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A Not So Merry Christmas in the Holy Land

By David Bedein. Israel Behind the News, December 26, 2003.

This is the first Christmas since the Palestinian Authority adopted an official constitution based on Koranic "Sharia" Law, which means that all Christians who live under the PA are now subject to Islamic Law.

Over the past three years, while attention has focused on Israeli and Palestinian casualties of the current war, at least one hundred Christians who live in areas ruled by the Palestinian Authority have been arrested and imprisoned for holding church services or conducting public Christian practices without authorization.

Some of these Christians were set free when the Israeli army liberated the jails in the Palestinian Authority at the time of the Israeli army incursion into Palestinian cities in April, 2002.

Those freed Christian prisoners from the Palestinian jails now take refuge by hiding throughout Israel, as they surreptitiously work to try to get their families out of Palestinian cities to join them and emigrate to any safe haven they can find in the West.

I have met with a few of these Christian Palestinians. One of them, whom I shall call Joseph to protect the confidentiality of his identity, described the ordeal that he has experienced. He and his brother live in hiding while badgering the US consulate for help to try to get US visas for their families, and have done so ever since their liberation by Israel more than 18 months ago. Joseph described to me how his family cannot openly practice Christian holidays in Bethlehem under the watchful eyes of the PLO's Islamic police force. After all, the only place in the West Bank where the PLO army currently operates is in the Bethlehem area. Joseph also described how the US-funded Palestinian public school system has become Islamicized, and how his late nephew was literally tortured to death at age 12 by his schoolmates because he expressed love and respect for his uncle as a practicing Christian.

Last Spring, the Vatican Ambassador to the Holy Land, Archbishop Msgr. Pietro Sambi, known as the Papal Nuncio, warned a US Congressional delegation that the new Palestinian Authority's approved state constitution, funded by US AID, provided no juridical status whatsoever for any religion other than Islam in the emerging Palestinian Arab entity. The Papal Nuncio also expressed his concern to visiting US lawmakers that the PA had adopted "Sharia" Islamic Law, based on the model of the "Sharia" from Koranic edicts as practiced in Iran or in Saudi Arabia.

Article (5) of the official Palestinian State Constitution reads as follows: "Arabic and Islam are the official Palestinian language and religion. Christianity and all other monotheistic religions shall be equally revered and respected".

In other words, As Archbishop Sambi noted, "other" religions such as Christianity, let alone Judaism, are only to be "respected", while being denied any juridical status under the new Palestinian State Constitution.

The status of Islam as the official religion of any future Palestinian Arab entity is also expressed in Article (7) of the official Palestinian State Constitution which states that "The principles of Islamic Sharia are a major source for legislation. Civil and religious matters of the followers of monotheistic religions shall be organized in accordance with their religious teachings and denominations within the framework of law, while preserving the unity and independence of the Palestinian people."

The constitution's translation can be accessed on the home page of the website

Islamic nations which have adopted the "Sharia" law, have mandated the absolute supremacy of Muslims over non-Muslims as matter of law, more than of simply of attitude.

What worried the Archbishop was that all Christian churches and all Christian schools will be placed under the arbitrary authority of Islamic Fundamental Law, which allows nothing more than "tolerance" of other religions at best.

For the past seven months, the US embassy has been asked to comment on the US-funded Palestinian State Constitution. No response has been forthcoming from anyone in the US government, except for denials that it exists. Yet the author of the PA State Constitution, Mr. Nabil Shaath, affirms the existence of the PA State Constitution, as presented by the Vatican's ambassador.

The PA state constitution's imposition of Sharia Islamic Law is most certainly in effect.

Calls to the US embassy and US consulate to determine whether the US government is looking into the situation of Christians under the rule of the Palestinian National Authority have not been answered.

After all, it was US AID which financed the creation of the PA State Constitution, which meant the imposition of the Islamic Law throughout the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.

Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran which have adopted Sharia Islamic Law, have made life quite difficult for Christians. Under Sharia Islamic Law, Christians are considered "dhimmis", second class citizens.

A research study released last Christmas by the Jerusalem Center For Public Affairs entitled "The Beleaguered Christians", notes that in Egypt, "Muslim, but not Christian, schools receive state funding....It is nearly impossible to restore or build new churches....Christians are frequently ostracized or insulted in public, and laws prohibit Muslim conversions to Christianity.".

That same study notes that Saudi Arabia "is one of the most oppressive countries for Christians. There are no churches in the whole country. Foreign workers make up one-third of the population, many of whom are Christians. For their entire stay, which may be years, they are forbidden to display any Christian symbols or Bibles, or even meet together publicly to worship and pray. Some have watched their personal Bibles put through a shredder when they entered the country." In Iran, "the printing of Christian literature is illegal, converts from Islam are liable to be killed, and most evangelical churches must function underground."

Bethlehem is understood by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus. When Israel retook control of Bethlehem in 1967, the majority of Bethlehem's residents practiced various denominations of the Christian faith. However, with Israel's withdrawal due to the Oslo Accords and after less than ten years of Palestinian Authority rule the Middle East has witnessed a dramatic exodus of Christians from the city. This Christmas, less than 5% in the city of Jesus's birthplace is Christian. The mainstream media have hesitated to report that fact.

President George W. Bush's administration has envisioned a democratic Palestinian entity that is devoid of terror. Instead, officials of US AID have fostered a constitution which envisions creation of the Islamic totalitarian state of Palestine, completely devoid of religious freedom and human rights.

This Christmas, an Islamic army occupies Bethlehem. This Christmas, no Church can operate in Bethlehem without Islamic approval.

And Christians in the Palestinian Authority are not seeing a Merry Christmas as a result.

This is the legacy of what the US AID has facilitated, with or without the knowledge of the White House.

David Bedein is the bureau chief of the Israel Resource News Agency, located at the Beit Agron International Press Center in Jerusalem.