Vatican blames Israel for persecution of Christians

But Palestinian Christians say it is the Muslims who are persecuting them, NOT the Israelis.

A Vatican document released yesterday blamed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s “occupying” of lands for driving Christians out and making life difficult for those who remain. However, Christians here who fled their homes in Palestinian-controlled territory largely blamed Muslim intimidation for their plight.

The Vatican document leaked to the media is reportedly a guide for discussions for an upcoming meeting of Mideast bishops convened by Pope Benedict XVI to discuss the plight of the Christian minority in the Middle East, which has an overwhelming Muslim majority.

According to the Associated Press. the meeting document made clear bishops in the Middle East believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the central cause of several conflicts in the region. The document also claimed Israeli “occupation” was a major factor in driving Christian out of certain lands. The document also singled out the growth of “political Islam” in countries like Egypt.

The Vatican is not alone in blaming Israel for fleeing Christians. Scores of media reports have claimed a security barrier that Israel constructed on a border with Bethlehem primarily had caused Christians to flee that important Christian city.

Israel built the barrier seven years ago. But Bethlehem’s Christian population started to drastically decline in 1995, the very year the Palestinian Authority took over the holy Christian city in line with the U.S.-backed Oslo Accords.

Bethlehem was more than 80 percent Christian when Israel was founded in 1948. But after the PA took control, the city’s Christian population plummeted to its current 23 percent. And that statistic is considered generous since it includes the satellite towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Some estimates place Bethlehem’s actual Christian population as low as 12 percent, with hundreds of Christians emigrating each year.

As soon as he took over Bethlehem, then-PA leader Yasser Arafat unilaterally fired the city’s Christian politicians and replaced them with Muslim cronies. He appointed a Muslim governor, Muhammed Rashad A-Jabar, and deposed of Bethlehem’s city council, which had nine Christians and two Muslims, reducing the number of Christians councilors to a 50-50 split. Suddenly, after the Palestinians gained the territory, reports of Christian intimidation by Muslims began to surface.

Christian leaders and residents told this reporter they face an atmosphere of regular hostility. They said Palestinian armed groups stir tension by holding militant demonstrations and marches in the streets. They spokes of instances in which Christian shopkeepers’ stores were ransacked and Christian homes attacked.

They said in the past, Palestinian gunmen fired at Israelis from Christian hilltop communities, drawing Israeli anti-terror raids to their towns.

Some Christian leaders said one of the most significant problems facing Christians in Bethlehem is the rampant confiscation of land by Muslim gangs. “There are many cases in which Christians have their land stolen by the [Muslim] mafia,” Samir Qumsiyeh, a Bethlehem Christian leader and owner of the Beit Sahour-based private Al-Mahd (Nativity) TV station, told WND in an interview in 2007.

“It is a regular phenomenon in Bethlehem. They go to a poor Christian person with a forged power of attorney document, and then they say we have papers proving you’re living on our land. If you confront them, many times the Christian is beaten. You can’t do anything about it. The Christian loses, and he runs away,” Qumsiyeh told WND, speaking from his hilltop television station during a recent interview.

Qumsiyeh himself said he was targeted by Islamic gangs. He said his home was firebombed after he returned from a trip abroad during which he gave public speeches outlining the plight of Bethlehem’s Christian population.

One Christian Bethlehem resident told WND her friend recently fled Bethlehem after being accused by Muslims of selling property to Jews, a crime punishable by death in some Palestinian cities. The resident said much of the intimidation comes from gunmen associated with PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah organization.

A February 2007 Jerusalem Post article cited the case of Faud and Georgette Lama, Christian residents of Bethlehem who said their land was stolen by local Muslims, and when they tried to do something about it, Faud was beaten by gunmen. One religious novelty store owner recently told WND that Muslim gangs regularly deface Christian property.

“We are harassed, but you wouldn’t know the truth. No one says anything publicly about the Muslims. This is why Christians are running away.” RBO

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