Rev. Bill Harter is a charismatic and well-respected Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor who has taken forty church missions to Israel and the Palestinian Authority territories. On various occasions at meetings with State Department officials, Rev. Harter revealed to them that Christian Palestinians say one thing in public and the opposite in private.
He requested that the State Department appoint a human rights officer and station him at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem in order to monitor, record, and redress the abuses that Christian Palestinians are undergoing at the hands of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas-sponsored gangs.
Rev. Harter was told in whispers, in the privacy of Christian Palestinian families’ homes, about the fears they have of remaining in their towns and living there under the control of a Palestinian state. During his earlier trips, members of the Arab Christian community had expressed great fear for their safety as Israel withdrew from the Bethlehem area and handed it over to Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (PA). According to Harter, Christians under PA control are intimidated into speaking out against Israel and are abused if they seem to accuse the PA of any wrongdoing.
Palestinian Christians, according to researcher Justus Reid Weiner of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, have faced uninterrupted persecution since the Oslo Accords were implemented and Israel handed over the territories to the PA. Weiner asserts that the “very existence of the 2000 year-old Christian community” is in doubt. As a minority in a society governed by strict adherence to Islamic religious law, their leadership has also been intimidated and has abandoned them — choosing to curry favor with the PA leadership rather than acknowledge and speak out against the ever-increasing suffering of Christians under the Palestinian Authority and the more militant Muslim-led Hamas in Gaza.
Christian Palestinians have also been abandoned by the international community — by NGOs and human rights organizations. On their own, this educated Christian community has had to endure anarchy and lawlessness, widespread corruption in the PA security and police forces, and a xenophobic and intolerant Muslim majority.
Lacking protection and subjected to continued abuse including murder, robbery, rape, and physical assault, Christians have begun to emigrate from the Palestinian territories on a massive scale. Back in the 1990s, when this writer asked the late mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij, where the Christians of his city are, he pointed west and said, “You can see them in Santiago de Chile.” Former U.S. Congressman J.C. Watts attributed the departure of the Palestinian Christians to having been “driven out by the steady persecution of the PA and the realization that they will face worse treatment under a possible future Palestinian state.”
Article 5 of the draft constitution of the Palestinian Authority unequivocally declares: “In the State of Palestine Islam will be the official religion. … Sharia Islamic law will be the primary source of legislation.” Although that same article also “guarantees that monotheistic religions (Christianity and Judaism) will be respected and that the state will provide for freedom of worship,” the best that Christians (Jews do not live under PA control) can expect from the PA is dhimmitude — the discriminatory social and legal status “provided” to the Peoples of the Book.
As Palestinian Christians look at the current political map, they recognize the growing strength of Islamic fundamentalism in PA-controlled areas and in Gaza. With few economic opportunities, Palestinian Muslims are typically poor and lack the access to a practical education. They marry young, have large families, and in short order become the natural constituents of Hamas and other radical Islamic groups. Palestinian Anglican Bishop Riah Abu el-Assal has pointed out: “The Islamic movements seem to offer their adherents something to live for — at times even something to die for. … [T]his is a very dangerous development, and one which is difficult to contain.”
William Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition, speaks of the PA school curriculum as deadly: “I have talked to Christian families about what is taught in the PA schools. From what they say, there is indeed a ‘culture of death’ that includes the glorification of suicide bombers and training to kill Jews and Americans.”
In his report “Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society,” Weiner interviewed Lina Atallah, a Christian receptionist from Bethlehem. She described to him the Muslim attitude toward Christians: “They spit on us, try to force us to wear headscarves, and in the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, the Palestinian (Authority) police arrest us for smoking or eating on the streets. … The Muslims want to get rid of us or they want us to live like them.”
As a result of the economic boycott of Christian businesses by the Muslim community and extortion by gangs associated with the PA police and security forces, Christian businesses in Bethlehem have been rapidly disappearing. These gangs of Muslim thugs had an official license from Arafat and now one from Mahmud Abbas to extort money from Christian businesses. Failure to pay up results in Mafia-like actions. Businesses are torched or, even worse, the Christian owners or members of their families are murdered and their daughters are raped. Weiner reports: “Internationally recognized holy sites in the West Bank are being both vandalized and desecrated by the PA without consequence.”
According to Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab Muslim reporter for the Jerusalem Post: “Not only do Christians not have the same recourse to institutional justice under a Muslim-dominated PA, but you can harm a member of a Christian family without facing 300 people attacking you. The vigilante justice in place to protect Muslim daughters does not exist for the Christian minority.” Evangelical Pastor David Ortiz observes that by rendering Christian women unfit for marriage and childbearing with Christian men, Muslim rapists might think that it is an effective method of reducing the Christian population.
Attempts by both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations to prop up the Palestinian Authority in general and Mahmud Abbas in particular have resulted in greater human rights abuses which have been grossly overlooked purely for political reasons. The U.S. State Department’s annual report on International Religious Freedom regularly ignores the abuses by the PA for political expediency as well. All of this has contributed to the further endangerment of the future of the Christian community in the Palestinian territories.