The growing public focus on the difficulties faced by Christian converts from Islam living under Palestinian Authority rule took several dramatic turns in recent weeks. Among the more notable developments, the Digest has learned that in January, 1998 the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in the United States granted "religious asylum" to two separate Palestinian Arab petitioners originally from the PA self-rule areas.
In these unrelated cases, two former Muslim converts to Christianity contended they could not return to their homes in the PA autonomy and practice their new faith openly for fear of the dangers they would face. INS officials conducted their own lengthy, independent investigations and concluded that the present situation indeed is unsafe for such ex-Muslims converts. The Digest made inquiries to the US Consulate in East Jerusalem, but has not been able to confirm yet whether or not the State Department contributed in any way to these INS asylum decisions, as is often the case.
Arab Christian Muhammad Bak'r finally was released from Nablus Central Prison on February 24 after nearly 8 months in jail. To gain release, his family sold household items and borrowed heavily to pay a $14,470 "fine." Bak'r told the Digest he was happy to be home with his family, but knew he was not yet out of danger. He adamantly denied the land-dealing charges brought against him and insisted he is a Christian believer. His family requested and received a statement from the Tulkarm office of the Palestinian Ministry of Finances and Taxes verifying that his name does not appear in the official land records as having sold or witnessed a sale of land.
Before his release, it was learned that US consulate officials had examined the charges of land dealing against Bak'r, questioned their validity, and called on the PA either to conduct a trial or release him. A trial was scheduled for a Jericho courtroom, but no witnesses or PA prosecutors were present. Only days later, in a cursory hearing back in Nablus, a PA judicial official simply encouraged Bak'r to pay a fine, while making no reference to the charges against him.
As a result of their probe, one American political affairs officer acknowledged that problems certainly started for Bak'r and several other ex-Muslims after they converted, but wanted to investigate further to determine how systemic the persecution might be throughout the PA.
With human rights groups and the American diplomatic corps now giving serious attention to their plight, other reluctant Arab Christians came forward for the first time with their accounts of harassment, imprisonment and torture. One such convert described his 4 months of imprisonment in Nablus last year - how he was denied food or water for the first five days; then after a month of severe beatings and torture, he was hospitalized for 10 days, followed by another three months in prison on false charges of dealing in stolen goods. During this entire humiliating episode, he was constantly prodded by PA interrogators to return to Islam. Then in a more recent incarceration, a PA police officer mockingly told him: "I could pin charges on you for 15 years and each year bring you a flower." This convinced him to no longer conceal his story and seek assistance.
Another new report indicates that a former Muslim sheik, who converted to Christianity several years ago and fled his home village, was imprisoned in mid-February in the same Nablus prison where Muhammed Bak'r was held. Details of any charges are unknown at this time.
A new video release by the Christian ministry team of Jay and Meridel Rawlings entitled "Between a Rock and a Hard Place" attempts to document the unfolding story of PA persecution of Christian converts. In an on-camera interview, Ziad Abu Ziad, a Palestinian Legislative Council member and Legal Advisor to PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, describes the "warnings" traditionally given to Muslims who abandon the faith and the results if they go unheeded. "Muslims are not allowed, according to the Islamic religion, to convert their religion or to become non-believers," claims Abu Ziad. "A Muslim who will convert his religion and publicizes that and he says that he has quit the Islamic religion, he will be treated according to the Islamic law. And the Islamic law is that he should be warned and asked to make up his mind and come back to Islam, but if he insists, then the rule for that is killing."
Ramallah pastor Isa Bijalia appears on the video to plea: "All we want is the freedom of these brothers to worship as they please without any ridicule or obstruction from anyone."
In the midst of these developments, there was some encouraging news. Many of the converts who have encountered difficulties with the PA were heartened to note that most of the Muslims in their families and communities were not following tradition by treating them as outcasts. Rather, they were breaking with such customs by accepting them in their new faith and rallying to their side. An increasing number even have converted themselves due to the bold stands they have witnessed in recent months. In the case of the 8-year old girl hit by a radical Muslim driver (see January 1998 Digest), her young school friends, both Muslim and Christian, began encircling her for the walk to and from school each day to protect her from further harm.
Baptist pastor Charles Kopp, a veteran minister in Israel who figures prominently in the Rawlings video, was quick to remind: "There are a lot of good people out there among the Muslim Arabs, and this needs to be reported as well." The sense among many of these Palestinian Arabs is that they all seem to be suffering at the hands of the PA, and thus they share a common frustration and disappointment with their own leaders. So while some may openly and dangerously refer to these converts as "traitors," it is apparent their complaints about treatment under the PA are considered by many in their communities to be a legitimate expression of criticism against repressive PA security forces, including radical Muslims in police uniform. "They are godless men, even though they might call themselves Muslims," related one Palestinian Arab. Certainly, they expected better from their own people.