HNN: Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, the historian, was on the hot seat on Sixty Minutes tonight, for objecting to a story correspondent Bob Simon was doing before the story even aired. The story focused on the suffering of Christians in the traditional holy places of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, whose numbers have been dwindling as a result of Israeli measures to limit terrorism. The story did not suggest that Israel is targeting Christians. Rather, they have been collateral damage as Israel cracks down on Muslims. An excerpt follows.
Bob Simon: Michael Oren, who used to be Israel's director of Interreligious Affairs, is Israel's ambassador to the United States.
Michael Oren: We have to protect our country. But sometimes you have to do what you have to do in order to survive.
For Palestinian Christians, the survival of their culture is in danger. In towns like Bethlehem, which used to be distinctively Christian, Muslims now are a clear and growing majority. The veil is replacing the cross. But inside Israel, in Christian towns like Nazareth, Arabs are Israeli citizens and, according to Ambassador Oren, they're thriving. The reason Christians are leaving the West Bank, he says, is Islamic extremism.
Michael Oren: I think that the major problem in the West Bank as in elsewhere in the Middle East is that the Christian communities are living under duress.
Bob Simon: And this duress is coming from Muslims, not from the Israel occupation?
Ambassador Michael Oren: I believe that the major duress is coming from that.
For Israel, there could be serious economic consequences [to the decline in the population of Christians in holy places]. According to Israeli government figures, tourism is a multi billion dollar business there. Most tourists are Christian. Many of them are American. That's one reason why Israelis are very sensitive about their image in the United States. And that could be why Ambassador Oren phoned Jeff Fager, the head of CBS News and executive producer of 60 Minutes, while we were still reporting the story, long before tonight's broadcast. He said he had information our story was quote: "a hatchet job."
Michael Oren: It seemed to me outrageous. Completely incomprehensible that at a time when these communities, Christian communities throughout the Middle East are being oppressed and massacred, when churches are being burnt, when one of the great stories in history is unfolding? I think it's-- I think it's-- I think you got me a little bit mystified.
Bob Simon: And it was a reason to call the president of-- chairman of CBS News?
Michael Oren: Bob, I'm the ambassador of the State of Israel. I do that very, very infrequently as ambassador. It's just-- that's an extraordinary move for me to complain about something. When I heard that you were going to do a story about Christians in the Holy Land and my assum-- and-- and had, I believe, information about the nature of it, and it's been confirmed by this interview today.
Bob Simon: Nothing's been confirmed by the interview, Mr. Ambassador, because you don't know what's going to be put on air.
Michael Oren: Okay. I don't. True.
Bob Simon: Mr. Ambassador, I've been doing this a long time. And I've received lots of reactions from just about everyone I've done stories about. But I've never gotten a reaction before from a story that hasn't been broadcast yet.
Michael Oren: Well, there's a first time for everything, Bob.