Arab Christians living in the areas contested by the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority are often viewed as deadwood, unwelcome third parties to territorial negotiations that pit a Jewish government against the predominantly Muslim Palestinians.
The Christians now make up less than five percent of more than 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and reports of persecution by Muslim forces persist-but a new study questions that assumption: "Systematic persecution of Christians by the Palestinian Authority cannot be substantiated," concluded a group of 14 evangelical scholars, journalists, and international ministry leaders who recently completed a two-week fact-finding trip to the disputed territories of West Bank and Gaza, and to Israel.
The group's purpose: to investigate persistent allegations of Christian persecution by the Palestinian Authority, the government led by former PLO leader Yasser Arafat. The group's conclusion: Prior reports of abuse are "alarmist, oversimplified, politically motivated, and inaccurate."
Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, a Chicago-based research and advocacy group based at Northpark University, organized the group. It was assisted by Open Doors, the persecution watchdog headed by Brother Andrew, which reports on persecution of Christians in the Arab-controlled areas. World Vision-Jerusalem and Bethlehem Bible College in Israel coordinated the tour as well.
The group's findings contradict the statements of other Christian organizations in the area, particularly those like the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ), which are pro-Israel and skeptical of the Palestinian Authority's willingness to allow religious liberty. EMEU's executive director Donald Wagner, however, said there was "no indication of an anti-Christian tide rising."
Mr. Wagner's group acknowledged that tensions between Muslims and Christians were not uncommon, but said those accounts "were few and of little consequence compared to the many practical examples of Muslim-Christian cooperation."
But that's not saying much, given persecution elsewhere. Paul Marshall, author of the persecution manual Their Blood Cries Out, made a separate fact-finding tour of Israel and Palestinian areas earlier this summer and concludes that "the EMEU report focused on one question: whether or not the Palestinian Authority was engaging in persecution. My question is a little different: I want to know whether or not Christians are being persecuted, by any means."
Mr. Marshall's fact-finding does not suggest that the Palestinian Authority is systematically promoting or condoning persecution. He did, however, find instances of persecution at the hands of local PA officials. The officials sometimes act on behalf of family members or neighbors who oppose a conversion from Islam. There is also "tremendous social pressure," according to Mr. Marshall, to oppose any evangelistic activity directed toward either Muslim or Jewish believers.
In one instance in Hebron, clergymen connected with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad were beaten and local PA officials illegally confiscated their church. The action was initiated by Russian Orthodox leaders in Moscow, who oppose the breakaway sect, said Russian Orthodox Abroad spokesman Bishop Gabriel in New York.
Michael Yoder of Open Doors said the EMEU findings would have little effect on Brother Andrew's long-standing work to expose persecution in the Middle East. "This is what Christian persecution has come down to in most countries that do it," he said. "The central government bodies may clean their hands of it, but of course we know it happens in other ways."
The EMEU findings coincided with recent statements from two Palestinian human-rights groups in the area. The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment argued that claims of persecution were used by American special-interest groups "to forward a particular agenda seen as hostile to local Palestinians."
Political motives cut both ways. EMEU's report on the recent trip argued that "the best way to assure religious freedom would be for a viable Palestinian state to be established soon with a secular democratic government including both Christians and Muslims in positions of authority."
The timing of calls for statehood is not merely coincidental. The United Nations moved last week to grant the Palestinian Authority a larger voice in UN deliberations. The General Assembly voted overwhelmingly July 7 to grant Palestinians a new "super-observer" status, a step closer to full UN membership. Palestinians now will be able to take part in General Assembly debate, to co-sponsor resolutions on issues pertaining to the Middle East, and to participate more fully in UN conferences. The Palestine delegation, as it has been known since 1988, does continue to be barred from voting in the General Assembly. The resolution passed 124-4, over strong opposition from the United States.