Tourists and pilgrims who visited Bethlehem over the past decade or so must have run into Farid Azizeh, a Christian businessman who, together with his wife, ran a small coffee shop on Manger Square.
The couple was famous for the fresh orange juice and Turkish coffee they used to serve to their customers. On the eve of the millennium, many foreign journalists who converged on Bethlehem turned the place into a makeshift media center.
Azizeh's coffee shop was among the few businesses in Bethlehem that had remained open after the intifada began in September 2000. "The situation will one day return to normal," he once said when asked about the new cycle of violence. "One day there will be peace here because this is the city of peace and the birthplace of Jesus."
But life will never return to normal for Azizeh, who for many years served as a member of the Bethlehem municipal council.
About three years ago, unidentified gunmen opened fire at Azizeh's car on one of the main streets of the city, hitting him in the head. Shortly after the attack, and with the help of Israeli friends, he was transferred to Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, where doctors managed to save his life. However, several surgeries failed to save his eyesight.
Since then, the coffee shop has closed and Azizeh, who was known as a socialite, rarely leaves his home.
Azizeh's attackers remain at large, although their identity is known to many. Only days before the shooting, Azizeh had refused to withdraw a complaint he had filed against a Muslim driver who killed two of his relatives in a car accident. The driver's family is said to have sought the help of local Fatah militiamen in "persuading" Azizeh to back off.
Regardless of the motive, the case of Azizeh, 72, is seen by many Christians in the context of a campaign allegedly waged by Muslims against the Christian minority in the city. Azizeh, they argue, would not have been targeted had he belonged to one of the large and influential Muslim clans in Bethlehem.
"The Christians here are perceived as easy prey," complains a prominent Christian businessman. "In recent years there has been an upsurge in the number of attacks on Christians in Bethlehem."
Muslim and Christian political leaders in the city strongly deny the existence of an organized anti-Christian campaign, insisting that the violence is mostly the result of "personally motivated" disputes that are unrelated to religion. The victims of crime include both Muslims and Christians, they add, accusing Israel and Jewish organizations of spreading lies about "Muslim persecution" of Christians.
"Reports of Muslim attacks on Christians are wildly exaggerated and you should be careful not to play into the hands of the Israeli propaganda machine," advises Omar al-Khatib, the imam of a mosque in Bethlehem. "Relations between Muslims and Christians have never been better."
Yet off the record, many Christians in Bethlehem who were interviewed during the past week expressed deep concern over increased attacks by Muslims on members of their community. Moreover, most of them said that they were seriously considering moving to the US, Canada and Latin America, where many of their relatives already live.
Jihad, a Christian merchant from the nearby town of Beit Jala, who has been dealing in antique furniture for over 30 years, says he is planning to leave for good to Chile, where at least 80,000 of his townsfolk now live. "There are less than 10,000 Christians living in Beit Jala today," he explains. "There's no future here because of the deteriorating economic conditions."
His friend, George, who used to own a souvenir shop, says he's planning to move next week to Peru, where his brothers and sisters have been living for the past 15 years. The two, who asked to be identified only by their first names, are extremely cautious when the issue of Muslim-Christian relations is raised. "It's true that there have been a number of cases of violence against Christians, but generally speaking the situation is not that bad," George stresses.
Other Christians in Beit Jala disagree. According to a local physician, the plight of the Christians has been aggravated over the past decade in general and since the outbreak of the intifada in particular. "After the Palestinian Authority arrived here in 1995, many Muslim families from Hebron and other parts of the West Bank have moved to Beit Jala," he says. "What's worrying is that some of them have illegally seized privately-owned lands. When one of the Christian owners refused to sell his land to a senior Palestinian security official, he was arrested for a number of days."
In another case, a 60-year-old Christian man was briefly detained by one of the Palestinian security forces because he had forbidden his daughter to date a Muslim security officer. Other Christians who tried to stop Fatah gunmen in Beit Jala from firing into the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo in the first years of the intifada later reported that they had been beaten or threatened by the gunmen.
The same gunmen are also responsible for the rape and murder of two Christian teenage sisters from the Amr family. The assailants then claimed that the sisters had been murdered because they were "prostitutes" and had been "collaborating" with Israeli security forces - a claim that has been strongly denied by the victims' relatives and many residents of the town. "The gangsters murdered the two sisters so that they would not tell anyone about the rape," says a family member. "Some of the murderers were later killed by the Israeli army, but others are now living in Europe after they had sought refuge in the Church of Nativity. It's absurd that Muslim men who rape and murder Christian girls are given political asylum in Christian countries like Ireland, Spain and Italy."
Last week Beit Jala was once again the scene of religious tensions after a Christian woman complained that she had been harassed by Muslim men from the village of Beit Awwa in the Hebron area. "Such incidents have become a daily phenomenon," says Mary, who runs a small grocery in the town. "Many Christian families have sent their daughters abroad for fear they would come under attack by Muslim men."
Earlier this year tensions between Muslims and Christians in Bethlehem reached a peak after a Christian family complained that their 16-year-old daughter had been kidnapped by a Muslim man. Following the intervention of senior Palestinian officials and Muslim leaders, the girl was reunited with her family after spending a few days in a village near Hebron. With the help of American diplomats, the girl was flown immediately to the US to begin a new life with relatives and friends.
Some Christians point a finger at the foreign media and diplomatic missions in Israel, accusing them of ignoring their predicament for "political" reasons. "Although most of the foreign journalists and diplomats are Christians, they don't seem to pay enough attention to what's happening to the Christians in Bethlehem," says Bishara, a Christian tourist guide. "They're obviously afraid of damaging their relations with the Palestinian Authority."
While it's almost impossible to find a Christian who's prepared to go public in airing such grievances, Samir Qumsiyeh, a journalist from Beit Sahur, is a notable exception. Last month he was quoted by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera as saying that Christians were being subjected to rape, kidnapping, extortion and expropriation of land and property.
Qumsiyeh, who was not available this week for an interview because he was out of the country, heads a local TV station called Al-Mahd [Nativity]. In a daring step, Qumsiyeh drew up a list of 93 cases of anti-Christian violence between 2000 and 2004.
"This file is incomplete and it's not up-to-date," he told the Italian newspaper. "Look at the case of Rawan William Mansour, a 17-year-old girl from Bet Sahur. She was raped two years ago by four members of Fatah. Even though the family protested, none of the four was ever arrested. Because of the shame her family was forced to move to Jordan.
"Almost all 140 cases of expropriation of land in the last three years were committed by militant Islamic groups and members of the Palestinian police." Qumsiyeh said he was now preparing a book on the conditions of the Christian minority. "I will call it 'Racism in Action,'" he says. "The racism against us is gaining pace in staggering ways. In 1950 the Christian population in Bethlehem was 75%. Today we have hardly more than 12% Christians. If the situation continues, we won't be here any more in 20 years."
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