(by Julie Stahl, Nov. 21, 2005, CybercastNewsService.com) Jerusalem – Palestinian Christians are suffering from human rights abuses including land confiscations, rape and murder at the hands of the much larger Muslim community, but when they speak up, the Palestinian Authority offers them no recourse or protection, a human rights lawyer and author said.
In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, both Palestinian Muslims and Christians tell visitors that there is no friction between them –that they live as equals under the P.A.
But Justus Reid Weiner, author of the recently released book “Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society” said that is simply not true.
Religious persecution is a widespread problem that is felt in different ways, Weiner said. “Some people are accused of collaboration with Israel. Some people are accused of moral offenses. Some people are accused of trying to spread Christianity by giving out Bibles.”
Weiner, a Jewish human rights lawyer, said a Christian pastor urged him to investigate the human rights abuses of Muslims who converted to Christianity. Later, he also studied Christians living under the P.A.
“I began when a friend of mine who is an evangelical lay pastor asked me if I had ever researched or written about the Christian victims who were suffering from human rights abuses living under the Palestinian Authority,” Weiner told Cybercast News Service. “And though I had been in the field of human rights law for 25 years now, I was completely in the dark.”
His book is dedicated to Ahmad El-Ashwal, a Palestinian Muslim who converted to Christianity and was killed because of his faith.
El-Ashwal, a father of eight who lived in the Askar refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus, was arrested and tortured in P.A. jails for converting to Christianity, said Weiner.
“He was taken to jail for a couple of months and they questioned him a lot about his Christian beliefs. They asked him to reveal the names of other Christians he knew and they promised him that if he’d go back to Islam, they’d give him a good, high-paying job and an office of his own,” he said.
El-Ashwal was beaten; his car was firebombed; and he was forced to close his successful falafel stand when his landlord wouldn’t renew his lease because of his Christian faith. He ran an underground church from his home in the refugee camp and when he didn’t return to Islam, masked men knocked on his door in January 2004 and shot him dead.
“[There was] never any investigation. I tried even finding a newspaper report saying somebody had been shot and killed — there wasn’t any,” said Weiner. His family won’t meet with any foreigners any more, he added.
The P.A.’s constitution, which has yet to be ratified, is based on Shari’a, the strict Islamic religious law, Weiner said. (Shari’a relegates non-Muslims to an inferior status and also prohibits conversion from Islam to any other religion.)
Islam sees conversion as “one-way street,” said Weiner. “You’re more than welcome to convert from whatever you are to Islam, but anybody who would dare think of converting from Islam to some other religion deserves the death penalty.”
If the P.A. is governed by a constitution based on Islamic law, there is little hope that it will protect a Muslim who becomes a Christian, he said.
Christians suffer too
But it is not just Muslims who convert to Christianity who suffer, he said.
Weiner said that abuses against the small Christian community (less than two percent of the population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip) are often overlooked by the international community.
“The reality of life on the ground for the [Palestinian] Christians under the Palestinian Authority and subject to the whims of a Muslim majority continues to be largely ignored by international organizations, governments, the media, and the public,” Weiner wrote in his book.
“Not only is the Palestinian Christian community facing an existential threat, but even more significantly, their status as a persecuted minority is ignored as international attention focuses on terrorism and inchoate peace plans rather than on present human rights needs,” he said.
Weiner’s book is the culmination of eight years of research and interviews with converts and Christians in P.A. areas. He also has published a number of articles in various law and human rights journals.
“Most of the victims are afraid to talk, afraid to give interviews, afraid to even meet with me,” said Weiner.
“I had to reassure them in most cases that I was not going to publish my findings here in Israel, that they were being published in scholarly journals on the other side of the ocean…that have a small circulation,” Weiner said.
“In addition, I was willing to change the names, the towns of residence and the occupation of the people who were interviewed, and despite those reassurances there were some people that still wouldn’t talk,” he said. “Basically there is a big problem of intimidation.”
Recently, a Muslim woman was killed by her family for allegedly having an affair with her Christian boss. The Muslim family then went on a rampage in the Christian village of Taibeh, burning shops and sending Christians fleeing for safety, he said.
Compounding the problem, church leaders — long intimidated by P.A. Chairman Yasser Arafat and now by the present P.A. leadership — don’t speak up on behalf of their communities, he said.
Weiner said he was baffled initially by the Church’s silence over the mistreatment of its members.
“I think of Christianity as one of the largest religions in the world involving a billion adherents…and many of them being educated, affluent. Powerful leaders of many countries profess Christian identity and certainly come from Christian backgrounds,” he said.
The Palestinian Authority has so intimidated the Christian leadership, that they go along with the Palestinian nationalist cause, said Weiner.
“They could be counted upon whenever Arafat would snap his fingers to put on their robes and vouch for the fact that the Christians and the Muslims were all Palestinians first and foremost, and they were all committed to Palestinian nationalism as their first priority,” he said.
Christians, therefore, saw their leaders as having sold out, he added.
Because there were so few Christians compared to the number of Muslims, “the PA leadership tends to look the other way when Hamas or Islamic Jihad shoots, stabs, beats, intimidates, robs, rapes [or] steals religious artifacts [from Christians],” he said.
Weiner said he wrote this book, intended for the general public, because he didn’t want the problem to remain “a secret” among academics.
He believes that the U.S. administration could do more to pressure the P.A. to live up to international human rights standards.
President Bush’s thrust for democracy in the Middle East isn’t only about “ballot boxes and free and fair elections,” he said.
“Part of democracy that he’s spoken about includes freedom of religion, freedom to change your religion, freedom to differ from the majority religion or culture,” he said.
“Things can be done by the U.S. government under the international religious freedom act, pressure can be brought to bear, it’s not as hopeless as some think,” he said.
Reprinted here with permission from CNSNews.com. Visit the website at www.cnsnews.com.
1. Who is Justus Reid Weiner? What types of human rights abuses does Mr. Weiner say that Palestinian Christians experience as a result of their faith? What specific accusations does he describe as being made against these Christians?
2. How are the claims in Mr. Weiner’s book contradicted by Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip? How does Mr. Weiner account for their denials?
3. Who was Ahmad El-Ashwal? List the ways that he was persecuted when he left Islam to become a Christian. Why do you think Mr. Weiner could not find any news report about Mr. El-Ashwal’s death?
4. What is Shari’a? How does Islam view conversion? Be specific. If Shari’a is passed in the Palestinian Authority, how will people be denied religious freedom?
5. For how many years did Mr. Weiner conduct research and interviews with converts and Christians for his book?
6. What is the most likely reason that a Muslim would convert to Christianity? Why are Palestinian Christians disappointed with their church leaders? What do you think of the leaders’ silence? Explain your answers.
7. Before reading this article, what did you know about Palestinian Christians? What did you know about any Muslims who converted to Christianity? Do you think that the media covers these stories adequately? Explain your answer.
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