International Religious Freedom Report 2007 - Israel and the Occupied Territories (Annex)
THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES (INCLUDING AREAS SUBJECT TO THE JURISDICTION OF THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY)
The Palestinian Authority (PA) does not have a constitution; however, the Palestinian Basic Law provides for freedom of religion, and the PA generally respected this right in practice. The Basic Law states that Islam is the official religion but also calls for respect and sanctity for other "heavenly" religions and that the principles of Shari'a (Islamic law) shall be the main source of legislation.
There was little change in the status of the PA's respect for religious freedom during the reporting period. On June 17, 2007, PA President Mahmoud Abbas swore in a new PA Government led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. President Abbas took steps to eliminate religious incitement, although some incidents of incitement still occurred. There were unconfirmed reports of Christians being targeted for extortion or abuse during the period covered by this report, and the PA did not take action to investigate these injustices allegedly perpetrated by PA officials.
Israel exercises varying degrees of legal, military, and economic control in the Occupied Territories. Israel has no constitution; however, the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty provides for freedom of worship. The Israeli Government generally respects this right in practice in the Occupied Territories. However, Israel's strict closure policies frequently restricted the ability of Palestinians to reach places of worship and to practice their religions.
The construction of a separation barrier by the Government of Israel, particularly in and around East Jerusalem, severely limited access to mosques, churches, and other holy sites, and seriously impeded the work of religious organizations that provide education, healthcare, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians. Such impediments were not exclusive to religious believers or to religious organizations, and at times the Israeli Government made efforts to lessen the impact on religious communities. The Israeli Government confiscated land belonging to several religious institutions to build its separation barrier. Most Palestinians and religious institutions refuse compensation due to the widespread perception that accepting compensation legalizes the confiscation of land and building of the barrier. According to the Israeli Government, it sought to build the barrier on public lands where possible, and when private land was used, provided opportunities for compensation. In principle, compensation is offered automatically with every confiscation order; however, owners need to go through an appeals process. The value of the compensation is not automatic and is subject to appraisal and verification.
Christians and Muslims generally enjoyed good relations, although tensions existed. Existing societal tensions between Jews and non-Jews remained high during the reporting period, and continuing violence heightened those tensions. The violence that occurred after the outbreak of the second Intifada (or uprising) in October 2000 significantly impacted religious practice in many areas of the Occupied Territories. This violence included severe damage to places of worship and religious shrines in the Occupied Territories.
The U.S. Government had no contact with the previous PA governments led by Hamas and was unable to discuss religious freedom problems with the PA as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The U.S. Government did have contact with President Abbas.
Section I. Religious Demography
The Gaza Strip has an area of 143 square miles and a population of 1.3 million. The West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) has an area of 2,238 square miles, and its population is 2.4 million persons, not including approximately 250,000 Israelis. East Jerusalem has an area of 27 square miles, and its population is 415,000, including approximately 180,000 Israelis.
Approximately 98 percent of Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories are Sunni Muslims. The total number of Christians is 200,000. Other estimates placed the Christian community between 40,000 and 90,000 persons. A majority of Christians are Greek Orthodox; the remainder consists of Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Protestants, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Copts, Maronites, and Ethiopian Orthodox denominations. Christians are concentrated primarily in the areas of Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bethlehem, but smaller communities exist elsewhere, including in Gaza. According to municipal officials in Bethlehem, since 2002 approximately 2,800 Christians from the Bethlehem area have left the West Bank for other countries. According to Christian leaders, most left for economic and security reasons. Low birth rates among Palestinian Christians and the impact of the separation barrier also contribute to their shrinking numbers. There is also a community of approximately 400 Samaritans located on Mount Gerazim near Nablus in the West Bank.
Adherents of several denominations of evangelical Christians, as well as members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, reside in the West Bank. Foreign missionaries operate in the Occupied Territories, including a small number of evangelical Christian pastors who reportedly sought to convert Muslims to Christianity. While they maintained a generally low profile, the PA was aware of their activities and generally did not restrict them.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The PA does not have a constitution; however, the Basic Law provides for religious freedom, and the PA generally respected this right in practice. The PA sought to protect religious freedom in full and did not tolerate its abuse by either governmental or private actors. In previous years, there were credible reports that PA security forces and judicial officials colluded with criminal elements to extort property illegally from Christian landowners in the Bethlehem area. Christian landowners in Bethlehem continued to claim that their property was being taken from them illegally.
The Basic Law states that "Islam is the official religion in Palestine," and that "respect and sanctity of all other heavenly religious groups [i.e., Judaism and Christianity] shall be maintained." In 2002 the Basic Law was approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and signed by then-President Yasir Arafat. The Basic Law states that the principles of Shari'a are "the main source of legislation."
Churches in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza operate under one of three general categories: Churches recognized by the status quo agreements reached under Ottoman rule in the late 19th century; Protestant, including evangelical, churches established between the late 19th century and 1967, which, although they exist and operate, are not recognized officially by the PA; and a small number of churches that have become active within the last decade and whose legal status is less certain.
The first group of churches is governed by 19th century status quo agreements reached with Ottoman authorities, which the PA respects, and that specifically established the presence and rights of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian, Syrian Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Coptic, and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. The Episcopal and Lutheran Churches were added later to this list. The PA, immediately upon its establishment, recognized these churches and their rights. Like Shari'a courts under Islam, these religious groups are permitted to have ecclesiastical courts whose rulings are considered legally binding on personal status and some property matters. Civil courts do not adjudicate such matters.
Churches in the second category, which includes the Assembly of God, Nazarene Church, and some Baptist churches, have unwritten understandings with the PA based on the principles of the status quo agreements. They are permitted to operate freely and are able to perform certain personal status legal functions, such as issuing marriage certificates.
The third group of churches consists of a small number of proselytizing churches, including Jehovah's Witnesses and some evangelical Christian groups. These groups have encountered opposition to their efforts to obtain recognition, both from Muslims, who oppose their proselytizing, and from Christians, who fear the new arrivals may disrupt the status quo. However, these churches generally operate unhindered by the PA.
The PA requires Palestinians to declare their religious affiliation on identification papers and strongly enforces this requirement. Either Islamic or Christian ecclesiastical courts must handle all legal matters relating to personal status, if such courts exist for the individual's denomination. In general all matters related to personal status (i.e., inheritance, marriage, and divorce) are handled by such courts, which exist for Muslim and Christians.
All legally recognized individual sects are empowered to adjudicate personal status matters, and in practice most did so. The PA does not have a civil marriage law. Legally, members of one religious group mutually may agree to submit a personal status dispute to a different denomination to adjudicate, but in practice this did not occur. Churches that are not officially recognized by the PA must obtain special permission to perform marriages or adjudicate personal status matters; however, in practice nonrecognized churches advised their members to marry (or divorce) abroad.
Since Islam is the official religion of the PA, Islamic institutions and places of worship receive preferential treatment. In the West Bank and Gaza, the PA has a Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs, which pays for the construction and maintenance of mosques and the salaries of many Palestinian imams. The Ministry also provides limited financial support to some Christian clergymen and Christian charitable organizations. The PA does not provide financial support to any Jewish institutions or holy sites in the West Bank; these areas are generally under Israeli control. The Government of Jordan maintains responsibility for Waqf institutions in Jerusalem.
The PA requires the teaching of religion in PA schools, with separate courses for Muslim and Christian students. A compulsory curriculum requires the study of Christianity for Christian students and Islam for Muslim students in grades one through six. The PA Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MOEHE) revised its primary and secondary school textbooks. A U.S. Government funded review of Palestinian textbooks concluded that the textbooks did not cross the line into incitement but continued to show elements of imbalance, bias, and inaccuracy.
Critics noted the new textbooks often ignored historical Jewish connections to Israel and Jerusalem.
PA President Abbas had informal advisors on Christian affairs. Six seats in the 132-member PLC are reserved for Christians; there are no seats reserved for members of any other faith. The following holy days are considered national holidays: Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Zikra al-Hijra al-Nabawiya, Christmas, and the Birth of the Prophet Muhammad. Christians take Easter as a fully paid religious holiday.
Israel exercises varying degrees of legal control in the Occupied Territories. The international community considers Israel's authority in the Occupied Territories to be subject to the 1907 Hague Convention and the 1949 Geneva Convention relating to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War. The Israeli Government considers only the 1907 Hague Convention applicable but maintains that it largely observes the Geneva Convention's humanitarian provisions. The Israeli Government applies Israeli law to East Jerusalem, which it annexed after 1967; however, the U.S. Government considers Jerusalem a permanent status issue to be resolved in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
PA government policy contributed to the generally free practice of religion, although problems persisted. The Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) contains the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, among the holiest sites in Islam. Jews refer to the same place as the Temple Mount and consider it the location of the ancient Jewish temple. The location has been, as with all of East Jerusalem, under Israeli control since 1967, when Israel captured the city (East Jerusalem was formally annexed in 1980, and thus Israel applies its laws to East Jerusalem). The Haram al-Sharif is administered, however, by the Islamic Waqf, a Jordanian-funded and administered Muslim religious trust for East Jerusalem with ties to the PA. The Israeli police have exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance to the compound and limit access to the compound from all entrances. The Waqf can object to entrance of particular persons, such as non-Muslim religious radicals, or to prohibited activities, such as prayer by non-Muslims or disrespectful clothing or behavior, but lacks effective authority to remove anyone from the site. In practice Waqf officials claimed that police often allowed religious radicals (such as Jews seeking to remove the mosques and to rebuild the ancient temple on the site) and immodestly dressed persons to enter and often were not responsive to enforcing the site's rules. During Passover in 2007, Israeli police escorted more than 100 activists affiliated with the right-wing group "The Temple Mount Faithful" to enter the compound on two consecutive days, the second day while carrying a model of the Second Temple.
Non-Muslims may visit the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, with advance coordination with Waqf officials. The Israeli Government, as a matter of stated policy, has opposed worship at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount by non-Muslims since 1967. Israeli police generally did not permit public prayer by non-Muslims and publicly indicated that this policy has not changed in light of the renewed visits of non-Muslims to the compound. However, Waqf officials contended that Israeli police, in contravention of their stated policy and the religious status quo, have allowed members of radical Jewish groups to enter and to worship at the site, including during Passover 2007. Representatives for these Jewish groups claimed successful attempts to pray inside the compound in interviews with the Israeli media. The Waqf interpreted police actions as part of an Israeli policy to incrementally reduce Waqf authority over the site and to give non-Muslims rights of worship in parts of the compound.
There were several violent clashes during the reporting period between Israeli police and Muslim worshippers on the Haram al-Sharif, which Waqf officials alleged were due to the large police contingent kept on the site. At times Muslim worshippers threw stones at police, and police fired tear gas and stun grenades at worshippers. Muslim worshippers also held demonstrations at the site to protest reported right-wing Israeli nationalist plans to damage the mosques or create a Jewish worship area at the site. Israeli security officials and police were generally proactive and effective in dealing with such threats.
Citing violence and security concerns, the Israeli Government has imposed a broad range of strict closures and curfews throughout the Occupied Territories since October 2000. These restrictions largely continued during the reporting period and resulted in significantly impeded freedom of access to places of worship in the West Bank for Muslims and Christians.
The Israeli Government prevented most Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from reaching the Haram al-Sharif by prohibiting their entry into Jerusalem. Restrictions were often placed on entry into the Haram al-Sharif for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, especially males under the age of 45. During the clashes surrounding the excavations at the Mughrabi Gate ramp in 2007, males under the age of 50 were prohibited entry to the Haram al-Sharif.
There were also disputes between the Muslim administrators of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Israeli authorities regarding Israeli restrictions on Waqf attempts to carry out repairs and physical improvements on the compound and its mosques. Israeli authorities prevented the Waqf from conducting several improvement projects and removing debris from previous restorations to the site, alleging that the Waqf was attempting to alter the nature of the site or to discard antiquities of Jewish origin. Israeli authorities began excavations near the Mughrabi gate, preparing to build a permanent ramp onto the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Waqf officials were not allowed access to the excavations in early 2007 and claimed they were not consulted in any part of the planning process for either the excavations or the ramp that will be constructed to replace the existing ramp. At the end of this reporting period, the excavations were suspended.
Personal status law for Palestinians is based on religious law. For Muslim Palestinians, personal status law is derived from Shari'a, while various ecclesiastical courts rule on personal status matters for Christians. A 1995 PA presidential decree stipulated that all laws in effect before the advent of the PA would continue in force until the PA enacted new laws or amended the old ones. Therefore, in the West Bank, which was formerly under Jordanian rule, the Shari'a-based Jordanian Status Law of 1976 governs women's status (among other matters). Under that law, which includes inheritance and marriage laws, women inherit less than male members of the family. The marriage law allows men to take more than one wife, although few did so. Prior to marriage, a woman and man may stipulate terms in the marriage contract that govern financial and child custody matters in the event of divorce. Reportedly, few women used this section of the law.
Women generally are discouraged from including divorce arrangements in a marriage contract as a result of social pressure. The PA personal status law states that child custody for children below the age of 18 is given to the mother. Child support and "divorce benefits" are also guaranteed by law. It is also customary that a sizable sum of a deferred dowry is documented in the marriage contract. Personal status law in Gaza is Shari'a-based as interpreted in Egypt; however, similar versions of the attendant restrictions on women described above apply there as well.
The Israeli Government, citing security concerns, has continued since 2002 to construct a barrier to separate most of the West Bank from Israel, East Jerusalem, and Israeli settlement blocks. Construction of the barrier has involved confiscation of property owned by Palestinians, displacement of Christian and Muslim residents, and tightening of restrictions on movement for non-Jewish communities. There were several reports of land being taken along the barrier's route without compensation under the Absentee Property Statute or military orders. The Israeli Government asserted that it has mechanisms to compensate landowners for all takings, but specific cases document the exceptional difficulty Palestinians had in proving their land ownership to the standards demanded by Israeli courts.
Construction of the separation barrier continued in and around East Jerusalem during the reporting period, seriously restricting access by West Bank Muslims and Christians to holy sites in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. The barrier also negatively affected access to schools, healthcare providers, and other humanitarian services provided by religious institutions, although in some cases the Government made efforts to lessen the impact on religious institutions.
The separation barrier made it particularly difficult for Bethlehem-area Christians to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and it made visits to Christian sites in Bethany and in Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who live on the other side of the barrier, further fragmenting and dividing this small minority community. Foreign pilgrims sometimes experienced difficulty in obtaining access to Christian holy sites in the West Bank because of the barrier and Israeli restrictions on movement in the West Bank. The barrier and checkpoints also impeded the movement of clergy between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries, as well as the movement of congregations between their homes and places of worship. On November 15, 2005, Israel opened a new crossing terminal from Jerusalem into Bethlehem for both tourists and nontourists. After initial complaints of long lines, the Israeli Government instituted new screening procedures and agreed to ease access into Bethlehem during the Christmas holiday season, with restrictions eased from December 24 to January 19. For example, the PA reported 30,000 visitors to the Church of the Nativity for various Christmas celebrations on December 24-25, 2005, the largest turnout since 2000. Bethlehem business owners estimated tourist numbers near 12,000 for 2006.
The Government of Israel has constructed a barrier around Rachel's Tomb, a shrine holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. While Jewish visitors had regular unimpeded access, Palestinian access to Rachel's Tomb remained severely limited.
The barrier in Bethany blocks the annual Orthodox Palm Sunday procession from Lazarus' Tomb in Bethany to the Old City of Jerusalem, but Israel constructed a crossing terminal to allow foreign pilgrims and Christians living on the West Bank side of the barrier to participate in the procession. The terminal allows restricted access through the barrier.
Israeli closure policies prevented tens of thousands of Palestinians from reaching places of worship in Jerusalem and the West Bank, including during religious holidays such as Ramadan, Christmas, and Easter. The Israeli Government's closure policy prevented several Palestinian religious leaders, both Muslim and Christian, from reaching their congregations. Muslim and Christian clergy reported problems accessing religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. While the Israeli Government makes special arrangements on religious holidays for both Christians and Muslims, the main complaint remained inadequate free access arrangements in terms of number of permits issued and lack of smooth access.
During the reporting period, Palestinian violence against Israeli settlers prevented some Israelis from reaching Jewish holy sites in the Occupied Territories, such as Joseph's Tomb near Nablus. Since early 2001, following the outbreak of the Intifada, the Israeli Government has prohibited Israeli citizens in unofficial capacities from traveling to the parts of the West Bank under the civil and security control of the PA. This restriction prevented Israeli Arabs from visiting Muslim and Christian holy sites in the West Bank, and it prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting other sites, including an ancient synagogue in Jericho. Visits to the Jericho synagogue have been severely curtailed as a result of disagreements between Israel and the PA over security arrangements.
Settler violence against Palestinians prevented some Palestinians from reaching holy sites in the Occupied Territories. Settlers in Hebron have in previous reporting periods forcibly prevented Muslim muezzins from reaching the al-Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs to sound the call to prayer and have harassed Muslim worshippers in Hebron. Settler harassment of Palestinians in Hebron was a regular occurrence in this reporting period. The Israeli Government did not effectively respond to settler-initiated blocking of Muslim religious sites.
While there were no specific restrictions placed on Palestinians making the Hajj, all Palestinians faced restrictions, such as closures and long waits at Israeli border crossings, which often impeded travel for religious purposes. Palestinians generally were not allowed to use Ben-Gurion Airport. If residents of the Occupied Territories obtained a Saudi Hajj visa, they had to travel by ground to Amman (for West Bankers) or Egypt (for Gazans) and then to Saudi Arabia.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
The Israeli Government gives preferential treatment to Jewish residents of the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, when granting permits for home building and civic services. For example, East Jerusalem's 270,000 Palestinian residents, who represent 33 percent of the municipality's population and pay 30 percent of the taxes, receive only 10 percent of the municipal budget. Palestinians do not recognize Israeli control of East Jerusalem and thus generally choose not to vote in municipal elections and are therefore not represented in the municipal council. Many of the national and municipal policies in Jerusalem are designed to limit or diminish the non-Jewish population of Jerusalem. According to Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations, the Israeli Government uses a combination of zoning restrictions on building for Palestinians, confiscation of Palestinian lands, and demolition of Palestinian homes to "contain" non-Jewish neighborhoods while simultaneously permitting Jewish settlement in predominantly Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem.
Throughout the reporting period, Israeli authorities required that Christian clergy serving in the West Bank or Jerusalem, except some of those covered by the status quo agreement or who are affiliated with recognized nongovernmental organization (NGOs), leave the country every 90 days to renew their tourist visas, disrupting their work and causing financial difficulties to their sponsoring religious organizations. Catholic and Orthodox priests, nuns, and other religious workers, often from Syria and Lebanon, faced long delays and sometimes were denied applications. The Israeli Government indicated that delays or denials were due to security processing for visas and extensions. The shortage of foreign clergy impeded the functioning of Christian congregations.
During Jewish holidays the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) closes to Muslims the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the second most important mosque for Muslims in the Occupied Territories after Al Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount. The IDF reopens the al-Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron to Muslim worship for times other than during Jewish holidays. During the reporting period, Israeli officers at times prevented the muezzin at the al-Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron from sounding the call to prayer when Jews were praying in their portion of the shrine.
In previous reporting periods, the PA failed to halt several cases of seizures of Christian-owned land in the Bethlehem area by criminal gangs. In many cases criminal gangs reportedly used forged land documents to assert ownership of lands belonging to Christians. Police failed to investigate most of these cases. In two cases police arrested and then released the suspects on bail and allowed them to continue occupying the land in question. There were reports this reporting period that PA security forces and judicial officials colluded with members of these gangs to seize land from Christians. Local religious and political leaders confirmed that no such attempts to seize Muslim-owned land took place.
In September 2006 a Christian resident of Bethlehem claimed unknown assailants threw Molotov cocktails at his home and car. He believed this was in retaliation for his criticism of the stealing of Christian land in the city. He complained that PA officials were not doing anything to apprehend the perpetrators.
The Qalqilya branch of the YMCA closed following a firebombing of its office by local Muslims in April 2006. Local Muslim leaders wrote to the Hamas-led municipal council demanding that the branch office close. During the reporting period, the YMCA offices remained closed as a result of this incident. Various political factions in the city condemned the incident, but no action was taken to reveal and punish the perpetrators.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the Occupied Territories.
Forced Religious Conversions
There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Palestinian media frequently published and broadcast material criticizing the Israeli occupation, including dismissing Jewish connections to Jerusalem. In September 2005 Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, the Chief Justice and President of the Higher Shari'a Council, called the Israeli Government's claim of a Jewish connection to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount a "baseless lie" and a provocation to Muslims everywhere. Al-Tamimi also warned against the "Judaization" of Jerusalem. Rhetoric by Palestinian terrorist groups included expressions of anti-Semitism. Some Muslim religious leaders preached sermons on the official PA television station that included expressions of anti-Semitism. However, in October 2005, Israeli media quoted PLO Chief Negotiator Sa'eb Erekat's statement that the Iranian President's declaration that Israel should be wiped off the map was "unacceptable."
Israeli activists reported numerous examples in which PA television shows invoked messages that activists considered anti-Semitic or that attempted to de-legitimize Jewish history in general. Also, the sermons of some Muslim imams occasionally included anti-Semitic messages, such as a May 13, 2005, sermon delivered by Sheikh Ibrahim Mudayris that ran on PA television, in which he compared Jews (in the context of land conflicts) to "a virus, like AIDS." In May 2005 media quoted PA Minister of Information Nabil Sh'ath as calling for Mudayris' suspension from the PA religious affairs ministry and Muslim Waqf, which employed Mudayris, and banned him from delivering Friday sermons. At the end of the reporting period, Mudayris was no longer delivering Friday sermons.
Persecution by Terrorist Organizations
Terrorists did not systematically attack anyone in the Occupied Territories for religious reasons, although criminal activity that might be linked to terrorism affected some Christians in the Gaza Strip. In June 2007 unknown marauders ransacked a Christian book in Gaza during the general disorder following the Hamas take-over of Gaza. Official PA authorities in the Hamas-controlled government often failed to effectively investigate or prosecute religiously driven crimes committed by Muslim extremist vigilante groups in Gaza.
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom
The PA does not officially sponsor interfaith dialogue; however, it sends representatives to meetings on improving interreligious relations and attempts to foster goodwill among religious leaders.
Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination
There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice, primarily between Christians and Muslims. Relations between Jews and non-Jews often were strained as a result of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as Israel's control of access to sites holy to Christians and Muslims. Relations among different branches of Judaism were also strained. Some non-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem have complained of discrimination and intolerance on the part of some Orthodox Jews.
Societal attitudes continued to be a barrier to conversions, especially for Muslims converting to Christianity; however, conversion is not illegal in the Occupied Territories. Muslim-Christian tension was minimal during this reporting period, and the few instances of Muslim-Christian violence usually appeared related to social or interfamily conflicts rather than religious disputes. Both Muslim and Christian Palestinians accused Israeli officials of attempting to foster animosity among Palestinians by exaggerating reports of Muslim-Christian tensions.
The PA has not taken sufficient action to remedy past harassment and intimidation of Christian residents of Bethlehem by the city's Muslim majority. The PA judiciary failed to adjudicate numerous cases of seizures of Christian-owned land in the Bethlehem area by criminal gangs. PA officials appear to have been complicit in property extortion of Palestinian Christian residents, as there were reports of PA security forces and judicial officials colluding with gang members in property extortion schemes. Several attacks against Christians in Bethlehem went unaddressed by the PA, but authorities investigated attacks against Muslims in the same area.
On September 16 and 17, 2006, seven churches in the West Bank and Gaza were attacked in protest against remarks Pope Benedict XVI made about Islam and the Prophet Mohammad. Palestinian leaders across the political spectrum condemned the attacks against churches, calling for unity among all Palestinians--Christian and Muslim.
There were numerous attacks in the Gaza Strip by extremist groups who went by variations of the name "Swords of Right, Swords of Justice, and Swords of Islam." PA police blamed Swords of Right for April 2007 attacks on five internet cafes, two music shops, a Christian bookstore, and the Gaza City American International School. Gunmen reportedly associated with a Salafist Muslim group attacked a Gazan elementary school sports festival sponsored by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), citing the school's mixed-gender activities as contrary to Islamic teachings.
Israeli settler radio stations often depicted Arabs as subhuman and called for Palestinians to be expelled from the West Bank. Right-wing, pro-settler organizations such as Women in Green, and various Hebron-area publications, have published several cartoons that demonize Palestinians. Jewish settlers, acting either alone or in groups, engaged in assaulting Palestinians and destroying Palestinian property. Most instances of violence or property destruction reportedly committed against Palestinians did not result in arrests or convictions.
Interfaith romance was a sensitive issue. Most Christian and Muslim families in the Occupied Territories encouraged their children--especially their daughters--to marry within their respective religious groups. Couples who challenged this societal norm encountered considerable societal and familial opposition.
In March 2005 a dispute over the sale of property in Jerusalem's Old City owned by the Greek Orthodox Church to investors led a Holy Synod meeting in Istanbul to depose the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem, Irineos I, in May 2005. Irineos I claimed that proceedings against him were illegal and refused to resign. While Greece, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority recognized the ousting of Irineos and the appointment of Theophilus III as his successor, the Government of Israel did not. In November 2005 Theophilus appealed this issue to the Israeli High Court, and at the same time a ministerial committee was established to deal with the situation. At the end of the reporting period, the committee had not resolved the issue, and the Government of Israel continued to recognize the deposed Patriarch. The High Court was scheduled to hear the case in November 2007.
In general, established Christian groups did not welcome less-established churches. A small number of proselytizing groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses and some evangelical Christians, encountered opposition to their efforts to obtain recognition, both from Muslims, who opposed their proselytizing, and from Christians, who feared the new arrivals might disrupt the status quo.
Settlers from the Hebron area and the southern West Bank severely beat and threatened several international activists, including individuals from the Christian Peacemaker Teams that escort Palestinian children to school and protect Palestinian families from settler abuse. While the motives of the attackers were not clear, the activists believed that local Israeli police did not actively pursue the suspects and opposed the Christian Peacemaker Teams' presence in Palestinian villages.
There were instances of right-wing Israeli nationalists harassing Muslims. On several occasions, a group known as the Temple Mount Faithful attempted to force their way inside the wall enclosing the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. In addition, the same group periodically attempted to lay a cornerstone for the building of a new Jewish temple that would replace the Islamic Dome of the Rock, an act that Muslims considered provocative and offensive. Members of this organization were allowed access to the Haram a-Sharif/Temple Mount, including access to the Dome of the Rock, during Passover 2007.
The strong correlation between religion, ethnicity, and politics in the Occupied Territories at times imbues the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a religious dimension.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
Prior to the establishment of the Hamas-led PA Governments in January 2006, U.S. officials discussed religious freedom matters with the PA as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. In March 2007 the Hamas-led PA Government resigned and was replaced by a National Unity Government comprised of Hamas, Fatah, and independents. In June 2007, in the aftermath of the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, President Abbas appointed Salam Fayyad as prime minister and Fayyad formed a new government. U.S. officials resumed contact with PA officials near the end of the reporting period. Contact has remained consistent with PA President Abbas and officials in the Office of the PA President and other officials in agencies directly under the authority of the PA President.
The U.S. Consulate regularly meets with religious representatives to ensure their legitimate grievances are reported and addressed. The Consulate maintains a high level of contact with representatives of the Jerusalem Waqf, an Islamic trust and charitable organization that owns and manages large amounts of real estate, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem. U.S. officials had frequent contact with Islamic leaders throughout Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. The Consulate also maintained regular contact with leaders of the Christian, Baha'i, and Jewish communities in Jerusalem and the West Bank. During the reporting period, the Consul General and Consulate officers met with the Greek, Latin, and Armenian Patriarchs, leaders of the Syrian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Coptic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches, as well as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). U.S. officials also met with members of the Baha'i religious group and held frequent consultations with rabbis and other central figures from the Ultra-orthodox and other Jewish communities.
During the reporting period, the Consulate investigated a range of charges, including allegations of damage to places of worship, incitement, and allegations concerning access to holy sites. Consulate officers met with representatives of the Bethlehem Christian community and traveled to the area to investigate charges of mistreatment of Christians by the PA. The Consulate raised the issue of seizure of Christian-owned land in discussions with PA officials.