The Palestinian Authority's campaign of persecution against Arab Christians in the self-rule areas, first reported in the August edition of the Digest, continues unabated and has furthermore been given legal sanction. The PA's official campaign against Christians was confirmed by newly-appointed PA Justice Minister Fayez Abu Rahmeh, who told The Jerusalem Report (Sept 4) that missionising aimed at Muslims "will be considered a crime", based on a resurrected provision from the 1936 British Mandate penal code. (While the original law banned all missionary activity, the PA has indicated it currently will be applied only against those who attempt to convert Muslims.)

Christian Arab Mohammed Bak'r, a convert from Islam, remains in a Nablus jail despite payment by family members of a 25,000 shekel (about US$7,140) bribe to prison officials intended to secure his release. Although PA authorities deny he is being held for violating this new "anti-missionary" law, it is apparent to his friends and neighbours in Samaria that Bak'r is in jail for his religious activities. These include "witnessing", handing out Bibles, organising rides to church, and inviting local Muslim sheikhs to services.

Pastors, reporters and human rights groups (including Amnesty International) all have been denied the right to visit Bak'r in recent weeks. Nervous PA prison officers have insisted the investigation against him is continuing, based on the official charges of involvement in a sale of land to Jews some years ago.

However, Palestinian human rights activist Bassam Eid personally searched all land records in the vicinity, finding no documents connecting Bak'r with a sale of land. Further, there are no signs Bak'r profited from any such sales; he is a poor construction labourer with a wife and nine children, all of whom live in an unfinished, two-room house.

The persecution of Bak'r and other Christian converts from strict Islamic backgrounds has been brought to the attention of government leaders, including a number of US congressmen. The Christian Broadcasting Network taped for viewing an interview with one such former Muslim who wore a disguise to protect his identity. He described his arrest and imprisonment by PA police and his subsequent release only after his family had paid a bribe.

The pastors of many of these new Christian believers, including Issa Bajalia and David Ortiz, have publicly defended their congregants in spite of the dangers. Bajalia, a Palestinian-American, reports being prevented by PA security agents from visiting the homes of Muslim converts to Christianity. Other Christian Arabs are receiving death threats, and approaches to PA authorities for protection are met with scorn. One such former Muslim says he was told by a PA policeman: "There is a price to pay for converting."

Netanyahu promises to defeat anti-missionary bill

In sharp contrast to the silence about existing Palestinian Authority legislation criminalising activity aimed at converting Muslims to Christianity, many Christians around the world have expressed concern about the introduction of a privately-sponsored "anti-missionary" bill for consideration by the Israeli Knesset.

The bill has been co-sponsored by two Knesset members, one a member of the opposition Labour party, the other a representative of the National Religious Party.

Its preliminary reading proposes that: "Whoever possesses contrary to the law or prints or copies or distributes or shares or imports tracts or advertises things in which there is an inducement for religious conversion is liable to one year's imprisonment. Any tract or advertisement in which there is inducement to religious conversion will be confiscated."

Critics say the wording is vague, the terms wide-ranging. Simply possessing in one's private library certain books could be interpreted, some fear, as breaking the law.

The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem said in a statement that the bill would make its endeavour to win support for Israel among gentiles that much more difficult.

"We are profoundly aware of the shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism--in many cases driven by efforts to convert Jews--and of the resulting real and understandable suspicion and fear of 'missionaries'. But despite the fact the ICEJ does not regard proselytising as our function in Israel, we still feel this to be a bad and dangerous initiative."

In a statement released on June 3, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made it clear the private bill would not receive his government's support: " [T]he government strenuously objects to this bill and will act to ensure that it does not pass," he said.

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