Christian Leader nabbed by Palestinian Authority: Analysis and Commentary

According to a Jerusalem Post report filed by Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toemeh on April 3, 2016, the PA police arrested Swerios Malki Murad, the Archbishop and Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Christian community, saying that they had received an unspecified complaint against him from an unidentified woman in his 5000-member community. Mr. Abu Toemeh reported that Mr. Murad’s motorcade was unexpectedly stopped by PA police as it left a Syriac heritage celebration at the Bethlehem Convention Palace in the Bethlehem suburb of El-Khader. According to follow-up reports as of April 4, Murad has remained in PA police custody somewhere in Bethlehem, while speculations multiply as to the reasons.

Research into Archbishop Murad’s background reveals little about the man or why he was targeted. His main base is the Syriac Orthodox Church of St. Mark, located at the edge of the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, an area under Israeli protection. Church members reside in both Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and on the Israeli side Murad’s denomination enjoys official recognition.

On the PA side, Mr. Murad has been leading this Christian community as “Patriarchal Vicar of the Holy Land and Jordan” since 1996 – only two years short of the Palestinian Authority’s entire history – and has freely entered and exited PA territory on a regular basis, until now. His sudden arrest on vague charges has raised eyebrows and questions. Did the prominent clergyman offend Palestinian official sensibilities?

One thing that can be ruled out is any pro-Israel sentiment. For more than a decade, Archbishop Murad has repeated the anti-Israel rhetoric of the PA. He joined other Jerusalem church leaders in a 2003 statement denouncing the “separation wall around Bethlehem [sic, along its northern and western boundaries]” as immoral (source: Jerusalem Testament: Palestinian Christians Speak, 1988-2008, by Melanie May, p.110-11). Mr. Murad’s signature is also found on a protest issued at Pentecost 2007 denouncing “the 40th anniversary of Occupation by the Israelis” (Testament, p.134-35), as well as another open letter in 2008 falsely accusing Israel of depriving Gaza residents of basic necessities (p.139-40). In 2009, Mr. Murad endorsed the extremist “Kairos Palestine” document, which calls on the world to isolate and boycott the nation of Israel as illegitimate. He even participated in a 2014 condemnation of Israeli attempts to halt Muslim violence on the Temple Mount, because the measures resulted in “some limitation of access to Al Aqsa Mosque”.

It’s ironic that Mr. Murad, who predicted that Israel would use the security barrier to deny Palestinians “freedom of movement”, spent the last 12 years traveling freely across the barrier to preside over his community’s celebrations in Bethlehem and Jerusalem — until the PA denied him that freedom last week. The fact that his loyalty to Palestinian “Israeli occupation” fictions did not exempt Archbishop Murad from Palestinian police harassment should serve as a warning to all Palestinian Christians who are hoping to escape persecution by compromising on the truth about Israel.

As of this writing, the charges for which Patriarch Murad was arrested remain a Palestinian police secret. The Patriarchate in Antioch (Turkey) published an open letter to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, protesting Murad’s “demeaning” arrest as an “outrage”, but appealing to Abbas’ sense of decency to set things right. The Syriac brethren in Bethlehem were less diplomatic. According to the Bethlehem outlet Ma’an News, the local appeal to Mr. Abbas contained an unprecedented threat: Syriac Christians will “leave Palestine and seek refuge in any other country if Archbishop Murad is not released.” NSNBC reported an additional warning of “the Judaization of Palestine” in the wake of a Christian exodus from PA-controlled areas, but this is a peculiar argument since all such areas are already “Jew-free”.

Other than Israel, the only Middle Eastern countries where the Syriac Orthodox Church has branches are Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon – none of them a promising destination for fleeing Christians. Knowing that part of his community is already living securely in a “refuge” just minutes away, perhaps the Archbishop will use his enforced time-out in PA custody to consider issuing a personal appeal to Israeli authorities, requesting refugee status for his persecuted flock in Bethlehem. First, however, he would need to repent of his continual denunciation of the one country in the Middle East that has granted him and his church full religious freedom.