|The Christians of Bethlehem:
Intimidation by Muslim extremists
Published: 18 December 2005
Briefing Number 163
Summary: Christian leaders have described how Christians living in Bethlehem and elsewhere experience harassment and intimidation by Islamic extremists. Israel is routinely blamed for the tensions and difficulties of Christian life in Bethlehem. But the accounts quoted in this Briefing, which are by a Vatican representative and a Greek Orthodox Christian, and were published in the Italian media, place the situation in Bethlehem in a very different perspective.
A Vatican Representative describes anti-Christian harassment
Franciscan priest Pierbattista Pizzaballa has a crucial role in protecting the interests of Christians living in Israel and the West Bank. He represents the ‘Custody of the Holy Land’, the institution to which the Vatican has for seven centuries entrusted the care of church property in the area.
On 4 September 2005 Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who speaks Hebrew and understands Arabic, gave an interview with Italy’s leading newspaper Corriere della Sera, in which he made the following comments (the translation is from the Christian affairs website Chiesa):-
“Almost every day – I repeat almost every day – our communities are harassed by the Islamic extremists in these regions. And if it’s not the members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, there are clashes with the ‘rubber wall’ of the Palestinian Authority, which does little or nothing to punish those responsible. On occasion, we have even discovered among our attackers the police agents of Mahmoud Abbas or the militants of Fatah, his political party, who are supposed to be defending us…”
And regarding the Christians of Bethlehem, Pizzaballa added:-
“I have a list of 93 cases of injustice of various kinds committed against Christians in the region of Bethlehem between 2000 and 2004….”
The Chiesa website (www.chiesa.espressonline.it), which contains extracts from the Pizzaballa interview in Corriere della Serra, also describes so-called ‘honor killings’ and anti-Christian mob attacks by Islamist groups. It describes how a priest looking after a church near Bethlehem has been forced to leave it in a ‘state of neglect’: “The Christian priest keeps the Church closed because he is afraid that the Muslims will take it and turn it into a mosque…” (comments made by the Arab custodian of the church to an Italian journalist – see report by Sandro Magister - www.chiesa.expressonline.it – 7 September 2005).
Greek Orthodox Christian compiles dossier of anti-Christian incidents
The Chiesa website has also published remarks by a leading Greek Orthodox Christian, Samir Qumsieh, on the plight of Bethlehem’s Christians. Qumsieh compiled a dossier of anti-Christian incidents which he sent both to Pizzaballa’s office, and to the Palestinian Authority. Among Qumsieh’s observations (published on Chiesa on 7 September 2005):-
Vandalism against Bethlehem churches by Islamic extremists:-
“There are frequent instances of vandalism against the churches, from which they carry away the crucifixes. They destroyed the statue of the Virgin Mary in the convent garden of the Salesian sisters. They have violated some of the tombs in the Christian cemetery in Bethlehem. Graffiti has appeared defaming Hanan Ashrawi, the former spokesman of the Palestinians, who is guilty of being a Christian and a woman…”
Samir Qumsieh on the theft of Christian-owned property in Bethlehem:-
“For the Christians here, life is full of abuses of power and humiliations. Those in charge are the ones who steal the land. The Muslims appropriate our goods and property through what can really and properly be called fraud, which is committed with the complicity of functionaries connected to the Palestinian Authority and its militias, the tanzim. Lawlessness reigns in Bethlehem….
Let’s take the case of Dr Samir Asfour. He had inherited from his father nine thousand square meters near the Tomb of Rachel (just outside Bethlehem). But then a Muslim appreared with a falsified document, laying claim to the land. And naturally the register for the district of Bethlehem sided with him….”
Conclusion: the position of Christian groups outside Israel
Israel is routinely blamed for the tensions and difficulties of Christian life in Bethlehem. As a last-resort measure, Israel is building the security fence outside Bethlehem to foil terrorism originating from Bethlehem and elsewhere (see Briefing 160 – suicide attacks against Jerusalem – the context for the security fence around the city).
Israel’s critics assume it is entirely Israel’s fault that life is hard for the Palestinian residents of Bethlehem – both Christian and Muslim. But while Israel faces widespread condemnation for its policies, the day-to-day plight of the Christians of Bethlehem at the hands of Islamist extremists receives very little coverage. Indeed, most Christians in the region are, by all accounts, frightened to speak out. The accounts of Pierbattista Pizzaballa and Samir Qumsieh place the situation in Bethlehem in a different perspective, and prompt the question: what are Christian groups outside the area – many of whom devote vast time and resources to criticising Israel - doing to support their co-religionists in their struggle against Muslim extremism?
Related resource: see the recent report from the Israeli think-tank the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs (www.jcpa.org), entitled ‘Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society’. Written by Justis Reid Weiner, the report chronicles in great detail the plight of Palestinian and other Christians over recent years.