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Does the Archbishop of Canterbury Have an Israel Problem?

There’s an unsettling pattern to the archbishop’s remarks—and silence—in defense of Christians around the world.
January 3, 2022
Does the Archbishop of Canterbury Have an Israel Problem?
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby visits the church of the Holy Sepulchre on June 28, 2013 in Jerusalem's Old City, Israel. (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

Christmas brought renewed reports of the persecution of Christians in India, with the New York Times warning of “a growing anti-Christian hysteria that is spreading across this vast nation” and of attacks by “anti-Christian vigilantes” who “in many cases” are being helped “by the police and members of India’s governing party.” Doubtless aware of the symbolism, on Christmas Day itself, the government of India informed the missionary group established by Mother Teresa that it was henceforth barred from accepting foreign donations, with the Wall Street Journal noting that the move came “amid what some Christian leaders call an increasingly hostile environment for their religion.”

The reaction from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, so far as I can find, has been silence. That’s fine in theory, if the archbishop doesn’t consider the plight of India’s Christians his responsibility. When he visited India in 2019, he said nothing about persecution of Christians there. When asked before the trip whether he would challenge the Indian government on behalf of Indian Christians, his top advisers told journalists that “He is not going as a political leader—he is going as a religious leader. What we don’t want to be doing is lecturing another country.”

But this fastidiousness and solicitousness for not “lecturing another country” entirely evaporate when it comes to the world’s only Jewish state—an especially egregious double standard in the context of Christianity’s steep decline in most of the Middle East. As an article in the Atlantic put it in 2019, “The graph of the religion’s decline in the Middle East has in recent years been transformed into a cliff.”

In Iraq, where “during the war years, insurgents consistently targeted Christian towns and churches in a campaign of terror,” the Christian population has fallen from well over a million to 250,000 or fewer. Lebanon used to have a Christian majority, and while Christians still make up a greater share of the overall population there than in any other Middle Eastern country, that former majority has shrunk to just a third. In Turkey, the Christian population was above 20 percent in the early twentieth century; today it is under 1 percent. In Syria, perhaps 30 percent of the population was Christian a century ago, and even by 2000 nearly 15 percent of the population was Christian; today, thanks to the country’s civil war, the Christian population is estimated to have fallen below 3 percent.

In Egypt, Copts and other Christians used to be 10 percent of the population, but are now down to half that (according to Pew). Why might that be? A 2013 report by the Carnegie Endowment is a reminder: “The Egyptian Orthodox Christian community—the Copts—has been the target of violence and discrimination since the 1970s. . . . The Egyptian state has done little to remedy the situation and has at times enabled the conflict between Muslims and Christians.”

The story is similar in the nearby Palestinian territories. The Christian population in Gaza has declined by 80 percent, from about 4,500 when Israel ruled Gaza down to 1,000 now under Hamas rule. Why do they leave? As an article in Foreign Policy in October, 2021 put it:

Today, the purging of the Christian community is part of a broader vanishing of Christians from the Middle East. In Gaza, it is partly the result of the economy and the siege, but it is undeniably made worse by life under Hamas. In 2007, one year after Hamas was elected, the last Christian bookstore in Central Gaza. . .was firebombed twice.. . . It’s Christian owner, Rami Ayyad, a deeply religious and kindly man, was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by extremists.

In the West Bank, the Christian population is steadily declining and the State Department reports that, “According to local Christian leaders, Palestinian Christian emigration has continued at rapid rates.”

The condition of Christian minorities in the Middle East is grim—but there is an exception. A Times of Israel report on a new statistical study of Israeli Christians noted that Israel’s Christian population, which is more than 75 percent Arab, grew by 1.6 percent in 2019 and 1.4 percent in 2020 to reach 182,000 people. A remarkable 84 percent said they were satisfied with life in the Jewish state. And why not: A higher percentage of Arab Christians than of Israeli Jews go on to get a bachelor’s degree after high school. The report showed that “53.1% of Arab Christians . . . went on to get a bachelor’s degree after finishing high school, compared to . . . 47.2% of all high school graduates in Hebrew education.” Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported that “Christian students comprised 2.6% of all university students” in a country where Christians are 2 percent of the population.

One could cite many more statistics that together make one single and obvious point: Christianity is in steep decline in the Middle East except in one country, Israel, where Christians and Christianity are doing fine.

And that is why the archbishop of Canterbury’s recent attack on Israel is so disgraceful.

Remembering especially the archbishop’s silence about persecution in India, his recent comments on the situation of Christians in Israel raise questions of anti-Semitism. On December 13, a group of Christian clergy in Jerusalem issued a statement entitled “The Current Threat to the Christian Presence in the Holy Land.” In full support, on December 19 the archbishop (joined by a Palestinian Anglican bishop in Jerusalem) wrote an article for the Times of London entitled “Let us pray for Christians being driven from the Holy Land.” At his own website,, we find the headline “Archbishops warn of ‘concerted effort’ to drive Christians from Holy Land.” The archbishop does acknowledge that “Christians in Israel enjoy democratic and religious freedoms that are a beacon in the region” and that “in Israel, there is some increase in the overall numbers of Christians.” But he supports and endorses a statement by “leaders of local churches in Jerusalem” that “raises an unprecedented and urgent alarm call” claiming that “Christians throughout the Holy Land have become the target of frequent and sustained attacks by fringe radical groups.” What’s more, the statement says there have been “countless incidents” of physical and verbal assaults, “holy sites regularly vandalized,” and “ongoing intimidation.” He goes on to quote, and thus lend credence to, the claim that this is all part of “a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.”

What is perhaps most remarkable about this statement is the context. First, acts of vandalism and assault by “fringe radical groups” would seem to be matters that should be handled by law enforcement. As Robert Nicholson of the Philos Project put it, “If the prelates are vexed by issues within Israel, they might consider lodging a complaint with the local police instead of the international press.” There is no possible argument that the government of Israel encourages any such unlawful conduct, far less in the way that the New York Times and others report the ruling party and authorities in India do.

Second, the archbishop acknowledges that the Christian population in Israel is growing but ignores the implications. How can one reconcile that undisputed fact with the archbishop’s headline about Christians “being driven from the Holy Land”? How can one square all these assertions about constant assaults and attacks with the fact that 84 percent of Christians in Israel report being satisfied with life there?

Last summer, Archbishop Welby announced that in 2022 the Church of England would apologize for the treatment of Jews in, and their expulsion from, England 800 years ago. The Synod of Oxford in 1222 adopted various anti-Semitic laws including forcing Jews to wear badges showing their identity, prohibiting construction of synagogues, and propagating the blood libel; this was a key step towards the total expulsion of Jews from England in 1290. The apology is a bit odd, though, given that the Church of England as such would not exist until several hundred years later.

This is not the archbishop’s first foray into rhetorical excess. In November, he had to apologize for predicting that politicians who fail to stop global warming will in the future be condemned “in far stronger terms than we speak today of the politicians of the (19)30s, of the politicians who ignored what was happening in Nazi Germany.” Criticized strongly by the British Jewish community for this remark, the archbishop then said, “I unequivocally apologize for the words I used when trying to emphasize the gravity of the situation facing us at COP26 [the international climate summit]. It’s never right to make comparisons with the atrocities brought by the Nazis, and I’m sorry for the offense caused to Jews by these words.”

Additional apologies might be imagined. I noted Archbishop Welby’s remarkable reply when asked some years ago whether the United Kingdom should take more Christian refugees from Iraq. “The last thing we want to do is empty the Middle East of Christians,” he said, and then added that “Christians have been there for longer than anyone else, which needs to be remembered.” The archbishop might consider revisiting his Gospels, because Jesus came from somewhere and was preaching to someone. Nebuchadnezzar brought Jews from their historic homeland into the Babylonian captivity 600 years before Jesus, and many of their descendants lived there continuously until being expelled after the creation of the State of Israel. Apparently that is not something “which needs to be remembered.”

A pattern emerges. The Christian population appears to be rising in Israel, but dropping in the West Bank and Gaza. Why, then, blame Israel rather than the Palestinian Authority and Hamas? Surely a comparison of the archbishop’s comments on Israel with his silence on India suggests he is holding Israel to a standard he does not widely apply. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism includes “applying double standards by requiring of it [the State of Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

There was a considerable reaction in the United Kingdom to the archbishop’s comments. Sir Eric Pickles, a former Member of Parliament who chairs the Conservative Friends of Israel in the House of Lords and is the UK.’.s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues such as restitution of assets and Holocaust education, said he was “disappointed in the blinkered and partial view on where the real problem for declining Christian numbers in the region lies. Without Israel’s active protection of Christian rights, there would be a real danger of [Christianity] disappearing from the region altogether.”

Robert Nicholson summed up the situation well: “If the Church of England wants a Christian Renaissance in the Near East, it should extend a hand of friendship to the only country where that project is still viable.” Archbishop of Canterbury Welby should understand that his apology for the church’s actions regarding Jews in England 800 years ago is of far less importance to Jews everywhere today, including in England and especially in Israel, than treating the Jewish state fairly. If he can’t manage that, no apologies will ever be sufficient.

Elliott Abrams

Elliott Abrams served as the United States special representative for both Iran and Venezuela in the Donald Trump administration, as deputy national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration, and as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs and for inter-American affairs in the Ronald Reagan administration. He is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.