In recent weeks, the Palestinian Authority has engaged in damage-control in response to numerous, persistent reports of the PA's persecution of Christians under its rule. And notable Palestinian Arabs, including Christian leaders, have also joined the public fray in hopes of defusing the potentially explosive issue.
On December 23, 1997, the PA's Ministry of Information posted a "Special Release" on the Internet criticising the recent negative press coverage as "guided by an agenda ... to inflict the utmost damage on the reputation and credibility" of the PA at a time when the world was focusing on Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem.
The official statement, however, made the chilling admission that "the Palestinian people are also governed by shari'a Law ... according to shari'a Law, applicable throughout the Muslim world, any Muslim who declares changing his religion or declares becoming a believer is committing a major sin punishable by capital punishment. In practice, this has never happened in the Palestinian territories, nor is it likely to happen at all. Having said that, the PNA cannot take a different position on this matter. The norms and traditions will take care of such situations."
Days later, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, was quoted as dismissing the reports as an unwarranted "campaign" and "a pretext to fan Moslem-Christian tension," but contradicted himself by adding that it "will lead to nothing but further extremism." The carefully worded denial also stated that: "On the other hand, yes. There might be some isolated incidents or isolated clashes. There might also be violations on the part of low-level officials. Ultimately, however, this campaign only raised our attention, Muslims and Christians alike, to the necessity of deepening our relations." (The Jerusalem Post, December 28, 1997)
Christian Arab pastors in Judea and Samaria also came forward to offer a different picture of life for Christian believers under the PA, maintaining that they were enjoying unprecedented freedom to minister and evangelise among the Palestinian community. They cited the PA's licensing of a Christian radio station and hopes for PA approval of a Christian television station in near future. But other local church leaders surfaced, claiming knowledge of further unreported incidents of persecution and harassment and making public pleas for Muslim tolerance of Christian believers.
Then on January 20, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, headed by Bassam Eid, unveiled a draft report addressing these widely reported accounts of official PA persecution of Christian minorities under its rule within the context of the PA's overall poor human rights record.
While the PHRMG report did not dispute many of the facts previously reported in the Digest and elsewhere (including the London Telegraph, the London Times, the Washington Times and the Jerusalem Report), it concluded that these Arab Christians were not being singled out for harassment by the PA; rather they were merely being subjected to the same ill treatment that others were enduring under the PA. Both the PA Ministry of Information statement and the PHRMG draft report cited the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem as a source for much of the recent publicity on the issue.
The ICEJ responded to the PHRMG report by stating: "We respect the work of Bassam Eid and the PHRMG in promoting the human rights agenda among Palestinian Arabs... Unfortunately, the release of this flawed report taints their otherwise good record of monitoring and activism.
"In essence, it appears to be more a work of apologetics for the Islamic-dominated Palestinian Authority than a credible analysis of the persecution issues we have raised...
"The PHRMG acknowledges widespread human rights abuses by the PA, but does not believe there is a specific targeting of Christians. We continue to maintain that there are numerous instances where converts to Christianity from Islamic backgrounds have been persecuted by radical Islamic elements both within and outside the PA police forces, and the official policies of the PA allow them free rein in these activities."
The PHRMG subsequently conceded that the draft report needed clarifications and has solicited further information before issuing a final report on the subject in a few weeks. But the conflicting accounts and growing media interest ensures continued and much-needed attention to the fate of Palestinian Arab Christians living within a Muslim majority and under a repressive regime.