accused of persecuting Holy Land Christians
By Harry de Quetteville in Bethlehem
Christians in the Holy Land
have handed a dossier detailing incidents of violence and intimidation by
Muslim extremists to Church leaders in Jerusalem, one of whom said it was
time for Christians to "raise our voices" against the sectarian violence.
The dossier includes 93
alleged incidents of abuse by an "Islamic fundamentalist mafia" against
Palestinian Christians, who accused the Palestinian Authority of doing
nothing to stop the attacks.
The dossier also includes a
list of 140 cases of apparent land theft, in which Christians in the West
Bank were allegedly forced off their land by gangs backed by corrupt
From the birthplace of
Christ at Bethlehem to the site of his Crucifixion in Jerusalem, Christian
Church leaders have long been desperate not to upset the delicate ethnic
and sectarian balance in the region by blaming either Jews or Muslims for
the decline of their once robust religious community.
That self-imposed silence
now appears to be crumbling.
"The problem exists," said
Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Jerusalem's senior Franciscan, known as
the Custos of the Holy Land. "The Christian community has always suffered
in the last few years because we are a minority. Many have the temptation
to leave, so the community is shrinking."
While he stressed that "we
are not talking about a confrontation with all Muslims", he added that "we
don't want to see violations of the law - sometimes we have to raise our
The alleged attacks on
Christians have come despite repeated appeals to the Palestinian Authority
to rein in Muslim gangs.
A spokesman for the
Apostolic Delegate, the Pope's envoy to Jerusalem, said nothing had been
done to tackle the problem. "The Apostolic Delegate presented a list of
all the problems to Mr [Yasser] Arafat before he died," he said. "He
promised a lot but he did very little."
In the offices of his tiny
Christian television station in Bethlehem, Samir Qumsieh said this week
that Christian appeals to Mr Arafat's successor as Palestinian President,
Mahmoud Abbas, had also gone unheeded.
"At least Arafat
responded," he said, "Abbas does not answer our letters."
Mr Qumsieh said he was
trying to repair relations between Palestinian Christian and Muslim
communities, convening a meeting attended by members of both faiths in
Bethlehem last week.
But he said that the
Christian community was faced with "very brutal" adversaries. "A criminal
mafia and Islamic fundamentalists work together," he said. "Their
interests met to take our land away." He said that one man had lost his
finger in one land dispute which turned violent and that a group had
attacked and injured a Greek orthodox monk at a 5th century monastery
The dossier currently in
Church hands details far worse allegations of violence, notably the
torture and murder of two Christian girls in 2003 after they were deemed
prostitutes. A post mortem examination reportedly proved they were
Some Christians note that
land grabs are common in the growing lawlessness of the West Bank and are
not necessarily motivated by sectarian rivalry.
They add that increasingly
entrenched Islamic extremism has driven a wedge between the communities,
especially over women's dress and freedom of expression.
Several Christians tell the
story of a moderate Muslim imam in Bethlehem's biggest mosque, who was
repeatedly threatened after giving a sermon calling for an end to the
anti-Christian discrimination and land grabs.
Last weekend, the Christian
village of Taybeh was ransacked and burned by a Muslim mob, incensed that
a boy there had been seeing a girl from their neighbouring village of Deir
"I am pessimistic about our
future as Christians here," said Mr Qumsieh, adding that Christians now
form about two per cent of the population of the Holy Land, down from
almost 20 per cent 60 years ago.
"We have a low birth rate,
and now with intimidation and emigration, our future is very dark," he
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