Collin Hansen - Jan 19, 2006
Weiner is scholar-in-residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and recently published Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society.
How has the situation for Christians in Palestinian society changed since the Oslo Accords in 1993?
Before the Oslo accords, which were intended to empower Palestinians to govern themselves, Israel was in control on a day-by-day basis in the West Bank and Gaza. People could walk the streets. The presence of soldiers and local police was sufficient that people felt secure in their houses, churches, and businesses. Sure, there was a background of knowing your place and knowing where to back off, but people lived normal lives. They worked. They taught. They studied. They conducted their family affairs.
Anarchy has taken over since 1994, when the Palestinian Authority moved in. Everyone suffers in anarchy, but the weak and those who can be targeted at little or no price suffer the worst. A lot of the attacks on Christians are not ideological. They're not intended for someone who's handing out Bibles or trying to live a Christian life or speaking to people about Jesus. People see the Christians as weak, as not having connections in the entourage first of Yasser Arafat and now of Abu Mazen, as not having the economic power they once had. If they're weak and anything goes, why not burn their cars, steal their land, harass the women? You can get away with it with the Christians.
If Abu Mazen has to pick between Islamic Jihad and Hamas, which together represent perhaps 30 percent of the Palestinian voters, or the maybe 1.5 percent of Christians, he doesn't have to hate Christians to make a choice in favor of Hamas. Hamas could someday challenge him. It is challenging him in Gaza right now.
Some argue that the territories are such a disaster that anything could happen to anybody—that the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad are all equal-opportunity human-rights violators. I don't think that's correct. I think it happens much more to Christians than to Muslims. And I think it happens most of all to Muslims who find Jesus and take upon themselves the death sentence of being an apostate. They're more in danger than anyone else.
The Palestinian Christians don't see any future there. If they're not sitting on their suitcases, they're already living in Berlin or Chile or Belize or Toronto or Detroit. A lot of these cities have more Arab Christians than the cities that they came from, like Bethlehem, Ramallah, Taibe, and others.
Why has this problem not attracted more attention?
I can think of two reasons. One is it doesn't suit the interests of the Palestinian Authority. The obvious question is, Why are they torturing people and tolerating executions? And why are the Christians leaving by the thousands every year—about 10,000 some years? [The P.A.] would like to continue to put forward the image that they are protecting Palestinian Christians, but during periods when they've controlled Bethlehem, Ramallah, and elsewhere, the Christians have left in unprecedented numbers. To the Christians leaders, many of whom haven't been terribly loyal to their flocks, there's a similar reason why this is not discussed. Intimidation is part of it. People who live in chaos, who never know who's going to be behind the next knock on the door, tend to hunker down. The Christian leaders would be putting themselves in danger if the wider world knew how few of them there were left.
Have they reached a point, though, where this tradeoff is no longer beneficial?
Things must be getting really bad, because in the last couple months Palestinian Christians have come out aggressively in the media objecting to their continued imperiled existence. There were about three articles that I picked up having to do with a pogrom in the city of Taibe. Taibe is in the West Bank. It's an entirely Christian town. It's best known as the source of a microbrewery called Taibe Beer. Apparently there was some kind of romantic relationship between a Christian man and his secretary, who was a Muslim woman from a nearby village. When word got out in her village that she was seeing this guy, she was forced to drink poison. And the following day, men from the village went on a rampage in Taibe, beating people, burning some houses and cars, and raping a local woman. They didn't catch the guy who was in the relationship. He had apparently left town. But they messed Taibe up pretty good. About 1,500 Christians fled.
There is a Greek Orthodox Christian who was so tight with the Palestinian Liberation Organization that during the first intifada, Israel expelled him from the West Bank. Arafat brought him back to the West Bank after the Oslo process began. He ran a TV station that he built in Bethlehem. Despite that connection, he gradually got fed up with what was going on with the Christians. About two months ago, he went public with a dossier that he had previously delivered to Arafat and then Abu Mazen. The dossier gives 70 detailed examples of attacks on specific Christians—beatings, sexual harassment, all nature of theft, stealing land—and 140 cases of land theft where Muslim gangs in cahoots with the Palestinian Authority showed up, poured a slab of cement, built apartment houses, and sold them right under the nose of the land's Christian owners.
Since going public, he's gone abroad for a trip. That's a clue as to how long he would likely be alive if he were to show up in the Middle East anytime soon.
There's a pastor in Bethlehem whose name I haven't used, but one day a couple years ago he came home from work at his church, and as he parked his car, he saw a masked man jump over the fence into his front yard. The man had a pistol and took three shots, hitting the pastor once in the shoulder. The pastor fell to the ground and pretended to be dead, and the man jumped back over the fence and left.
I asked if I could use the pastor's name in an academic article published on the other side of the world. The pastor said, "Well, I'm not sure it's a good time to rub their noses in the fact that they didn't succeed in killing me." But recently I was on a radio talk show about this problem. And who was there being interviewed just before me but the pastor. He was completely upfront with what happened to him and what was happening to Christians. And so I guess it's one of those things at a tipping point. At a certain point, people come out and say, "Look, I can't live hiding this. I'm just going to tell what I've seen and what I know." And that's what I believe is beginning to happen now.
You said earlier that the attacks aren't necessarily ideological. Does Islamic fundamentalism play a role in the hostile environment for Christians?
Nobody could sensibly deny that. The environment is such that if a Christian walks down main street in Bethlehem munching on a sandwich during the month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from dawn until dusk, he'll likely be berated, possibly beaten. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he were arrested and thrown in jail for a couple of days.
How many Christians have fled since Oslo?
This is one of the hardest things to know. Neither the Christian leadership, which wants to retain some semblance of influence and power, nor the Muslim leadership, which likewise wants to portray itself as friendly towards Christianity and welcoming to Christian pilgrims and tourists, has any interest in revealing what's going on. Not infrequently a whole family will move. They'll usually say, "We're moving for a year" or "We're moving until so and so graduates high school." I don't know if it's bad luck or if it's just not in their nature to acknowledge that they're leaving for good. They may even leave one male member of the family to camp out in the house or in the business so as to give it some immunity to being squatted in by Muslims. But it's thousands that are leaving, and it's reached the point where I don't think any serious academic who's studying this question would have any answer for you other than it's a major, major departure.
Why the precipitous drop in Bethlehem in particular?
There's the intifada, which for five years discouraged most tourism. Bethlehem is substantially dependent upon tourism. The Church of the Nativity is virtually empty most of the time. Former Archbishop Carey of England has said that he is afraid Bethlehem will become a kind of Christian theme park, where there are relics but no actual living community. They've lived virtually uninterrupted in this town for 2,000 years. And if Christians can't be safe in Bethlehem, where can they be safe?
What fuels the growing influence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad?
Among the more important factors are the nepotism, corruption, incompetence, and anarchy that permeate the Palestinian Authority. And it's an authority that periodically makes grandiose pledges, like they're going to stop terrorism or they're going to recompense people who are harmed. It's a joke. It never happens. Hamas and Islamic Jihad offer an alternative to this terrible disappointment. The ordinary Palestinian hopes for decent government and greater stability and a better economic future. A second big factor is the regional reawakening of Islamic militancy, which might be traced back to the Khomeni period in Iran in the late 1970s and has been on the upswing for 20 or 30 years.
The alternatives they tried have all failed. Things might change if they experienced an economic upturn and a sense of personal safety and opportunity and education—all things that much of the world just presumes are natural rights. Islamic militancy is fed by the desperate failure of other ideologies that preceded it.
How does America's support for Israel and the Iraq intervention affect Christians?
In my extensive interviewing of Christians, I haven't heard that issue raised. So I don't know the answer. I imagine that it may provide additional incentive for Muslims to distrust Christians, to view them as foreigners even though they're not. Christianity arrived in the Holy Land 600 years before Islam became a religion. And historically there were times, not that long ago, when Christianity was maybe a quarter of the population. Now it's getting close to the point of no return as far as a viable community goes.
What's behind the divide between Arab Christians and their spiritual leaders?
The Christian archbishops and patriarchs are envied but also distrusted, and, in some cases, even hated by their flocks. This intensity surprised me. I was told that until the last 15 or 20 years, most of these churches that have been here for centuries were led by expatriates from the West. Beginning about 15 or 20 years ago, the Palestinian youth that were trained and educated in the seminaries of these different Christian denominations gradually rose through the ranks until they became the archbishops and the patriarchs. And because they grew up in a Palestinian/Middle Eastern environment, they had a different sense of their role. They were much less independent from threats and incentives. As a result, many people have told me that they might trust their bishop for liturgy and baptisms and all the other religious ceremonies—they're not quitting those churches in any substantial numbers to join the evangelicals—but they don't like their communal leaders living so well while they're living hand to mouth. And they also don't like their leaders "pimping for Arafat." Arafat would snap his fingers, and the whole spectrum of Christian leaders would meet him for some festive meal celebrating this or that Christian event or holiday. And then they would give a media appearance with Arafat smiling over their shoulders.
They would all say the problem is the Israeli occupation, that they're in the same situation as the Muslims and they want nothing more than to live in an independent Palestinian state run by the PA.
So how have things changed since Arafat died?
The incipient anarchy is now full-blown. The PA was flush with cash from Europe and other donors, so Arafat could distribute enough of this booty to different families. Now the gangs do not have any hope of being paid even their minimal salaries by their gang leader, unless they go out and somehow threaten or intimidate or skim or get an exclusive on distributing rice or cement in the Palestinian areas.
How do Arab Christians view Israel?
You can find them from one end of the spectrum [to the other]. On one end, they regret the day Israel withdrew from most of the West Bank and all of Gaza. Those who live in the Jerusalem area have bought apartments at a much-inflated price in the hope that they'll be living in a neighborhood on the Israeli side of the security fence.
And then you'll find some on the other end of the spectrum who see their future in the Palestinian state. They say Israel's machinations are the reason why it's not paradise already.
Then you'll find people in the middle who would probably be happy living under any government if it could just give them the basic things that governments are presumed to do.
Why don't we hear much about this?
An official told me that the first focus of the U.S. State Department is fighting terrorism, and a close second is the peace process. Publicity about Christians being persecuted would have made it difficult for the State Department to make reasoned arguments when they sought congressional allocations for the Palestinian Authority. It turned out much of the funding wasn't used constructively. And there was reluctance to address this problem for fear of derailing the peace process. Unfortunately, it's now come to a point where a Palestinian state will likely inherit some of the bad practices that have been tolerated by the world. The West could have perhaps squeezed the PA to comply with human-rights standards much more easily a few years back.
What can Christians here in the West do to help?
There are many things they can do, but one thing is they can call their government and the U.S. State Department. The State Department, pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act, has the responsibility of writing up an independent and factually accurate assessment of what's going on here. And they haven't been doing it.
We've managed to get a few of the people who are most in danger of losing their lives out of here with religious asylum. Sometimes it's called political asylum, because the country that's receiving them doesn't want to acknowledge that Christians are being targeted as Christians. If these people are not allowed to live safely and freely in their countries of origin, then more and more of them by hook or by crook are going to want to come to the United States and other Western countries, even as illegal aliens, in order to save their lives. And I don't think many Western countries at this point are looking to absorb Middle Eastern male immigrants.
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