Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman strongly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, calling on the premier to stop "using Christians as a tool to whitewash the occupation."
Salman was responding to comments made by Netanyahu on Sunday at the Christian Media Summit in Jerusalem, a gathering of Christian journalists from around the world.
In his speech Sunday, Netanyahu said that "Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian community thrives and grows," and criticized the treatment of Christians by the Palestinian Authority.
When Israel transferred control of Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority in 1995, Netanyahu said, its Christian population was roughly 80 percent. "Now it's about 20 percent," he said. "That change happened because in the PA areas, as well as throughout the Middle East, Christians are being constricted, pressured… [and] persecuted."
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"If Mr. Netanyahu was concerned about the situation of Palestinian Christians, particularly in the Bethlehem Area, he would return the 22,000 dunams of Bethlehem land illegally annexed to Israel for expansion of colonial settlements," said a statement released by Salman on Monday.
"He would dismantle the annexation wall that divides Bethlehem from Jerusalem for the first time in 2,000 years of Christianity and would stop imposing restrictions to Palestinian movement."
"The decrease in the percentage of Christians in Bethlehem, as well as in the rest of Palestine," said the statement, "was provoked with the Nakba of 1948 and is ongoing due to Israel's colonial plans and policies that started in 1967."
"It is shameful that while calling himself a 'protector of Christianity,' [Netanyahu] he would use Christians as a tool for his Islamophobic talking points," the mayor wrote.
Salman concluded by calling heads of churches in Jerusalem and elsewhere "to raise their voices against the use of religion for political purposes."