This is Part II of a three-part story on the modern day exodus of Christians from Palestinian-controlled territories. If you have not done so already, we suggest first reading Modern Day Exodus: the Palestinian Christians - Part I
Violent incidents have contributed to a sense of insecurity among the Christian community in the West Bank. In 2006, Palestinians wielding guns and firebombs attacked five churches of various denominations in the West Bank and Gaza, following remarks by Pope Benedict XVI that angered many Muslims. Although no injuries were reported, the buildings suffered significant damage.
The plight of Palestinian Christians in the Gaza Strip is far worse. The Coalition for Responsible Peace in the Middle East, an NGO that monitors the abuse of Christians, has compiled a long list of violent acts directed against this vulnerable minority in Gaza. These include the 2007 attack on a monastery and school, when armed, masked men destroyed crosses and holy books, and stole computers and photocopy machines. During another rampage the same year, a gang of unidentified men ransacked the Latin Church and Rosary Sisters School, stealing a number of computers and ravaging pictures of Jesus, furniture, equipment, and holy books.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who controls only the West Bank after Hamas, an Islamist political rival, seized power in the Gaza Strip in a 2007 coup, condemned the attacks against Christians. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh also criticised the strikes, but ultimately the opposing leaders simply blamed each other instead of solving the problem and securing the population.
Muslim clerics added fuel to the fire, warning minorities to abide by Islamic law or face harsh consequences.
"Jihadia Salafiya and other Islamic movements will ensure Christian schools and institutions show publicly what they are teaching to be sure they are not carrying out missionary activity. No more alcohol on the streets. All women, including non-Muslims, need to understand they must be covered at all times while in public," Abu Saqer, leader of Jihadiya Salafiya, was quoted by World Net Daily as saying. "Also, the activities of Internet cafes, pool halls and bars must be stopped. If it goes on, we'll attack these things very harshly."
These types of problems have been reported since the beginning of the previous century. In his detailed paper ‘The Beleaguered Christians of the Palestinian-Controlled Areas’, strategy consultant David Raab noted:
"Under Islam, Christians are considered dhimmi, tolerated but second class citizens, who are afforded protection. Dhimmitude... is a ‘protection pact’ that suspends the [Muslim] conqueror's initial right to kill or enslave [Jews and Christians], provided they submitted themselves to pay tribute."
Raab highlighted several instances observed by early European travelers to the Holy Land, who testified that "a dhimmi must not come face to face with a Muslim in the street but pass him to the left, the impure side," and described how Christians were forbidden to ride on a mount in town (to avoid being higher than Muslims) or to wear bright clothes.
Yet, Muslim leaders refute any allegations of Christian-Muslim strife. In a phone interview, one member of Fatah, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted: “Muslims and Christians have no problems”.
Officially, that is true and the PA spares no effort to display this image publicly. Christmas is an official holiday, holy sites are protected, and some Christians even hold prominent PA positions. In practice, however, PA law does little to protect religious freedom.
While stressing that all Palestinians have the right to "worship and practice their beliefs," a PA Information Ministry statement reveals the harsh reality: "The Palestinian people are also governed by [Islamic] Shari'a law...with regard to issues pertaining to religious matters. According to Shari'a Law, applicable throughout the Muslim world, any Muslim, who [converts] or declares becoming an unbeliever is committing a major sin punishable by capital punishment...the [Palestinian Authority] cannot take a different position on this matter."
Be sure to check back tomorrow for the third and final part of this story