Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas in the Holyland

The following was forwarded to me by Eitan Halevy.

Do They Know It's Christmas?

by Jeanine Hirschhorn

As another Christmas season approaches, the eyes of Christians worldwide
turn to the birthplace of Jesus. What they may not see is that for
Christians living in the Holyland, there is little to celebrate. Daily life
is precarious; the future rather bleak.

Ahmad El Achwal was returning to his home in Askar Refugee Camp near the
West Bank city of Nablus, after hard day's work as a cook at a Jerusalem
fast-food stand. As he approached the entrance to his home, four masked
gunmen approached and opened fire, killing him. On the streets of the West
Bank and Gaza, where the rule of law is that there are no rules and no law,
this type of rough justice is regularly meted out by Palestinian Authority
(PA) 'security' forces and other militias. It is a common method of social
control and a very effective deterrent to communal crime.

Muslim-born, Ahmad El Achwal was a convert to Christianity. His home was an
informal Christian center, where he handed out Christian literature and
informed others in his community about his new-found faith.

Ahmad El Achwal was introduced to Christianity by a fellow prisoner in
Central Nablus prison. He had been accused by the PA of dealing in stolen
gold, charges for which he was later tried and acquitted. Once word of his
conversion to Christianity spread, he was repeatedly harassed and abused. PA
'security' forces searched his home, confiscated his Christian bibles and
other religious books, interrogated him for days and arrested him for long
periods, promising an end to his suffering and even a job within the PA if
he would return to Islam.

Ahmad El Achwal was repeatedly beaten. His life and the life of his family
were threatened. His car and home were fire-bombed by men affiliated with PA
security forces. The landlord of the fast-food shop he rented refused to
renew his rental agreement, forcing him out of business. In order to feed
his wife and eight children, he had to work away from his home, in distant
Jerusalem. Despite his suffering and personal peril, Ahmad El Achwal
continued to profess his Christian faith - and eventually paid with his life
for the simple desire to live according to his conscience.

Muslim apostasy and proselytizing for Christianity are intolerable affronts
to the norms and traditions in PA-controlled areas. Though the PA publicly
proclaims protection of religious freedom, Islamic law (Shari'a) has been
adopted into the PA Constitution and is the primary legal source governing
everyone under PA rule, regardless of their religious beliefs.

The Shari'a considers conversion from Islam can be punishable by death,
which may explain why Ahmad El Achwal's murderers were never found, never
brought to justice, never sought by the local authorities. Just like members
of the Comtsieh, Azizeh and numerous other Christian families, Mr. El Achwal
became another unacknowledged victim in the on-going campaign of persecution
that has been the plight of Christians living under PA rule in the West Bank
and Gaza.

Since the PA gained control of West Bank and Gaza in 1994, the Christian
population has suffered increasing social, cultural and financial
marginalization. In a culture where social status and survival are dependent
upon the benevolence and protection of the ruling authority, the PA's
apparent indifference toward on-going abuse against members of their
community means that Christians are powerless.and easy prey.

A few Christian websites and academic monographs have been the main outlets
for regular reports about the increasingly precarious life for Christians in
PA-controlled areas.

* The demographic destruction of the Christian-majority towns of
Bethlehem, Beit Jalla and Beit Sahour has resulted in a drop in the
Christian population from 60% to less than 30% in the past decade - and
their numbers continue to decline.
* The boycott of Christian-owned businesses, especially around Manger
Square in Bethlehem, has been particularly severe. Owners are targeted for
extortion and bribery by various 'security' forces and the PA.
* The confiscation of Christian-owned property by force, intimidation
and through fraudulent land deals (some involving senior PA officials) are
validated by courts indifferent to Christian property claims.
* The widespread verbal and physical abuse of Christian women. Some
Christian women no longer feel safe walking in the streets unaccompanied by
a family. Christian women in the Bethlehem area have been instructed to
adopt Muslim head coverings and conservative dress to deter harassment.
* The rape of Christian women is an open secret, hushed up to save
family honor. A few cases, such as the Amr sisters and Rawan Mansour from
Beit Sahour, have come to light. In the extremely conservative Palestinian
society, such violation is the ultimate humiliation of both the victim and
her family. The victim becomes unfit for marriage and childbearing - a
particularly brutal method of both reducing the Christian population and in
some instances, forcing her family to offer her in marriage to her rapist.
* The desecrations of Christian relics, holy sites and cemeteries,
encouraged through incitement against Christians by religious leaders and
the PA.

Due to fear of reprisals, the abuse often goes unreported. It is recounted
mainly in off-the-record conversations, which are viewed as unconfirmed
"allegations" - and therefore discounted, dismissed and largely ignored by
Church officials, human rights organizations and the Western media.

An incident in September of this year highlights the hostility Christians
face. Hundreds of armed men descended on the Christian city of Taibe,
terrorized the community for hours, set sixteen homes and multiple
businesses on fire, looted valuables, and destroyed a statue of the Virgin
Mary. And the reason for this attack? A Muslim woman from their neighboring
village of Deir Jarir was accused of having a relationship with a Christian
man from Taibe.

Western government officials, so forthright in their concern for human
rights in other areas, have remained curiously non-committal about the
treatment and increasing peril of Christians living in PA-controlled areas.
The European Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other
non-government organizations (NGOs) and the UN seem to have similar
financial and political motives which fuels their disregard.

The US State Department's Report on Human Rights and International Religious
Freedom Report have been ambiguous, vague and tended to downplay the extent
of harassment of Christians in PA-controlled areas. The reasons are unclear;
perhaps due to the US deep investment in the peace process, wanting to avoid
discrediting the PA, a major recipient of US aid. In Ahmad El Achwal's case,
while State Department officials had met with him and received updates about
his case, to date, his murder has yet to be addressed by State Department

International and local church officials also tend to react with
indifference to the treatment of Christians. In some cases, local church
officials perversely blame Christians themselves for their plight. This may
serve as one explanation for the widening gap between the religious
leadership and lay community. A public opinion poll performed by a Christian
academic found that only 48% of Christians trusted their religious leaders.

David Parsons, Spokesperson for the International Christian Embassy in
Jerusalem, described the situation for Christians living under PA rule as
"desperate". "Due to their minority status, Christians suffer oppression and
intimidation by the PA and powerful Muslim clans. They are frustrated that
their grievances are ignored, that their bishops and pastors remain silent
about their plight. They don't want to abandon their ancient heritage, but
as a tiny, powerless minority, they are being forced out."

The Christians of the Holyland seem to be the very real sacrificial lambs on
the altar of the nebulous Middle East peace process. A flock abandoned by
their co-religionists for political and financial self-interest.

As the Christmas season approaches, these Christians deserve the best
Christmas present they could possibly receive - acknowledgement of their
plight. Shouldn't the season of peace on earth encourage people of goodwill
to demand action to protect Christians in the Holyland?

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