Persecuted Christians?

Christian Palestinians say it's harder to live as residents of the West Bank under Israeli rule than as a small minority in the Muslim PA.

Bethlehem Palestinians 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski [file])
Bethlehem Palestinians 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski [file])
A picture of Jesus in a small oval frame sits on the desk of Hanna Siniora, the elder statesman of Palestinian peace activists, in Jerusalem. His office is in the Vatican's Tantur Institute for Ecumenical Studies, a hillside paradise at the southern edge of the city with old stone buildings, fragrant pine trees and chirping birds. It's the day after Easter, Pope Benedict XVI is coming to the Holy Land - due in Amman today, in Jerusalem on Tuesday - and I'm asking Siniora if Palestinian Christians, a primary audience for the pope, have come under the heel of militant Islamists like so many Israelis and Westerners believe. "I am a Christian Palestinian," Siniora replies, "and I don't feel under pressure, or under threat of terror, or that I've been put down politically. I live in [the Jerusalem Arab neighborhood] Beit Hanina, which has a large Muslim majority, and I don't feel any difference there between Muslims and Christians. I have as many Muslim friends as I do Jewish friends." Siniora, 72, co-chairman (with Jerusalem Post columnist Gershon Baskin) of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, is not a Palestinian who's afraid to speak his mind. He was calling for the two-state solution when this was considered treason by many Palestinians, and even for an end to the local Palestinian boycott of Jerusalem municipal politics. In our interview, he doesn't seem to be hiding anything. In Jerusalem, he says, Palestinian Christians have nothing to fear from Muslims. In Gaza and the West Bank, "There are instances of harassment, but it's not by Hamas, it's not by Fatah and it doesn't represent the attitude of the general Palestinian public. It's by little groups of violent Muslim fanatics, hoodlums, and we're talking about isolated incidents." This is a sentiment I heard not only from Palestinian Christians, but also from two well-informed, well-connected, nominally Muslim Jerusalemites whose opinions are moderate enough for them to hold responsible positions at pro-Israel political affairs agencies. I asked them separately if they thought the consensus wisdom here and in much of the West was true - that Palestinian Christians are systematically persecuted by Palestinian Muslims. "Nope," said one. "It's complete bullsh*t," said the other. Leading a press tour of the Old City's Christian Quarter, Daniel Rossing, the Ministry of Religious Affairs' chief liaison to Christian communities in the 1970s and 1980s, is less sanguine. He says the situation for Christians in Gaza, who number 3,000 out of an otherwise Muslim population of 1.5 million, has "definitely gotten worse" since Hamas's rise to power - if not as a matter of official policy, then informally. As for Christians in and around Bethlehem and Ramallah, and, to a lesser extent, in Jerusalem, he says they live a "precarious" existence in relation to the Muslim majority, and sensibly keep their complaints to themselves. However, even Rossing, a modern Orthodox Jew who heads the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, says the popular image of Palestinian Christians being ground down by Muslim power is greatly exaggerated. The Palestinian Authority, which is floated financially by the West, has a strong interest in treating Christian residents fairly, he says. Shaking hands with one priest after another in the Old City, he says that while he is not in contact with Christians in Gaza, he is with a countless number in Jerusalem and the West Bank, adding, "I haven't heard from them that their situation has deteriorated." And to put it in a wider perspective, he says, Christians living in the State of Israel aren't entirely safe, either. In recent years, there have been two full-scale mob attacks by Druse against Christian communities in Galilee. Christians in Jerusalem's Old City have been harassed and spat upon by haredi yeshiva boys. Christian graves on the Mount of Olives have been vandalized, with the evidence showing plainly that it was the work of Jews, Rossing says. He adds: "If Christians in Bethlehem and Ramallah had to name the worst thing that's happened to them lately, they wouldn't say the rise of Hamas, they'd say the [security] wall. No question." PALESTINIAN CHRISTIANS have lots of problems, but Muslim religious antagonism is far from being at the top of the list. They suffer more as Palestinians living under Israeli rule; more as middle-class, highly educated people living in generally impoverished, Third World lands; and more as a tiny community in crime-ridden, gang-ridden, largely unpoliced territories where the hamula - the extended Arab family - is the source of power and protection. The shrinking of the Palestinian Christian community in the Holy Land came as a direct result of its middle-class standards. Despite popular belief, they didn't start emigrating in large numbers (mainly to South and North America) with the ascent of Hamas in 2005-6, nor with the installation of the PA in 1994 - nor, on the other hand, after 1967. "The emigration began over a century ago, under the Ottoman Empire, and the main reasons have always been lack of economic opportunity and political instability," says Siniora, who has two daughters and three sisters living in the US for decades. "We're no different in this way from the Jewish people." By now, there are only some 50,000 Christians among the approximately 3.75 million Palestinians - or one out of 75 - in east Jerusalem, the West Bank (mainly in and around Bethlehem and Ramallah) and the Gaza Strip. This combination of being few in number and having an "elitist" image makes them vulnerable to street gangs. There have been incidents of extortion, rape and beatings by Muslim hoodlums against Palestinian Christians, and while religious bigotry is no doubt part of the motivation, easy opportunity is probably the main one, with class resentment figuring as well, says "Ibrahim," a very knowledgeable, moderate Jerusalem Muslim. "A bunch of young roughnecks aren't going to start up with a Muslim girl because they know they could get killed by her hamula, but they figure if they start up with a Christian girl, they've got nothing to worry about," says Ibrahim. "Christians also have an image of being quiet, of turning the other cheek, of being more refined, and to the criminals and thugs, all that makes them an easy target." There have been anti-Christian incidents that seem to be plainly and simply "hate crimes," though the nature of some cases is in dispute. On April 7, there was a fire at a Coptic Christian church in Ramallah; a Palestinian Christian source in the city, however, says the damage was minimal and it isn't clear that arson was the cause. In late 2007, the manager of Gaza's only Christian bookstore, Rami Ayyad, was murdered after getting numerous threats; Hamas leaders condemned the killing and promised to find those responsible, but never did. Early last year, Gaza's YMCA was commandeered by 14 Islamic gunmen who set off a bomb in the library, destroying thousands of books but wounding no one; Hamas and other Gazan factions denounced the assault. After Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006, dozens of Internet cafés and music and video stores in Gaza owned by Christians and Muslims alike were attacked, with an otherwise unknown group, Swords of Islam, often claiming responsibility. "There is a little bit of suffering for Christians in Gaza. But Hamas is not in power in the West Bank, and there is no problem here between Christians and Muslims," says William Jassir, standing outside the massive, vaulted Catholic church in Taiba, the West Bank's only all-Christian village, following Sunday prayers. Located at the top of a steep hill north of Jerusalem, Taiba falls under PA jurisdiction. Jassir, 53, left the village as a young man to work in Dubai, and returns to visit several times a year. "Our problem is with the Israeli occupation, not with the Muslims," says one of his friends, a retired PA clerk. GREETING A busload of Italian and African pilgrims who've come for services, Father Raed Abusahliah, dressed in white-and-gold robes, points upward to the church bells that have been ringing loudly, and to the tall antenna atop the steeple, telling me: "If we were being persecuted, would we be allowed to ring the church bells? If we were being persecuted, would I be allowed to run the first Christian radio station in the Holy Land?" He forgets to mention another piece of evidence for his argument: the village's microbrewery, which produces the only Palestinian-brand beer, named "Taiba." The brewery also puts out a non-alcoholic version for Muslim customers. There was one fatal dispute between Taiba and its Muslim neighbors, but locals say it had nothing to do with religion. In September 2005, a couple of hundred men from the nearby Muslim village of Deir Jarir poured into Taiba, setting fire to 13 homes, though causing no serious injuries. They tried to set the brewery on fire, too, but were driven off by Taiba residents with stones. The marauders had accused one of the sons of the Taiba family that owns the brewery of impregnating a Deir Jarir girl. The girl was murdered, allegedly by her brothers, and the mob attack followed. Taiba residents, however, dismiss the idea that it was an anti-Christian act, noting that "honor killings" are ordinarily Muslim-on-Muslim murders. They say the attack was a stark exception in the history of relations between Taiba and Deir Jarir, which are marked by old friendships and cooperation at olive harvest time. Is this candor or a cover-up? Many Israelis and American Christians are convinced that Palestinian Christians who claim to have no problems living in Muslim society are actually hiding the awful truth for fear of retribution. Rossing, while disputing the idea that life for Palestinian Christians, at least in Jerusalem and the West Bank, can be characterized as awful, agrees that Palestinian Christians do not broadcast their complaints against the Muslim majority because it wouldn't solve anything and might backfire. "Yasmin," another moderate Jerusalem Muslim who insists that Palestinian Christians do not suffer from Muslim persecution, concurs that Palestinian Christians generally play it safe in public. "They don't like to say anything controversial," she says. Noting that she has both Muslim and Christian neighbors in her apartment building, she says, "We all get along, we talk about the things neighbors talk about. But if there's an argument between a Muslim neighbor and a Christian neighbor, the religious thing is likely to come out sooner or later." So Palestinian Christian claims of peace and quiet amid Muslim society should probably be taken with a grain of salt. But that doesn't mean they should be buried in salt. Palestinian Christians are not living under a yoke of Muslim oppression. They're not Christian martyrs. What they are is a minority that tends to go along to get along. But they are also Palestinian nationalists. They're not by any means pro-Israel. In fact, they say it is Israeli authorities, much more than Palestinian Muslims, who make it hard for them to live as Christians. "We can't go to Jerusalem, to the holy places, because of the closure," says Taiba's Jassir. For years Israel has placed Jerusalem off-limits to West Bank Palestinians, Muslims and Christians alike, except during special occasions like major religious holidays. "They only let us into Jerusalem for Christmas and Easter, usually for a week, sometimes as long as a month. This time they let us come in for longer because of the pope," says Jassir, showing his Israeli-issued Easter pass to Jerusalem, which is dated April 2 through May 15 - expiring after the last day of the pope's visit, when he will be in the capital. MUSLIMS THROUGHOUT the Holy Land are resentful over Pope Benedict XVI's visit, both because he once made remarks that seemed to disparage Islam (though saying afterward that his words had been misinterpreted), and because he is being so forthcoming with his Israeli hosts so soon after Operation Cast Lead. Nevertheless, official posters showing his smiling face are pasted outside and inside Taiba's ornate Roman Catholic church. Inside, about 250 worshipers - Italians, Africans and locals including a few old men in keffiyehs - listen to the service, the church choir's songs and Father Abusahliah's sermon, which are all in Arabic. Abusahliah, who says he will be commentating on the pope's visit for Palestinian television, is a narrowly built, energetic, fast-talking man with twinkling eyes and an explosive laugh that make him remarkably reminiscent of Roberto Benigni. And as with Benigni, his light-hearted veneer heightens the effect of the pointed, discomforting things he has to say. "We are fully integrated with Muslims, I go to the checkpoint to Jerusalem and I get stopped just like they do. Nobody is free in this land, and the root cause is called occupation," he says. I ask about the effect on Christians of Hamas's rising profile, and he says, "Hamas has every interest to help Palestinian Christians because we live under the same occupation." When I ask again about Hamas, he laughs lightly and replies, "Do you have an obsession with Hamas? Look, Hamas was created 20 years ago by Israel. It stands for 'Islamic Resistance Movement,' but if you change a couple of letters it stands for 'Israeli Secret Service,' which is what a lot of people call it. And who knows, maybe Israel does see Hamas as a vehicle to go on oppressing us. Look, Hamas is willing to make peace with you for 50 years if you get out of the occupied territories. You should do it, and after two or three generations of peace, you'll be friends." If the priest's attitude toward Hamas seemed partly submerged, his attitude toward Israel was right on the surface. The popular image of Palestinian Christians is of humble, hard-working professionals and shopkeepers who steer clear of politics, and while an increasing proportion do fit this image, in decades past, before the rise of Islamism, Christians were a disproportionately large presence in Palestinian politics. George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was Christian, as is Naif Hawatme, founder of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Hanan Ashrawi, a legislator from Ramallah and Palestinian spokeswoman to the world media. In Israel, the most prominent Arab nationalist of the last generation, former MK Azmi Bishara - who fled Israel after being accused of spying for Hizbullah during the Second Lebanon War - is a Christian from Nazareth. However, for Christian Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in left-wing and nationalist movements, Christianity has always been mainly a matter of family background - of ethnicity more than religion. And today, Palestinian Authority law continues to ensure Christians a presence in the legislature out of all proportion to their community's size. Of 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, six are reserved for Christians - five from the West Bank and even one from Gaza. (In addition, Christians can and do compete for open seats, and currently hold two of them.) Whether to reassure Christians or co-opt them, Hamas commonly makes deals with the community's politicians. In Gaza, Hamas supported the successful candidacy of Husam al-Tawil, who ran for the reserved Christian seat. In Ramallah, where Hamas was the leading vote-getter in municipal elections, it handed the mayor's seat not only to a Christian, but to a Christian woman, Janet Mikhail. In Bethlehem, whose population is two-thirds Muslim but whose bylaws mandate that the mayor be Christian, Hamas joined the coalition headed by Mayor Victor Batarseh. As for Pope Benedict XVI's view of the PA treatment of Christians, Walid Abunassar, a Haifa Christian appointed as the Vatican's advance man, told reporters, "I think the Palestinian Authority respects the Christian minority in a satisfactory way." ONE OF the biggest advances for Muslim-Christian relations in Palestinian society came in 1990 when Yasser Arafat married Suha Tawil, daughter of a wealthy West Bank Christian family whose mother, Raymonda, was a well-known nationalist voice. It's hard to say which was more surprising to Palestinians - that the father of the Palestinian nation, a proud Muslim, was marrying a Christian, or that he was marrying a woman less than half his age. (Arafat was 61, Suha was 27.) Mixed Muslim-Christian marriages are still rare among Palestinians, if less so than a generation ago. On this issue, it is the Christian side that tends to be more hard-line. When a Muslim man takes a Christian woman for his wife - it's hardly ever a Christian man and a Muslim woman - it's not uncommon for the woman's family to disown her and even publish a mourning notice under her name in Palestinian newspapers, notes Ibrahim. Khaled Husseini, a son of the single most prominent Palestinian family, and Susan Freij, a daughter of one of the most prominent Palestinian Christian families, waited seven years after meeting in 1988 at a Beit Hanina sports club and falling in love before getting married. Her parents didn't want her to marry a Muslim, and his parents didn't want him to marry into a family that didn't want a Muslim son-in-law. The two families tried their absolute hardest to talk them into ending the relationship. For their families' sake, Khaled and Susan tried to break it off. "But we couldn't stay apart," she says. "I tried to get some of the Palestinian leaders, Faisal [Husseini, his late cousin] and Hanan Ashrawi, to convince our families," he says. Finally, when they were in their mid-20s, they decided to defy their families' wishes and marry. "No one thought we would actually do it, and when we did, it was like an earthquake in our society," recalls Susan. "Afterward, for about six months, we were the talk of the town." Today, Khaled, 40, and Susan, 37, still live in Beit Hanina, have three children and run the Husseini family's lavish Shalizar restaurant in east Jerusalem. "All the other mixed couples we knew broke up along the way, but we're still going strong," Susan smiles. They raise their children as Muslims "because in our society, the child follows the father's religion," she says. But they attend Christian schools in Beit Hanina, just as Khaled did. "They're the best schools," he notes. The couple say they've never gotten any threats from extremists, nor lost any friends due to their marriage. Moreover, they say their parents have long since come to love their son- and daughter-in-law. "We go to her parents' house for Christmas and Easter, and to my parents' house for the Id and the other Muslim holidays," says Khaled. "I'm still a Christian and he's still a Muslim, that's what how we were born, that's how we were raised," says Susan. "We have different religions. But God is one." It's not a unanimous sentiment among Palestinians, yet it's not an uncommon one, either.