti-terrorist fence and the Western Wall.

“Pope Francis’ whistle-stop tour of the Holy Land has provided not only significant religious symbolism, but also some powerful political images.

On successive days he paused to pray in front of two of the most significant walls here, bowing to touch them with his forehead and his hand.

First in Bethlehem, an 8m-high, graffiti-covered concrete section of the barrier that separates the Palestinian territories of the West Bank from Israel; then, in Jerusalem, the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.” [emphasis added]

Pic Willey art

Towards the end of  his article (which in parts reads more like a PR communique than a report by an impartial BBC journalist), Willey also informed readers that:

“At the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Pope Francis paid eloquent tribute to the sacrifice made by six million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis all over Europe.”

Leaving aside the fact that, by definition, a “sacrifice made” involves some sort of active personal choice which the millions murdered by the Nazis did not have the opportunity to exercise, the fact is that – contrary to the inaccurate impression Willey gives to BBC audiences – the Pope did not mention the figure six million or the word ‘Jews’ throughout his entire speech at Yad Vashem, the full text of which can be read here

Fact check failure: BBC recycles story Reuters got wrong

“Spar: To bandy words about in argument; dispute.” (source)

The ‘Features & Analysis’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page included an article titled “Who, What, Why: What language would Jesus have spoken?” on May 27th. The article opens: [emphasis added]BBC art language Jesus

“Israel’s prime minister has verbally sparred with the Pope over which language Christ might have spoken. Several languages were used in the places where Jesus lived – so which would he have known, asks Tom de Castella.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis appeared to have a momentary disagreement. “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew,” Netanyahu told the Pope at a public meeting in Jerusalem. “Aramaic,” interjected the Pope. “He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu shot back.”

But did Netanyahu and the Pope really ‘spar’ or have a “disagreement” over the issue of Jesus’ language skills? As Yair Rosenberg points out, the media – BBC included – has inflated and distorted what was in fact a few seconds of amicable conversation.

“Yesterday, the press reported a sparring match between Pope Francis and Benjamin Netanyahu that never really transpired. To judge by media reports, the Israeli Prime Minister had a testy exchange with the Supreme Pontiff over whether or not Jesus spoke Hebrew. Reuters broke the story with the headline “Pope, Netanyahu spar over Jesus’ native language.” Using the language of verbal combat, the piece reported the Israeli leader as saying, “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew.” The Pope was said to have “interjected” with a correction: “Aramaic.” To this, Bibi “shot back” that Jesus “spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew.” The Chicago Tribune soon dubbed the incident a “spat,” and by the time it made its way to The Age in Australia, Netanyahu was said to have “publicly bickered” with the Pope, evincing the “sour undertone” of the Catholic leader’s entire visit to Israel. […]

But unfortunately for headline writers hoping to gin up controversy for clicks, there is video of this supposed smackdown, and it shows nothing of the sort.”

The BBC article includes a link to the Reuters report upon which it appears to be based. There too, the words ‘spar’ and ‘shot back’ appear.

Reuters art language

The fact that the BBC joined the ranks of the many media organisations which got this story wrong is entirely attributable to an obvious failure to check the facts before recycling this Reuters piece. 

BBC Radio 5 Live provides platform for Catholic anti-Israel campaigning

h/t RM

The May 25th edition of Radio 5 Live’s programme ‘Up All Night’ – presented by Dotun Adebayo – included an item ostensibly concerning the Pope’s recent visit to the Jordan which can be heard for a limited period of time from around 13:00 here.up all night 25 5

The item is composed of an approximately twelve and a half-minute interview with James Salt – executive director of the Washington DC-based organisation ‘Catholics United’. In breach of BBC editorial guidelines, Adebayo fails to provide listeners with any information regarding the political agenda of the interviewee or his organisation.

At around 22:06 in the recording above, Salt says:

“I also want to say, Dotun, there’s something to be said though about the Palestinian Christians as well. Tomorrow he’s [the Pope] headed to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is actually a Christian town in the occupied territories and many of the Palestinians are Catholic Christians, many of whom are being squeezed to the point where they’re emigrating out but nonetheless, they’re very much part of the fabric of Palestinian life. And it’ll be interesting to see Pope Francis navigate that geo-political religious conflict when we know that Palestinian Christians are so close to the heart of many leaders of the Catholic Church. The Patriarch of Jerusalem Emeritus is very outspoken. I mean he’s a bishop of Palestinian Christians who live and die under occupation and we know that the Vatican is very clear about the need to protect the dignity of the Palestinians. How he does this in a stage where Israel and other forces are so critical will be a very interesting test of his papacy.” [emphasis added]

Adebayo fails to point out to listeners that Bethlehem has been under the control of the Palestinian Authority since 1995 and hence is not “occupied”. He fails to enlighten them that the “many” Palestinian Catholics Salt describes actually number around 80,000 and he fails to inform listeners of the persecution of Palestinian Christians by elements among the Muslim Palestinian population or of the fact that Christians have become a minority in Bethlehem not least due to changes in the town’s municipal boundaries enforced by the PA.

“In 1947 the population of Bethlehem was 85% Christian. In 1990 23,000 Christians lived there, as a 60% majority. After the Palestinian Authority took over control of the town in 1995 the town’s municipal boundaries were altered to include concentrations of Muslim population, turning the Christians into a minority. By 2010 the number of Christians in Bethlehem had fallen to 7,500.”

Adebayo also fails to clarify to listeners that the “Patriarch of Jerusalem Emeritus” to whom Salt refers is of course Michel Sabbah – one of the instigators of the Kairos Document and the former president of Pax Christi – for which, coincidentally, James Salt used to work.

Without the necessary background knowledge regarding James Salt’s connections to anti-Israel campaigning faith-based organisations, listeners of course will be unable to put the political messaging he is allowed to promote in this interview into its correct context. 

Wall to wall political messaging in BBC coverage of Pope’s visit

Yesterday we took a look at Yolande Knell’s context-free amplification of politically motivated falsehoods and inaccuracies in her May 25th article concerning the Pope’s visit to the Middle East. Some of those same themes were to be found repeated in much of the rest of the BBC’s written and filmed coverage of the visit, suggesting that an element of editorial policy is at work.

In the May 24th report titled “Pope Francis praises Jordan at start of Middle East visit” which appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on the first day of the visit, there appears an insert of commentary from the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen. Despite the fact that the first leg of the visit took place in Jordan, Bowen was already promoting specific misleading and inaccurate themes.Pope Bethlehem Bowen insert 1

“In Bethlehem, which is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Palestinians say they are threatened by the encroachment of Jewish settlements.”

Bethlehem is of course situated in Area A and has been under Palestinian Authority control since 1995, in accordance with the terms of the Oslo II Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In other words, it – like the rest of the PA controlled areas – is not “Israeli-occupied” as Bowen inaccurately informs readers. Not content with eradicating the Oslo Accords, Bowen also misleads BBC audiences with regard to the geography of the area by amplifying the baseless claim that Bethlehem is “threatened by the encroachment of Jewish settlements”. It is patently ridiculous to suggest that any “settlement” would at any time in the future ‘encroach’ into Areas A or B and – as has been repeatedly shown here – there are no Israeli towns, villages or neighbourhoods to the east and south of Bethlehem at all.

map Bethlehem

But by far the most heavily promoted theme in all of the BBC’s remarkably extensive coverage of the Pope’s visit, both on its website and in television reports, was a distorted representation of the anti-terrorist fence.

Let’s remind ourselves what the BBC’s style guide says about BBC presentation of that topic.

“BARRIER

BBC journalists should try to avoid using terminology favoured by one side or another in any dispute.

The BBC uses the terms “barrier”, “separation barrier” or “West Bank barrier” as acceptable generic descriptions to avoid the political connotations of “security fence” (preferred by the Israeli government) or “apartheid wall” (preferred by the Palestinians).

The United Nations also uses the term “barrier”.

Of course, a reporter standing in front of a concrete section of the barrier might choose to say “this wall” or use a more exact description in the light of what he or she is looking at.”

So did BBC journalists reporting the Pope’s visit stick to the use of accepted variations of the term ‘barrier’ and thus avoid “political connotations”?

An article which appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on May 25th indeed runs with that BBC approved terminology in the headline “Pope prays at Israel’s West Bank separation barrier” and opens:

“Pope Francis has prayed at the concrete barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank during his three-day tour of the Middle East.”

Later on in the article readers are told that:

“On his way to Bethlehem, he stopped to pray at an 8m concrete wall that is part of the barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank.

The Pope rested his head against the wall – which Israel says is needed for security, but the Palestinians see as a land grab – near graffiti reading: “Free Palestine.” “

Those statements are clearly inaccurate and misleading to BBC audiences: Israel is not building a “concrete barrier….In and around the West Bank”. 97% of the anti-terrorist fence is just that – fence – with only 3% being constructed from concrete, mainly in areas where protection from snipers is necessary.

This article also includes an insert from Jeremy Bowen in which he states:Pope Bethlehem Bowen insert 2

“Palestinians have used social media to post pictures of Pope Francis praying at the 8m concrete wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. The Israelis say the wall and other parts of the separation barrier are vital for the security of their people. But for Palestinians the wall is tangible symbol [sic] of what they say is Israel’s intention to grab as much land as possible.”

Here Bowen is misleadingly suggesting to BBC audiences that the aim of what the BBC elects to term the “separation barrier” is to separate Palestinian towns such as Bethlehem “from Jerusalem” when in fact the aim is to curb the infiltration of Palestinian terrorists into Israeli towns and cities. Notably, Bowen uses the standard BBC formula which presents audiences with two narratives concerning the anti-terrorist fence and reduces its proven record of stopping terror attacks to the subjective level of “Israel says”, whilst amplifying the notion of a “land grab” which has not taken place.  As we have noted here before:

“Clearly, the BBC is very comfortable with its standard antique mantra on the subject of the anti-terrorist fence, but that does not mean that it complies with BBC standards of impartiality as set out in its editorial guidelines.

The systematic failure to present audiences with the readily available factual evidence which proves the anti-terrorist fence’s efficiency – rather than the subjective presentation of “Israel says” – is clearly a failure to distinguish “opinion from fact” and a major “omission of an important perspective”.  The fact that a standard formula has been employed for over a decade also represents a failure to adhere to the demand for “impartiality over time”, presenting the same jaded “land grab” theme over a long period of years in which no such thing has happened.”

As we will see below, however, that theme was repeatedly promoted in additional BBC coverage.

In an article published on the BBC News website on May 26th under the title “Pope visits Jerusalem holy sites on last day in Middle East“, the misleading and inaccurate suggestion that the role of the anti-terrorist fence is to separate “Bethlehem from Jerusalem” was repeated and a structure which has saved countless Israeli lives was described to BBC audiences as “controversial”.

“The Pope spent a few minutes praying at the [Western] wall, as he did on Sunday at the controversial Israeli security barrier that separates the biblical town of Bethlehem in the West Bank from Jerusalem.”

In a filmed report by Jeremy Bowen titled “Pope visits refugee camp on Middle East tour” from May 25th which appeared on the BBC News website as well as on BBC television news, audiences were told:

“…the Pope earlier on today decided to stop to pray at the eight foot high – eight meter, I should say – high wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. The Israelis say it’s vital for their security. The Palestinians say that it’s a naked land grab and shows that Israelis aren’t serious about peace.”

In the synopsis to another filmed report which appeared on the BBC News website’s Europe page on May 25th under the title “What type of Pope is Francis? In 90 seconds” BBC audiences were again misled when they were informed that:Pope visit 90 secs

“Pope Francis has prayed at the concrete barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank…..”

In Yolande Knell’s May 25th filmed report which appeared on BBC television news and on the BBC News website under the heading “Pope Francis prays at Israel’s West Bank barrier” BBC audiences were told that:

“….the Pope got out of his vehicle as he was driving here to the square and he made a prayer next to the eight meter-high concrete wall that Israel has built to separate Bethlehem from Jerusalem. It’s part of the West bank barrier that Israel’s building in and around the West Bank, saying it’s needed for security but the Palestinians see this wall, this barrier, as a land grab.”

In Jeremy Bowen’s May 25th report titled “Pope prays at Israel’s West Bank separation barrier” which appeared on the BBC News website and on BBC television news programmes, BBC audiences heard a Papal mind-reading Bowen say:

“Pope Francis touched his forehead on the wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem to show his concern at the failure to bring peace to the Holy Land. […] Israel says the separation barrier is to keep its people safe. Palestinians say Israel is grabbing land they want for a state.”

So as we see, BBC audiences have been bombarded time and time again with the same jaded mantra: a mantra which deliberately misrepresents the aim and physical characteristics of the anti-terrorist fence.

Not once in any of the above reports were they told of the real reason why the anti-terrorist fence had to be built. Not once werePope Bethlehem graffiti they reminded of the thousands of Israeli civilians of all creeds and ethnicities killed and maimed by Palestinian terrorists during the dark years of the second Intifada. Not once was the phrase ‘Palestinian terrorism’ even mentioned, nor likewise the rise in terror attacks seen since the last round of negotiations commenced. And not once was it pointed out to readers or viewers that the Pope’s photo-op took place beside Palestinian graffiti promoting the antisemitic comparison of Bethlehem to the Warsaw Ghetto.

The uniformity of the style and content of BBC’s ‘wall’ mantra is remarkable: not even one BBC correspondent stepped out of line to bring any remotely deviating information to audiences. It is difficult to believe that this blatant exercise in – excuse the pun – wall to wall politically motivated amplification of PA propaganda was not pre-coordinated at editorial level, but if it was not, it certainly shows the extent to which a uniform political viewpoint has permeated the BBC’s staff. 

Related Articles:

Does BBC reporting on Israel’s anti-terrorist fence meet standards of ‘due impartiality’? – part 3

BBC’s Knell exploits Christmas report to lie about anti-terrorist fence

The politics of BBC approved terminology on Israel’s security fence

 

 

 

BBC’s Knell promotes undiluted Palestinian propaganda in coverage of Pope’s visit

Among the BBC’s remarkably extensive coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to the Middle East is an article by the Jerusalem bureau’s Yolande Knell which appeared in the ‘Features & Analysis’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page on May 25th under the title “Thorny issues await Pope in Holy Land“.Knell Pope art 25 5

In that article, Knell uses selected quotes from Palestinian interviewees – and adds her own commentary – to produce a concentrated version of some of the prime falsehoods which the BBC has been amplifying for some time now. Notably absent from Knell’s piece is the necessary background needed for BBC audiences to put the highlighted statements in their correct context.

Her first interviewee is Rania Bandak.

“We are not able to move freely to all parts of Palestine. Bethlehem is surrounded by Jewish settlements and the high wall that cuts us off from Jerusalem.”

As has been noted here before on numerous occasions, the number of checkpoints has been reduced dramatically as counter-terrorism measures have proved effective and hence movement within Judea and Samaria has vastly improved since the days of the second Intifada which brought about the need for security checkpoints; a point not made clear to readers either by Bandak or Knell.

removal of checkpoints

The false claim that “Bethlehem is surrounded by Jewish settlements” is a version of a theme also frequently seen in BBC reports – see for example here and here. The word ‘surrounded’ of course means enclosed on all sides but, as can be seen on the B’tselem-produced map below, that is not the case.

map Bethlehem

Neither is Bethlehem “surrounded” by “the high wall”. Not only is there no anti-terrorist fence to the south and east of Bethlehem, but the section which can accurately be described as a “high wall” is one small specific section. On the map below, concrete sections of the anti-terrorist fence are marked with yellow and grey stripes whilst parts made of wire fencing appear in purple and the orange section represents road protection from sniper attacks. 

anti terrorist fence bethlehem

So already in one sentence from her first interviewee, Knell has caused BBC audiences to mistakenly believe that Palestinians are not able to travel around Judea & Samaria and that Bethlehem is encircled by “Jewish settlements” and a “high wall” – and all without even a single reference to the Palestinian terrorism which makes security measures necessary. But there is more: carrying straight on from those falsehoods, readers are fed the false implication that Israel is causing Palestinian Christians to leave the area, with Knell failing to make any reference to the issue of intra-Palestinian harassment of Christians.

” “The Pope’s message should be that he wants us to stay in this land,” adds souvenir shop owner, Rony Tabash.”

Under the loaded sub-heading “Barrier fear”, Knell goes on to promote the usual BBC formula regarding the anti-terrorist fence which ignores its proven track record of prevention of terrorism – as well as the issue of terrorism itself –  instead presenting the issue to BBC audiences as one of subjective competing narratives and thus legitimizing the notion of a “land grab” which does not exist whilst erasing from the picture the terrorism which does.

“One issue that is sure to come up is the barrier that Israel is continuing to build in and around the occupied West Bank. Israel says its barrier is needed for security reasons but the Palestinians see it as a land grab.”

Next, Knell returns to one of her favourite topics – the Cremisan Valley – allowing her interviewee to falsely suggest to BBC audiences (also in the accompanying film clip) that there is some kind of connection between the Pope’s visit and the legal proceedings concerning the route of the anti-terrorist fence there and that land belonging to Palestinians from Beit Jala will no longer remain theirs if the fence is built on its proposed route.

“Israel’s Supreme Court has delayed its decision on a controversial section that runs through the Cremisan Valley in Beit Jala, where the land belongs to 58 Christian families and the Roman Catholic Church.

“This valley is very important for Beit Jala and for Christians,” says Maha Saca who joins the weekly open-air Mass in Cremisan. “It’s our land until now. And we’re afraid that after the Pope leaves Bethlehem, the Israelis will take our land through the court.” “

Under the sub-heading “We need our freedom”, Knell writes:

“Representatives from a small Christian delegation given Israeli permits to come to Bethlehem from the Gaza Strip hope to tell the Pope about the impact of border restrictions.

These were tightened by Israel and Egypt after the Islamist group, Hamas, seized control of the Palestinian territory in 2007, a year after winning elections and entering a unity government. Israel, along with other countries, views Hamas as a terrorist group.”

Predictably, Knell fails to clarify to readers that “border restrictions” are necessary measures which are part of Israel’s attempt to protect its citizens against the terror attacks emanating from the Gaza Strip – which she fails to even mention. Likewise, Knell fails to make any reference to the persecution of Christians in Gaza by Hamas and other Islamist extremists.  

As was noted here recently, the Israeli Ministry of Defence provided 500 permits for members of Gaza’s 1,500 strong Christian community to travel to Israel and the PA-controlled areas during the Pope’s visit. That is one-third: hardly a “small delegation” as Knell claims.

Permits Easter

Knell highlights a tided up quote from her next interviewee:

“Pope Francis is our hero,” says George Anton, a teacher at the Holy Family School in Gaza. “We would ask him to interfere so that we can get peace and the Palestinian state very quickly, because we need our freedom. We feel like we are in a big jail here.”

In the film clip of George Anton inserted into that part of Knell’s article, the BBC facilitates the promotion of the inaccurate notion that the Gaza Strip is under “occupation” nine years after Israel’s evacuation.

“We would ask him to interfere that they can get the peace and we can get the Palestinian state, you know, very quickly because we need our freedom, you know. We feel like we are in a big jail here in Gaza. We cannot move, you know. All the people they look to us like we are terrorists, we are criminals. It is really [unintelligible] because we are people, you know. We are Christians, we are Muslims, but we are people. We are under occupation, you know. We are the people who are suffering, you know, so we need somebody to stand by us.”

Neglecting to inform readers of the interesting fact that even the PA acknowledges that it is situated on land owned by the Jewish National Fund since before 1948, Knell then moves on to the topic of Dheishe refugee camp, inserting a passing context-free promotion of the ‘right of return’ without bothering to explain its implications and failing to clarify to readers that “the 1948 war which followed Israel’s creation” was in fact an attack on a nascent state by five Arab states, two irregular armies and an assortment of foreign volunteers – all of whom played their part in the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem.

“As Pope Francis heads out of Bethlehem, he will stop off at a community centre by the Dheisheh camp where local children will sing for him. Their families fled or were forced to leave their homes in the 1948 war which followed Israel’s creation.

While the stop-off is only short, an organiser, Abu Khalil al-Laham, says it is symbolically important to meet Palestinian refugees.

“They’ll bring up the right for refugees to return to their towns and villages and their dream to live in peace and tranquillity,” he tells me.”

The filmed accompaniment to this part of Knell’s piece facilitates yet more context-free Palestinian propaganda, failing to inform viewers that over 95% of Palestinians in Judea & Samaria live under Palestinian Authority rule.

“The children here will deliver a message, in a natural way, about how Palestinians suffer because of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. They’ll bring up the right for refugees to return to their towns and villages and their dream to live – like other people in the world – in peace and tranquility.”

Knell rounds off her article with a decidedly transparent attempt to inject the required dose of BBC ‘impartiality’ by briefly quoting two Argentinian-born Israelis on the topic of the Pope and his mission and she concludes by mentioning some other locations on the Pope’s itinerary.

Clearly, however, the main purpose of this ‘analysis’ was not to meet BBC obligations regarding the building of a “global understanding of international issues”. Had that indeed been its aim, readers would not have been subjected to the politically motivated promotion of the blatant inaccuracies and decidedly partial falsehoods which comprise this latest dose of the kind of context-free Palestinian propaganda which is rapidly becoming ever more entrenched as Yolande Knell’s trademark.

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BBC ME editor’s filmed Papal selfie presented as news

The BBC has certainly pulled out the stops to cover the Pope’s visit to the Middle East and reports are coming in thick and fast from its numerous reporters on the ground (more on that later). But among the coverage which appeared on BBC television News programmes and on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on May 24th was an item titled “Pope greets BBC man on plane to Middle East” which readers might find it something of a stretch to define as news.

Bowen Pope plane hp

Pope plane Bowen filmed

“Ah, Well the Pope has come to greet the journalists. He said it’s not a press conference; it’s a religious mission that he’s on. But he’s showing..ah…you know….his friendly and approachable side, I suppose you’d say. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of interest in what he will have to say though when he’s in the Holy Land – especially in Jerusalem – because there are so many controversial issues there involving the Israelis and the Palestinians. And the position of Palestinian Christians.

[18 seconds of footage of Bowen talking to the Pope]

So the Pope has just been down and greeted everybody. Everyone got a handshake and a couple of words. I asked him if it was his first time in Jerusalem and he said no; he’d been once before in the Yom Kippur war. That was 1973. And he said ‘I didn’t see a thing’.”

May 24 Bowen tweet plane 1

May 24 Bowen tweet plane 2

Here is an article about the Pope’s 1973 visit to Jerusalem which appeared in the Israeli media over a year ago, but which apparently was not included in Jeremy Bowen’s pre-flight reading. 

BBC’s Vatican correspondent amplifies stock faux narrative on Palestinian Christians

BBC coverage of the Pope’s visit to the Middle East began on May 22nd – two days before the commencement of the event itself – with an article by the corporation’s Vatican correspondent David Willey titled “Pope Francis to tread careful path on Mid-East visit” appearing in the ‘Features & Analysis section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page and on its Europe page.Pope visit article

Excepting Willey’s misleading reference to the Palestinian territories as one of “three countries” to be visited by the Pope, the first section of the article is fairly unremarkable until readers arrive at the section sub-headed “Christian exodus”.

“The Pope’s namesake, Saint Francis, never actually made it to Jerusalem, or to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

He did however travel as far as Acre – now part of Israel – in 1219, laying the foundations for a Franciscan presence in the Middle East which has, somewhat miraculously, endured until this day.

Some 300 Franciscan friars are officially entrusted by the Vatican with the custody and upkeep of the Holy Places in the Middle East.

However, they have been denuded of their Christian heritage to the extent that one leading local Catholic churchman has described the Holy Land as developing into a sort of “spiritual Disneyland”, full of tourist attractions but increasingly devoid of religious meaning because of the departure of much of the former indigenous Christian population.”

Whilst the jurisdiction of the Custodian of the Holy Land includes sites in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Cyprus and Rhodes, many if not most of the sites that body administers are in Israel (as can be seen on the organisation’s website) where the Christian population – contrary to Willey’s statement – is continually growing.

Willey goes on:

“The Christian exodus extends over a wide area of the Middle East, not only from the Palestinian territories.

Two of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East, the Chaldean Catholics of Iraq, and the Syrian Catholics have been decimated by war.”

That euphemistic description of course fails to enlighten readers with regard to the significant element of Islamist persecution of Christians in countries such as Iraq and Syria.

Willey is equally circumspect and misleading with regard to Palestinian Christians.  

“At the end of the British mandate in Palestine in 1947, the population of Bethlehem was 85% Christian. Today it is 18% and continues to diminish as a result of a higher local Muslim birth-rate and emigration owing to tough economic conditions and Israeli security measures.

In the Old City of Jerusalem, the Christian presence is now estimated at just 1.5%.” [emphasis added]

The Christian population of Israel as a whole stands at some 161,000 – around 2% of the total population – and so a Christian presence of 1.5% in the Old City is not quite the dramatic figure Willey would have readers believe and does not reflect the fact that since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, the city’s Christian population has remained largely stable.  

As we recently noted here in a post concerning another BBC production on the subject of Palestinian Christians, the realities behind the emigration of Palestinian Christians are decidedly more complex than Willey is prepared to state, but notably he appears to have adopted the now well entrenched BBC faux narrative of Palestinian Christians leaving their homeland because of “Israeli security measures”.

In the concluding section of his article Willey misleads readers by implying that religious freedom in Jerusalem is currently lacking.

“So what are the stumbling blocks towards better relations between the Vatican and Israel?

The Vatican has remained single-mindedly in favour of a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to the internationalisation of the city of Jerusalem in the name of religious freedom.”

Providing no factual evidence for his next inaccurate claim, he goes on to state that:

The Israeli government is less enthusiastic about a Palestinian state, and says Jerusalem will remain their “eternal undivided capital”.” [emphasis added]

Whether or not we will see yet more repetitions of the BBC’s faux narrative regarding the reasons for the decline in numbers of Palestinian Christians during its coverage of the Pope’s visit in the coming days remains to be seen, but the tone set by Willey’s opener and the fact that the Pope’s party includes the BBC’s Middle East editor suggests that the topic is one upon which to keep a watchful eye.

Bowen tweet Pope visit

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