Backgrounder: The PA's Treatment of Christians

"For the man whose knowledge is not in order, the more he has of it, the greater will be his confusion." -- Herbert Spencer (1820-1923)

In several editions this year, the Middle East Digest has highlighted the plight of Christian Arabs living under Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. In mid-October, the Israeli Prime Minister's Office released the findings of its investigation into claims that PA police were systematically harassing and persecuting Christians. The report follows:

The Takeover of Bethlehem

On taking control over Bethlehem in December 1995, the Palestinian Authority changed the rules for Christians. The Church of the Nativity and other sites of central importance to Christianity came under Palestinian Authority control, giving Yasser Arafat leverage over the heads of the Christian communities. Since then, the local Christian leadership has toed the line of the Palestinian Authority.

The Latin patriarch, Greek archbishop, Anglican bishop and Lutheran bishop are all Palestinian Arabs. They have become effective propaganda mouthpieces throughout the Christian world.

An example of Arafat's attitude toward the Christians was his decision to unilaterally turn the Greek Orthodox monastery near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem into his domicile during his periodic visits to the city. This was done without prior consent of the church.

Treatment of Christians by the PA

On the social and religious level, the Christians remaining in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas are subjected to relentless persecution. Christian cemeteries have been destroyed, monasteries have had their telephone lines cut, and there have been break-ins at convents. Nuns are afraid to report such incidents.

In August 1997, Palestinian policemen in Beit Sahour [near Bethlehem] opened fire on a crowd of Christian Arabs, wounding six. The Palestinian Authority is attempting to cover up the incident and has warned against publicising the story. The local commander of the Palestinian police instructed journalists not to report on the incident.

Palestinian security forces have targeted and intimidated Christian leaders and Palestinian converts to Christianity. Recent incidents of persecution include the following:

In late June 1997, a Palestinian convert to Christianity in the northern West Bank was arrested by agents of the Palestinian Authority's Preventive Security Service. He had been regularly attending church and prayer meetings and was distributing Bibles. The Palestinian Authority ordered his arrest. He is still being held in a Palestinian prison and has been subjected to physical torture and interrogations.

The pastor of a church in Ram'Allah was recently warned by Palestinian Authority security agents that they were monitoring his evangelistic activities in the area and wanted him to come in for questioning for spreading Christianity.

A Palestinian convert to Christianity living in a village near Nablus was recently arrested by Palestinian police. A Muslim preacher was brought in by the police, and he attempted to convince the convert to return to Islam. When the convert refused, he was brought before a Palestinian court and sentenced to prison for insulting the religious leader. He is now sharing a prison cell with more than 30 people, most serving life sentences for murder.

A Palestinian convert to Christianity in Ram'Allah was recently visited by Palestinian policemen at his home and warned that if he continued to preach Christianity, he would be arrested and charged with being an Israeli spy.

As a result of unceasing persecution, the Christians are forced to behave like any oppressed minority which aims to survive. Christians in PA-controlled areas have taken to praying in secret. The wisdom of survival compels them to assess the "balance of fear", according to which they have nothing to fear from Israel but face an existential threat from the Palestinian Authority and their Muslim neighbours.

They act accordingly: they seek to "find favour" through unending praise and adulation for the Muslim ruler together with public denunciations of the "Zionist entity."

Emigration of Christians from PA territory

In the last census conducted by the British mandatory authorities in 1947, there were 28,000 Christians in Jerusalem. The census conducted by Israel in 1967 [after the Six Day War ended a 19-year Jordanian occupation of the eastern part of the city, uniting Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty] showed just 11,000 Christians remaining in the city. This means that some 17,000 Christians (or 61 per cent) left during the days of King Hussein's rule over Jerusalem. Their place was filled by Muslim Arabs from Hebron.

During the British mandate period, Bethlehem had a Christian majority of 80 per cent. Today, under Palestinian rule, it has a Muslim majority of 80 per cent.

Few Christians remain in the Palestinian-controlled parts of the West Bank. Those who can emigrate, do so, and there will soon be virtually no Christians in the PA-controlled areas. The PA is trying to conceal the fact of massive Christian emigration from areas under its control.

Document courtesy of the Prime Minister's Office, October 1997

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