Christians under cover

Following Hamas' victory, Palestinian Christians are keeping their eyes open and their profile low.

christufron 298  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozozlimski)
christufron 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozozlimski)
Palestinian educator Dr. Maria Khoury geared up for the winter chill with what was at the time a meaningless purchase: a black silk scarf with silver stripes to drape around her neck. But now, on her daily excursions from the West Bank's Taiba to nearby Ramallah, the scarf serves as a political symbol of the changing times. "Since Hamas took over, I cover my head in Ramallah," she says. "I don't feel comfortable." In the largely cosmopolitan Ramallah, though they comprise some 10 percent of the population, Christians are becoming less and less visible. The first time that Khoury ran into her local parish priest there with her head covered, he raised his eyebrows and laughed. "I see more and more women covered up," Khoury says, explaining that for now, it's preferable to play it safe and assimilate on the street, even if she would never choose to cover her head otherwise. "Years ago I even used to go in short sleeves," she says. "You'd have to put a gun to my head to get me to wear short sleeves now." With fear of government-supported religious coercion on the rise since Hamas's unexpected win in January's Palestinian elections, Christians across the West Bank and Gaza Strip are keeping a low profile, with eyes wide open. Though no changes on the ground have affected their rights as of yet, they are watching carefully and anxiously to see if an already precarious "church and state" separation in Palestinian government is about to disintegrate. They have reason for concern: If Hamas follows on its founders' path to fight Israel and install strict Islamic religious rule, Palestinian Christians stand to become a legally subjugated minority inside Palestinian society, while suffering further conflict with neighboring Israel. A small minority, estimated to be between one to two percent of the total Palestinian population, Christians have long been in an awkward position, managing a balancing act of simultaneously being insiders and outsiders. Local Christians see themselves as part of a single Palestinian people with Muslims - with a shared destiny, language and culture, a shared political goal to keeping their land in a safe, sovereign Palestinian state and shared suffering and anger. On the other hand, they are an ever-shrinking minority, with separate religious beliefs and rituals, trying to fight for religious equality and oppose violence as a means of legitimate struggle, without isolating or alienating themselves from the larger Palestinian population. Intermarriage between Palestinian Christians and Muslims is a rare, sensitive and sometimes risky issue. Further exaggerating the balancing act in recent years is an insecure relationship with western Evangelical Christians, who fervently support Israel, leaving indigenous Palestinian Christians on the other side of the security fence sometimes feeling neglected or like the enemy, despite a shared reverence for the Christian Gospels. Amidst this already tenuous situation, Palestinian Christians are holding their breath, as a new Palestinian leadership determines their future. While locals and analysts doubt Hamas will enforce a strict Shari'a religious law, the Christian community is proceeding with a "just in case" caution. ALCOHOL IS one of the things on the minds of Christian and secular Palestinians these days - not because the society drinks very much, but because it is an at-risk symbol of freedom in a secular society, a symbol that was tolerated under the largely secular Fatah leadership. Though in Gaza alcohol was banned in recent years and only smuggled in, legal alcohol manufacturers, distributors and pubs can be found across the West Bank in many areas with Christian populations, like east Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bir Zeit, Jericho, Jifna and around Bethlehem. Since the elections, a new joke has hit these neighborhoods: "Better drink up now - while we still can." Despite the joke, business for vendors is a little slow. "There is a change in the market because people are hesitant to overstock," says Nakhle Jubran, a Ramallah-based family manufacturer of Arak, an anise-flavored liquor. "People are taking a 'wait and see' approach. This happens whenever the political climate changes. I assume it's temporary." People are hoping for order, and not only freedom, he added: "Before Hamas there were problems, people shooting in bars and nightclubs for stupid or no reasons. [Lawlessness] and chaos is not only a problem for Christians, but all minorities, rich and poor." In Taiba, a solely Christian neighborhood with fewer than 2,000 residents, the only micro-brewing plant in the Middle East and the only Palestinian beer brewery is finishing the last touches on its first non-alcoholic beer. "It's a good time to launch," says Nadim Khoury, head of the Taybeh Brewing Company. Not only is a non-alcoholic beer a respectful and careful nod to religious Muslims, but the product is also good for Palestinian economic interests, a fact that Hamas is unlikely to ignore, he says: "Other non-alcoholic beers are already produced in Turkey, Egypt and Bavaria, so a locally-produced product would benefit the Palestinian economy. Hamas knows it needs all kinds of support. We also generate revenue for the Palestinian economy by buying gas for our trucks, paying our workers, etc." Hana Karkar, an east Jerusalem and West Bank distributor of Taybeh Beer, as well as Israeli and foreign beers, says it's not just the alcohol industry that's on edge. "Restaurants are afraid that the Palestinian Authority won't be able to pay their monthly bill, because of all their financial problems." OTHER SYMBOLS of religious and social freedom, from secular dress to coeducational schools and the right to opt out of a mandatory Islamic religion and history test for students, are on the list of rights that Christians are talking about in the wake of the Hamas win. But the issues they aren't talking about are even more critical, says an area bishop who spoke to The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity. "The situation is complex, very delicate, very sensitive. Tensions between Christians and Muslims revolve around social and criminal issues, but there are also religious issues, strong and sometimes harsh issues," he said. "Fear of revenge, isolation and misunderstanding keeps them from speaking up. There are many prejudices, and it can be dangerous. For this reason, and sometimes to protect the family's honor, sometimes things are not reported." One issue that is underreported is what the bishop calls "property abuse," instances when a Muslim steals the property of a Christian, he says. "It's important to add that on occasion this happens with the help of other Christians, who get paid off to report when a family is on vacation." Attorney Justus Reid Weiner recently published a report via the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs that says Palestinian Christians also frequently underreport violence and harassment, including sexual harassment and rape. And tensions are always high when Christians feel their neighborhoods or holy places are being violated, like after a September attack on 14 Christian family homes in Taiba. A local priest, Father Raed Abu Sahliyeh, told The Palestine Report that 14 young men from Deir Jreir were arrested, but released in exchange for calm. The attack took place after a Muslim woman caught having an affair with a Christian man was purportedly killed by her family in an "honor killing," and angry neighbors came out to target the relatives of the Christian man. Villagers reported hearing the rampagers saying, "Let's get the Christians." Palestinian security forces were delayed from intervening, held up at Israel's Beit El checkpoint, making the Christians feel abandoned by their Muslim neighbors and by Israel. But their religious leader spoke cautiously. "The attack by the young men of Deir Jreir was a violent, unjustified and barbaric reaction, but it should not be taken as an attack by a Muslim village against a Christian village," the priest told local newspapers, adding that such events have happened previously and with worse results, including deaths. "I reject the newspapers and the people who spoke about an attack by Muslims against Christians," he added. "I will repeat this a million times: We are Arabs, we are Palestinians and we are Christian since 2,000 years. This is a small biblical village. We have lived in peace with surrounding Muslim villages for 14 centuries. This mistake between two people should not poison the relations between Muslims and Christians. Those who are playing this dirty game should calm down. We are wise and we say that we have no choice but to live together, side by side, and with friendly relations." The plight of Christians is not known to Palestinian human rights organizations, says Bassam Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. "I'm quite sure there are some troubles or clashes but they do not represent a trend," he says. "Our organization has never received information about discrimination; we have only heard rumors, which seem exagerated. If there is persecution or discrimination, the Christian community must raise it at once to Christian Palestinian Legislative Council members and to rights organizations." Such messages as have already been sent have been hesitant. Thirteen Holy Land patriarchs and bishops sent a statement to Hamas on February 1, congratulating the Palestinians on their democratic performance, and offering cooperation toward "justice and peace in a nonviolent way, whether in regard to foreign relations [or] the rule of law together with full religious freedom." They also offered prayers for "the Holy Land with all its inhabitants, Palestinians and Israelis, be they Muslims, Christians or Jews." Days later, delegations of Christian Arabs from Israel appealed to a Vatican assembly for aid for Holy Land Christians, to help stem further emigration and despair. Christians around the world worry that ancient Christian neighborhoods will become antique ruins without native inhabitants. Since the 19th century, periods of economic and political turmoil have often led to periods of migration for Christians, many of whom already have family in North, Central and South America. "The whole Palestinian people is suffering because of the general situation, but Palestinian Christians suffer twice as much," says Palestinian theologian and psychologist George Khoury, who recently emigrated to the United States. DESPITE TENSIONS, analysts predict that Hamas's hunt for financial stability and international recognition and legitimacy is likely to keep it more moderate - at least for the time being. "Hamas is trying so hard to be accepted internationally that they will work even harder than Fatah in this direction," says Palestinian journalist and commentator Daoud Kuttab. "In Bethlehem, Palestinian Christians had some real problems with the way the PA dealt with some of their complaints. The current feeling is that Hamas will do better in this direction. [Shari'a being imposed] is a risk, although I don't think at present it is a big risk. Hamas barely won in real terms and so they don't have anything close to the 2/3 majority they would need to make such changes." Palestinian legislation currently reserves six local seats for Christian candidates to help govern their own cities, and in the cities with the largest Christian populations, Ramallah and Bethlehem, Hamas voted as well for the local Christian candidates, a point Kuttab says also underlines a Hamas awareness of Christian concerns. Recent events also made political analysts around the world take a second look at Hamas. When protests broke out across Gaza after the publishing of the Muhammad caricatures, Muslim gunmen associated with Fatah threatened local Christians and their churches. But when word got out to local Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, he astounded locals and internationals by paying a visit to a Catholic church to apologize and offer the protection of his own military forces. "You are our brothers," Zahar purportedly told Father Manuel Musallem. Fatah gunmen then returned to the Catholic grounds there, armed this time with red carnations, to apologize for their comrades' transgressions. Later, members of the Greek Orthodox church joined their Muslim neighbors in Gaza City for a peaceful solidarity protest against the caricatures. In Nablus in December, the Hamas-affiliated Mayor Adli Yaish told The Jerusalem Post that he planned to uphold one of his campaign pledges: to run Nablus as a city for all its citizens. "Our slogan is Nablus for all, which means Christians, Muslims, Samaritans and people from the villages," he said. Local Christians there also helped elect the Hamas city council candidates, who won a sweeping majority. Randa Siniora, a Palestinian lawyer and head of Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights watch group, explains that Hamas will be very careful not to step on the rights of Christians, even though Shari'a remains one source for legislation. "It was shocking, stunning that Hamas won. We saw the worries of Christians and also secular Muslims who want a separation [of church and state]. But Hamas has other priorities and will postpone addressing these issues [of Shari'a]. There are some voices for Islamization, but they have been shut down. [These] voices are not the trend in Hamas leaders, who are focusing on political, not social, issues. Hamas is pragmatic; it knows that if you touch these issues it could be detrimental, even catastrophic for them." If there are any changes they will be gradual and with the people's approval, she added. "If you look at the basic Palestinian law, it clearly outlines respect for religion and religious practice. Laws about family status will affect only Muslims. Shari'a is tricky, it can be interpreted in many ways by different individuals. In Palestinian law it's hard to drop Shari'a as a source." Palestinian society itself may also put up a fight against strict Shari'a, as locals are considered much more liberal than many other Arab populations across the Middle East and Africa, where Christians routinely complain of discrimination, coercion and violence under Shari'a. ACROSS THE WEST BANK, local Christians, the secular and other minorities are waiting to see whether agreements signed by Yasser Arafat will be upheld, like the year 2000 agreement between the Holy See and the PLO guaranteeing freedom of religion, and the Palestinian "Basic Law" passed by the PLC in 1997 and ratified by Arafat in 2002. Regarding religion, the Basic Law says: "Islam is the official religion; the respect and sanctity of all other heavenly religions shall be maintained; the principles of Shari'a shall be a major source of legislation; all Palestinians are equal under the law and judiciary, without discrimination because of race, sex, gender, religion, or political views; freedom of belief and performance of religious rituals are guaranteed [unless] they violate public order or public morals." Though Siniora doesn't think Hamas will go so far as to attempt to control the way people dress or participate in drinking or secular activities in public, she does think people will observe self censorship as a defensive measure. "I think people will censor themselves," she says. "Young people usually celebrate Valentine's Day at Bethlehem University. This year [after the elections] they didn't, but nobody censored them. This [self censorship] is more dangerous because it is creating changes on the ground." Bernard Sabella, a Bethlehem University sociologist who was elected in January to Bethlehem's city council, was apparently thinking about such issues several years ago. In 1999, after increased tensions between Muslims and Christians when Muslims laid the cornerstone for a mosque in Nazareth, he was quoted in Cairo's Al-Ahram newspaper as saying, "A majority-minority relationship means either you don't have equal rights before the law or that you are dependent on the good will of the majority for these rights. At the dawn of the 21st century, this idea is simply no longer acceptable to Palestinian Christians. I exist in Palestine not because Muslims or the PA or Israel 'protects' me. I exist here by virtue of my birth, my ancestors and, above all, because I am a Palestinian. I don't owe this existence to anybody. The age of Ahl Ad-Dhimma [second-class citizenship] is over." Like Sabella, Palestinian Christians worry that the rest of the world has forgotten that their roots are indigenous. "This is called the Holy Land and we were here before the Muslims... I mean, look at our late president [Arafat]. He was always saying 'Christians and Muslims;' he always said Christians first, because he knew we were here before Muhammad," says Nadim Khoury. "But I think it's too early now for Hamas to worry about Christians. Hamas will either become more moderate and succeed in parliament, or will become more religious and strict on women's dress and alcohol - but nobody will like that, so I don't think they will choose that path. "Let's give them a chance. After all, [Menachem] Begin delivered Sinai and [Ariel] Sharon delivered Gaza. Maybe Hamas will deliver, too." His sister-in-law, Maria Khoury, agrees. "We will follow any rules, but it's important for my son to have the same freedoms he had before. We already struggle under Israeli occupation; we don't want to struggle under Islamic rule. We want everyone to have rights, not just Christians." And by summer she hopes things will have cooled down. "By then," she says, "the black scarf will be very hot to wear over my head."