Yasser Arafat has gone to great lengths over the past two weeks to identify with Christians living in the Palestinian Authority. In his televised address he made clear to the world that he represents Christians as well as Muslim Arabs in the Palestinian Authority and then cried foul when the Israelis barred him from attending Mass in Bethlehem. This was, of course, a pathetic masquerade. Not only has Yasser Arafat done nothing to bolster and protect the rights of Arab Christians in the Palestinian Authority. He has embarked on a ruthless campaign to erode and dismantle their rights.
The fate of Bethlehem offers a fine example. Since 1994, when Arafat first came to administer Bethlehem the Christian population has gradually been reduced from a 60% majority in Bethlehem to a mere 20%. This Arafat ensured by first gerrymandering the municipal boundaries of the city, extending them to include the neighboring refugee camps – Dehaisheh, El-Ayda and El-Azeh and adding a few thousand from the Ta’amarah Bedouin tribe.
Concurrently Arafat fired the city council which was composed of 9 Christians and 2 Moslems while appointing Muhammed A- Hjabari, a Moslem from Hebron as mayor. The entire political structure of the city – in the bureaucratic, security and political spheres were eventually cleansed of Christians. Today the Bethlehem region is in reality run by the local Fatah leader and his thugs.
The physical and psychological intimidation of Palestinian Chrisitian Arabs throughout the territory then proceeded rapidly. Mosques were erected in close proximity to churches in order to obscure and dominate them. This is the case with the Al Khanga and Abdul Malek mosques which today tower over the Church of the Nativity. Christian cemeteries, convents and monasteries were desecrated, their personnel intimidated and in places, their land confiscated. Moslem gunmen, shooting at southern Jerusalem from neighboring Beit Jalah have regularly located their positions either in or next to Christian homes, churches and hotels in order to provoke a harsh Israeli retaliation that could then be interpreted by the world as an attack on Christians.
Then there is the rapid Lebanonization of the West Bank and Gaza. In the 1970s the PLO occupied southern Lebanon, carrying out a campaign of terror involving summary executions of perceived Christian collaborators, rapes of Christian women and theft of Church property. Christian Palestinians in such towns as Bethlehem, Beit Sakhur and Beit Jallah live with similar fears. Rapes of Christian women have occurred repeatedly in Beit Sakhur while the Palestinian police turn a blind eye. Christian shopkeepers and businessmen, who are among the most prosperous Arabs in the region have seen their businesses devastated by the violence of the Intifada - the lucrative tourist trade being practically wiped out. Added to this privation is the protection money now demanded by Fatah activists who insist that Christians must be shielded from the excesses of Muslim fundamentalists. Is it then any wonder that close to 40,000 Christian Arabs have fled Bethlehem in the past eight years?
Not that it wasn’t expected. The late Christian mayor of Bethlehem Elias Friej warned that the implementation of the Oslo Accords would result in Bethlehem becoming a town with churches but no Christians. For over seven years Christian Arabs in East Jerusalem and other West Bank towns have besieged Israeli officials with requests for Israeli I. D. cards knowing full well that the institution of Palestinian rule would result in the kind of extortion and corruption seen wherever the PLO has hoisted its tent.
Those who know something about persecution of Christians throughout the Arab world will not be shocked by what has occurred in the Palestinian Authority. In Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, Christian populations suffer from both direct and indirect state sponsored discrimination. In other Muslim countries such as Nigeria and Indonesia there is open persecution of Christians while in the Sudan it is estimated that close to two million Christians have lost their lives in the course of a bitter civil war.
In spite of Yasser Arafat’s sniffles for Bethlehem there is no evidence that he cares any more for that town or its Christian population than he does for Israelis killed by Palestinian violence. Yet the true irony that grips the Middle East is not that Yasser Arafat now has power over this hapless population; it is that many western governments who could have significant influence on Arafat, still fail to understand that Judeo-Christian values, so fondly nurtured in their own countries, are mocked by a unrepentant malefactor who operates in the very heartland in which those values came into existence.Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies and a senior editorial columnist for Jewsweek.com