In recent issues, the Digest has reported on the Palestinian Authority's oppression of Arab Christians in the self-rule areas. (see Tortured for their faith, Aug 1997; The price of conversion, October; PA persecution of Christians, Nov/Dec 1997). Despite noteworthy efforts to end this official campaign of persecution, the PA is unrelenting, particularly in its targeting of Christian converts from Islamic backgrounds.
ARAB Christian Mohammed Bak'r is entering his sixth month in a PA prison for openly proclaiming his faith. Numerous inquiries have been made to PA officials concerning his case, but no trial date has been set or evidence produced against him. The new Foreign Minister of Norway, Knut Vollebaek, reportedly raised the issue of Bak'r directly with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat in a private meeting, but to no avail. Afterwards, Arafat abruptly ended their joint press conference when a Norwegian journalist asked him a question about Bak'r.
Threats against another Muslim convert to Christianity proved all too real in November as a radical Islamist drove into his village near Nablus and, according to several eyewitness accounts, intentionally swerved onto the sidewalk to hit his eight-year-old daughter.
Although she suffered a fractured hip and a severe head injury, she has had a miraculously quick recovery. Her father first learned of her fate through an anonymous caller claiming that the "down payment" for his conversion had been made--with more "payments" to follow. Although numerous villagers confirmed the driver's identity to Palestinian police, they have refused to take action.
These and other cases were highlighted in a special broadcast on a Dutch Christian television station in early December, which included a live interview with PA Minister for Education Hanan Ashrawi, a Greek Orthodox Christian. After denying such reports as Israeli propaganda early in the show, Ashrawi had to retract after viewing footage of disguised Christians from Bethlehem and Nablus tell of the persecution they have suffered since they came under PA rule.
The show's host, Joppe Meijers, told the Digest he also had located eyewitnesses to the PA's shooting of six Christian Arabs near Bethlehem in August, but none were willing to discuss the incident on his programme, even in disguise.
A leading PA advisor to Arafat and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council recently told area pastors their evangelical activities among Muslims were considered subversive and a threat to the PA. He is familiar with the Bak'r case and maintained that the PA is an Islamic state which has adopted Islamic sha'ria law, making democratic considerations secondary.
"Our religion comes first," he insisted, adding that the PA doubts any donor nation would cut off funds based on religious grounds.
In an opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post concerning the unexplained deaths of at least 18 prisoners in PA custody, Palestinian human rights activist Bassam Eid lamented that "the PA is not serious about solving its human rights problem" and often uses "blackmail" against aggrieved families (Dec 17).
Charles Kopp, who has pastored in Israel for several decades, expressed the sentiments of many local Christian organisations when he said he was saddened to see the PA's lack of respect for democracy, human rights and religious liberties. Even veteran ministers who went through the intifada are wondering how long they can continue their outreach in PA areas under the current oppressive conditions. And one source suggested we may have uncovered only the tip of the iceberg, as rumours abound of slain and missing Christian Arabs in and near Nablus in recent months.
Respected British paper reports on converts' plight
"Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority is waging a campaign of intimidation and harassment to push Muslims who have converted to Christianity to renounce their new faith," the London Sunday Telegraph reported on December 21.
According to reporter Aliza Marcus, a number of Arab converts told her they had been threatened, beaten, and some jailed by PA officials.
One recounted how Palestinian police had warned him he had "better become a Muslim again". When he refused, he said, he was accused of spying for Israel and eventually had to flee for his life. Another, who became a Christian six years ago, alleged he had been detained twice this year, had his shop burnt down and Islamic slogans painted on his car.
Since taking control of areas in Judea, Samaria and Gaza under the Oslo Accords, said the Sunday Telegraph, the Arafat authority had been accused of "torturing detainees, jailing people for years without charge and holding midnight trials in which defendants are sentenced in a matter of hours". The situation had been described as "deplorable" by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The newspaper incorrectly stated that the PA "does not have any laws making it illegal to convert". In fact, as reported in the Digest (Oct 1997), PA Justice Minister Fayez Abu Rahmeh confirmed to the Jerusalem Report (Sept 4) that, based on a law from the British Mandate period, missionising aimed at Muslims "will be considered a crime".
Around 106 converts are living largely secretive lives among the 1,5 million Muslim Palestinians in Judea-Samaria, Marcus estimated. "Palestinians suggest that converts are being harassed because Islam demands death for ex-Muslims who do not renounce their new faith. Converts may also face problems because generally they are members of evangelical churches which opposed an independent Palestinian state. Evangelical Christians read the Bible literally and say that God gave this stretch of land to the Jews
"It appears that Palestinian officials are both accusing converts of disloyalty and using laws--such as accusing converts of stealing or selling land to Jews--as a way to put a legal face on the harassment," Marcus wrote. "One convert, a 34-year-old father of six, has been in prison four times this year because police say they suspect him of stealing. He has never been charged. Another has been held for five months, allegedly for selling land to Jews. But his seven children and wife live in two cramped rooms in a poverty-stricken village in the West Bank. His relatives say he never had any land."