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Palestinian Christians: The Struggle for Surival December 27, 2001

A girl wanders shoeless through the sand-choked streets of a refugee camp, dragging a broken doll. A proud mayor watches helplessly as a soldier blasts his crucifix to bits with a machine gun. A pastor's wife remembers the day her friend's 7-year-old daughter was gunned down. The lingering images of life among Christians in the Holy Land are not easily summarized, or even understood.

Yet in recent months, a flurry of articles in the Western media has sought to do exactly that: to sum up the nature of religious tensions in the Palestinian territories. Specifically, the stories attributed the problems of Palestinian Christians to alleged persecution by their Muslim neighbors. With its usual flair for stereotypes, the media machinery cranked out conclusions that could fit neatly into the tight little spaces reserved for "foreign" news.

In that process, complex issues were ignored. The voices, spirit, and stories of the people involved were lost.

The trigger for the recent rash of media coverage may have been a 2-page report, issued by the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last October, alleging systematic persecution of Christians by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). The report claimed that Christians are fleeing the territories--now that they are under PNA control--and that "soon there will be virtually no Christians" remaining. The report charged that the PNA targets Christians for "relentless persecution," and dismissed the contrary testimony of the Latin (Catholic) patriarch, Greek Orthodox archbishop, and Lutheran bishop, saying they were all "propaganda mouthpieces" for their Palestinian leadership.

But even a brief journey through the West Bank and Gaza makes it quite clear how inappropriate it is to describe the situation of the Palestinian Christian in such definitive terms. From one village to the next, the differences in backgrounds, in current problems, and in attitudes are profound. Moving from a West Bank city to a modest Christian village, from a refugee camp in Gaza to the field where shepherds first heard of Jesus' birth, this report seeks to portray the complex everyday lives of Palestinian Christians. The power of this story, if any, will be not in the questions it answers but in those it leaves lingering.

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BEIT SAHOUR, WEST BANK

"I hate the Muslims and do not want to see them," says Ula Nasser, 18, to friends in her Catholic youth group. "They are dirty and uneducated."

The youth group meeting at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic church has just ended, but Nasser and several other college-aged youths wanted to continue their chat. So they marched up the rectory stairs and sprawled out in their new pastor's living room. Now Nasser sits rigid on the edge of the couch and loops some of her long brown hair tightly around an index finger. Her words evoke little response, and tension lingers in the room.

The youngsters make themselves quite at home in the home of Father Majde al Siryani, although he is not yet entirely settled there himself. They serve each other grainy Turkish coffee and tea flavored with mint, in successive rounds, as is the custom for almost any conversational gathering here. The conversation on this particular night meanders naturally, but soon fastens on the topic of Muslims.

"I hate them," repeats Nasser. The men, many of them older, swap glances but remain tight lipped as another girl agrees. There is a brief silence and a few sips of cooled coffee.

Like nearly all the young people in this village, these teenagers have all had recent experiences that make this particular topic more than an academic subject. Beit Sahour has been at the center of recent reports of troubled Christian-Muslim relations and the ensuing violence.

Even the surrounding geography tells the story well, providing a view of the forces that squeeze this little Arab village with its Christian majority. Beit Sahour sits nestled snugly in a tight, plunging valley, flanked by two imposing hills, atop which sit, respectively, the town of Bethlehem and the Har Homa settlement.

The place of Christ's birth, Bethlehem, crowns the top of a sharply sloping hill. Once an 80 percent Christian town, Bethlehem is now 80 percent Muslim, and--since the PNA controls the city--patrolled by a largely Muslim police force. In the greater Bethlehem area, there are now 72 mosques where only five stood in 1970, and the rhythmic calls to prayer begin before dawn and are heard in Beit Sahour and beyond.

Across the valley is Har Homa, among the most controversial of the Israeli settlements laced through and around Jerusalem. Some say Har Homa is designed to recapture some of the tourism associated with nearby Bethlehem, which was lost to Palestinians along with the control of the city in the 1995 peace agreement. Once called Abu Ghneim, Har Homa was until recently lush with forestation: a favorite picnic spot. The fragile remains of 5th- and 6th-century churches and monasteries could also be threatened if the development continues to expand.

Israeli bulldozers went to work on Har Homa about a year ago, shaving away the forest and much of the hill itself. The aim was to build homes for about 25,000 settlers despite the fact that large percentages of other settlements, already full built, sit empty nearby. International criticism recently brought the work to a temporary halt.

The looming Bethlehem and Har Homa hills are part of the daily backdrop in Beit Sahour. The forces they represent are at the heart of the debate in Father al Siryani's living room. The young people argue about whether it is the Muslims or the Israelis who impinge on their daily lives more and create tensions between Christians and Muslims.

Most agree that significant fault lies with the Muslims, although they admit that this is not the most popular view among Palestinian Christians throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Individual Muslims, emboldened by new-found authority within the growing PNA, misuse their power to harass Christians they say; they wonder what kind of Palestinian state they are watching develop.

Nasser's visceral reaction about "dirty" Muslims stems from being ignored by a Palestinian police officer after a Muslim man slapped her on her way home recently, she tells the others. The Muslim man stood in front of her car "pretending to walk real slow," not allowing her to pass through an intersection. She waited, and when he persisted, she inched her car up and tapped him. With that, the man yanked open her car door and slapped her in the face, she recounts.

"He made lewd comments to me too," Nasser says. "I went to the police and they did nothing. I got slapped and they just told me to go home. If a Christian did that to a Muslim girl they would kill us all."

A palpable discomfort grows amongst the young men as Nasser recounts her story--a discomfort that seems to go unnoticed by the young women, who are caught up in the telling of the tale. The men's foreheads gradually crinkle, their jaws clench, and their gazes drift toward the floor. Tensions that could be felt in the room earlier in this conversation now return, and they are more clearly divided along gender lines. The men's reactions seem visceral too--maybe even more than the women's--but are more sterner, quieter.

It is, after all, this very kind of incident that has triggered large-scale fighting among men in this community. In one such incident last August, 200 angry Christians--including some of the very young men now sitting in Father al Siryani's living room--gathered outside a police station in Beit Sahour to challenge the treatment of a Christian girl.

WAS THERE A SHOOTING?

"A Muslim officer was saying lewd, sexual things to a girl from our village," recalls Azzam Musleh, 28. Some sources said the officer called the girl a "whore." Musleh reports that he was summoned to join the protesting crowd, because the Christians stick together in their common cause. "All of us, we are like one hand," he says.

A flurry of stories of that August confrontation came out soon after the incident from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, several media outlets, and human-rights groups--yielding sharply disparate accounts. The key issue in dispute is whether or not the police shot and severely wounded several Christians in the fracas.

The report issued by Netanyahu's office in October alleging systematic PNA persecution of Christians, not only contends that the Palestinian police "opened fire on a crowd of Christian Arabs" in Beit Sahour but that the "Palestinian Authority is attempting to cover up the incident and has warned against publicizing the story."

The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, a predominantly Evangelical nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the state of Israel, concurs with Netanyahu's report and says that Dutch reporter Joop Meijers of Dutch Evangelical Television was able to confirm the story after extensive research. "It takes more time than most reporters are willing to give to find out the truth here," comments David Parsons, a spokesman for the Christian Embassy.

However, it appears that no other news outlets could find corroborating evidence for Netanyahu's allegations (nor could this reporter). Some outlets, such as the Jerusalem Post and the London Times, simply reported what the prime minister alleged. Others told a different story. Researchers for the Palestinian Human Rights Monitor, sometimes cited by the Christian Embassy to support claims of persecution, reported that the police stood at the front doors of the station and "fired in the air" in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

"That's what happened," offers Johnny Ganem, 24, who was also involved in the event. Ganem said the Christians stood outside the station yelling and throwing rocks at the building. "Everyone was so frustrated and angry--you have to understand that this was not the first time.... It was not just for one girl, it was for all the girls in the country."

Police officers then emerged, he says, looking as if they did not quite know how to handle the situation, and began hitting people over the head with guns and batons. Twenty or 30 were hit and about seven people were seriously injured, the men in Father al Siryani's living room recall. "But they didn't shoot anyone, they shot in the air," says Azzam's brother Ala Musleh, 25, who was also on hand. "They arrested about 10 people and no one left until they were released."

The men said the attention devoted to the prime minister's report, and to the question of whether there had been any shootings, distracts attention from the simple reality that Christian girls are often bothered, and Christian men are often beaten for trying to do something about it. While there has been a great deal of attention to the August clash, the men said it is really only one of many.

"Everyday we have problems with Muslims," says Nasser's friend Angela Bandek, 18. In December, for instance, about 100 men got into a fight when a girl was harassed.

"I remember... and the police came out to protect the Muslims and tell us to go home," Ganem recalls. "The Palestinian Authority gets worse with more authority. They still live like it is the intifada... and I am afraid of what will happen."

Nasser agrees: "It is Islamic law now, and I'm afraid for the future."

THE RISE OF ISLAMIC LAW

David Parsons of the Christian Embassy comments that the Islamic law Nasser worries about is precisely the point. He suggests that a press release recently issued by the Palestinian Ministry of Information in December should give Christians cause for concern. The release states:

The Palestinian people are also governed by Shari'a Law, as the Shari'a law is the law of Islam and is adhered to with regard to issues pertaining to religious matters. According to Shari'a Law, applicable throughout the Muslim world, any Muslim who declares changing his religion or declares becoming an unbeliever is committing a major sin punishable by capital punishment. In practice, this has never happened in the Palestinian territories, no is it likely to happen at all. Having said that, the PNA cannot take a different position on this matter. The norms and tradition will take care of such situations should they occur. The PNA will apply the law of the land, and will protect its citizens accordingly. The statement also promises, 'Tolerance between Christians and Muslims in the Palestinian territories is a living thing." But Parsons claims that by speaking positively about the "norms and traditions" that will "take care of such situations," the PNA is giving its implicit approval for individual acts of violence against converts from Islam--to Christianity in particular. The PNA will simply turn its head away from any such incidents, Parsons fears.

Palestinian officials have tried to explain that the Western mindset often can't grasp the seamless nature of Islam, in which the sacred and the political are wedded, they say, so that it is impossible to exclude religious prescriptions from the legal code even if those prescription carry no practical power.

Despite their concerns about the future regime, the young people of Beit Sahour say they are determined to stay in the Holy Land. "We will stay here; this is our country," says Nasser. That determination is not surprising. Beit Sahour, believed to be the spot where the shepherds heard of Jesus' birth from an angel, is known as a community with a strong political will, marked by opinions that range from stridency to pacifism. Grassroots activism is a way of life here. The young people were active in the intifada; a tax revolt against the Israeli government captured international attention for its nonviolent approach; and a peace march by Jews, Muslims, and Christians is held every year on the day after Christmas.

GAZA CITY, GAZA

She is probably 3. Her blue dress is dirty and too short; her bright turquoise tights are ripped at the knee. Swirls of chocolate-colored locks frame her smudged face. A doll dangles from her side, naked and missing an ear. Shoeless, the girl wanders down an alley and then stops to trace her finger in the sand.

This girl is just one of thousands in what seems like a sea of children on the sand-choked streets of the refugee camps in and around Gaza City. Even at the tenderest of ages, the children seem to exist in a world to themselves, often wandering far from the reach or view of adults.

But there is something beautiful about the rule of life these children adopt, the way they comfort and take care of each other. Holding hands is standard, hugs and kisses contagious and common. Older children carry younger ones piggy-back and help them out of the street if a donkey cart is passing.

Some Palestinians say that the bond shared by these children is akin to the way all of Gaza's Palestinians help each other get through the days, including the Christian and Muslim communities. Life is harder here, they add, making all elements of life--finding food and work, getting through school, living a devout religious life, and even befriending neighbors--more priceless.

Gaza City, with its surrounding camps, lies in one of the most crowded spots on the globe. Since the PNA took control of the region in 1994, fewer Gaza residents have been able to obtain permits to work across the border in Israel during the day time hours--a fact which has resulted in increased unemployment and poverty. The refugee camps, filled to overflowing after the 1948 war, are saturated with flimsily built tin shacks that seem barely to contain the large families that inhabit them. There is little running water in the camps, and the digging of deep wells by nearby Israeli settlers has allowed sea water to seep into the shallower Palestinian wells. Water often tastes of salt throughout the area and is considered dangerously unhealthy.

Father Manuel Musallam, the only Latin Catholic priest in all of Gaza, hangs on tightly as his driver maneuvers a white, rough-and-tumble bus over the bumps and holes in the road in a refugee camp near his home. He says life here is hard, but a wonderful blessing.

Just a short distance from where the young girl stooped to draw in the sand, Father Musallam and his driver, Moheeb Hehadaf, turn a sharp corner and coax the bus down what seems to be an impossibly narrow alley. With just enough extra room to open the door, Father Musallam slips out. In front of the priest is a little oasis at the heart of the Beach Camp: the convent for The Little Sisters of Jesus. The jewel of the convent is its enclosed garden, filled with trees and small budding flowers--even now in the winter months. The three nuns who live here erupt with delight as they see Father Musallam, rushing him to a comfortable seat and offering him treats.

He has come to encourage them, and they are encouraged. Father Musallam tells the nuns about his day. They ask him to pray for particular intentions to which he gives a standard response, "in sha'Allah"--"if God wills it."

At some point Father Musallam asks the nuns what they think about Western media reports that Christians are persecuted in the Palestinian territories. The nuns, who help teach some of the children in the camp and also encourage local women to come and spend time together in the convent, had not heard of such reports. They add that they have many Muslim friends and that the small minority of Christians here are often sheltered by their Muslim neighbors.

About 2,500 Christians live in Gaza, amidst a population pushing toward 1 million. There are more than 2,000 Greek Orthodox, about 200 Roman Catholics, and a handful of Eastern-rite Catholics and Protestants. There are also more than 4,000 Jewish settlers living in Gaza, according to Palestinian officials.

"When we came here 18 years ago, there were no Christians here," says Sister Christine. "It was a totally Muslim place. I have never, ever heard a word against us. We are esteemed."

The Muslims are more fervent in their adherence to Islam here in Gaza, offers Sister Salima, and it is true that occasionally Christians are harassed for not following Islamic traditions. "One man was opening a shop and sold forbidden things--liquor," Sister Salima recalls. "Fanatics came and burned the shop and attacked the man. But the Bedouin [Muslims] who live here defended the Christians. They said it pleases them and honors them to protect us."

The nuns all agree, offering each other nods of affirmation. Sister Christine offers another story:

One day a Muslim woman came here to visit me, and a Christian woman also. The Christian was fighting with a Christian neighbor and said she hated her friend. Before I could say a word to calm or reconcile her, the Muslim woman spoke up and reminded her of the meaning of Jesus. The Muslim woman reconciled the Christian women.

SUFFERING TOGETHER

Hearing a beep of the horn from his bus, Father Musallam realizes that time gotten away from him and he has left Moheeb sitting in the alley waiting for him. He thanks the sisters for the treats and darts for the bus.

When Father Musallam arrives home a tight circle of friends await him as his sister, Siham Musallam, rushes about the kitchen to prepare a special meal. A World Vision coordinator, two Palestinian Intelligence officers, and a Palestinian military official all gather around the dining room table and burst out with delight as the priest arrives, must as the nuns did earlier.

Most of the men are Muslims and have been fasting all day because it is the Islamic holy season of Ramadan. Siham proudly sets spiced rice, chicken, and several accompanying salads around the table and pours wine and juices for all. "We celebrate the breaking of the fast together," Father Musallam says. It is clear that this is far from the first gathering of these men. They talk easily about religion, politics, and their lives. They gradually become absorbed in a conversation that lasts for hours.

Talking again of Christian and Muslim relations, Father Musallam says candidly that he thinks the PNA tries to foster good relations with Christians because "they believe we have more contacts out of the region" and can be helpful in communicating their cause to the largely Christian West. And yet, he adds, "Who could have imagined the feast of Christmas, with the lighting of the tree, celebrated along with Ramadan and the lighting of lamps?" For the last two years the PNA has sponsored just such an event in the city's center to celebrate the two feasts together; it has been attended by Gaza's governor, Gaza City's mayor, priests and sheiks, and this year by Suha Arafat, the wife of the Palestinian leader. "I'm astonished by this," Father Musallam says. "People need to see, to understand: this is exceptional."

Father Musallam, who is also the headmaster of the Latin Catholic school in Gaza, opened up the church and school facilities for a large dinner to mark the end of Ramadan this year. About 100 people attended. In a similar sign of inter-faith friendship, he notes that the PNA donated millions of dollars worth of land for the construction of Christian schools and facilities in Gaza.

Yasser Toshtash, 35, the Gaza coordinator for World Vision, tells the others at the table that this kind of ground-level solidarity is undeniable. Toshtash, a Muslim who grew up near a Christian family in the Beach Camp, said he remembers always visiting his Christian neighbors on their feasts--a great sign of respect in the Arab culture. "And still now I have a Christmas tree in my house every year, and Santa Claus comes to my children," he says.

"Both of us [Christians and Muslims] were suffering together from the occupation and lived under curfews in the intifada," Toshtash adds, noting that he still has two rubber-cased bullets in one of his lungs as memoirs of the fighting. "It is the same suffering."

Toshtash continues:

I still remember when we had a big demonstration for the first Christian 'martyr' [of the intifada]. The Israelis tied him and put him in a jeep, beating him until he died.

He also recalls one point during the intifada years when 4,500 men, mostly Muslims, went on a hunger strike in the Negev detention camp because Israeli prison guards refused to give a Christian man his Bible. The man got his Bible, and today he is a Greek Orthodox priest.

AN UNPRECEDENTED INTERVIEW

During dinner, the men make plans to bring Father Musallam--and this reporter--to the headquarters of the Palestinian Intelligence Service the following night to meet the deputy general, Tarik Rajab. Such a visit is a rarity, but Father Musallam clearly has the necessary clout.

The next evening, two armored gates swing wide for the priest. Intelligence officers stand at the ready along the inside walls toting guns as the car drives in. Father is escorted into a building, directed to the back and taken up a flight of stairs and into a room with an armored door, where Rajab waits.

In the first interview granted to an American reporter in the nerve center of the intelligence complex, Rajab speaks freely about the PNA and some of his intelligence efforts. He dismisses claims of persecutions against Christians as an Israeli ploy to defame the budding PNA as talks leading up to a permanent peace accord become more difficult. "Maybe in Bethlehem there are some incidents against [Christians] but not here; we have enough on our hands," Rajab offers.

"We will never be like Sudan or even the Egyptians," he adds "When we went to Lebanon we were astonished by the bad relations...[but] we have been in the same trenches, the same war."

One of the other intelligence officers who joined the two-hour meeting said, however, that sometimes Palestinian intelligence officers and police officers are unqualified, poorly uneducated men from villages where there is little contact with Christians. While there may be no orchestrated policy, he says, some of these individuals may take hostile action against Christians.

The Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group concurs with the point, adding that there is "little rule of law" in the Palestinian territories, so that it is difficult to hold anyone accountable for aggressive acts. The human-rights group, which investigates abuses of all kinds, points out that abuses are somewhat common, but that very few incidents appear to be religiously motivated. Most are the result of individual clashes, the group notes.

Rajab, who returned to Gaza in 1994 after 20 years in Lebanon and Tunisia, said the PNA is going out of its way to prove its gratitude to the Christian community, which he admits is a valuable link to the outside world. He points out that Christians hold places of authority within the government, including the minister of education, the minister of justice, the first secretary to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and the liaison to England.

Samuel Avyatar, the Israeli liaison to the Christian community in Jerusalem, objects that these appointments of Christians within the PNA is all for show--an effort to hide the "characteristics of Islam" within the government. Christian minorities control the governments in Egypt and Syria, he notes, and yet Islamic law prevails there too. "Islam is a different kind of doctrine," he says. "They want the world to live according to their beliefs, and I respect them for that, but it does not lend itself well to tranquillity."

Avyatar says Christians come to his office routinely, looking for a way out of the territories and into Israel. They complain of having women harassed for immodest dress, of having church activities interrupted and land confiscated, he notes. "The [PNA] will try everything to depict a paradise between Christians and Muslims, to get political power," he adds, "and at the end of the day Christianity shrinks because of a fear of Islam, not a fear of Judaism."

"HAMAS BEFORE HAMAS"

Rajab and the other intelligence officers concede that it will be difficult to convince the world that the Palestinians are unique in the Arab world. In Gaza, Islamists who press for an Islamic state are stronger than elsewhere in the Palestinian territories, they add, but they insist that even former members of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are coming to accept the attitude of tolerance here.

One such person is Xehga Mossa, one of the founders of Hamas, who asserts he was "Hamas before Hamas." Hamas, which means "zeal" in Arabic, is an Islamic resistance movement created at the outbreak of the intifada. Mossa says he was once dedicated to utterly destroying Israel by force, but now is resigned to rallying Palestinians to political activism as a means to achieve national autonomy. He is now the head of the Islamic National Salvation Party in Gaza, and also a history professor at Islamic University. He argues:

Our prophet demands that we be one with Christians. This is part of our Islamic philosophy here. Islamic rule continues more than 1,400 years, and despite this the Christian minorities within our world keep existing--keep their religion, their habits. In the whole world it is usually the Muslims who are killed by the Christians.

Again, Avyatar warns: "Don't be fooled, don't believe what they say. Hamas and Arafat are the same thing."

But Father Musallam says he is sure he is not being fooled. "This is a special life here," he says. "It is based on human contact, friendship, and suffering. The friendships between our communities came first, and the politics came after."