Sunday, October 07, 2012

I am a member of the Irish Zionist Action Group, an online community that struggles to make Israel's voice heard in an unusually hostile environment. One of our members recently wrote to Eamon Gilmore, the Tanáiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Foreign Affairs, raising the issue of the persecution of Christians in Gaza and the West Bank. He was sent a dismissive reply that put most of the blame for the situation in Gaza on Israel's blockade and that employed a statement from the Palestine Centre for Human Rights, which was described as 'independent'.

I was prompted by this to write to the Tanáiste myself, and the following letter is what I sent today. I don't expect a positive response, but at least this puts him on notice that there are stronger arguments than his.

Here's my letter:

Version:1.0 StartHTML:0000000149 EndHTML:0000023390 StartFragment:0000000199 EndFragment:0000023356 StartSelection:0000000199 EndSelection:0000023356 FAO Eamon Gilmore T.D., Tánaiste
Mary Connery, Private Secretary

A Chara

I am writing in reference to a letter signed by Mary Connery (and, I assume, on your behalf), sent in reply to a letter from a friend of mine, Barry Williams, who has copied me in to the correspondence. I am writing in my private capacity as an Irish scholar in the fields of Arabic, Persian and Islamic Studies, who has written books and articles in leading journals and contributed to the major reference in this area, The Encyclopedia of Islam. I have also worked as the editor of a major American journal, The Middle East Quarterly. On the strength of this, I believe I may claim some degree of expertise in the present matter.

I have chosen to write because I am troubled by several of the statements in your letter to Mr Williams. You state that he wrote to you ‘in relation to reports of the conversion of two Christians to Islam in Gaza’, and it is this you address in the rest of your reply. Only the middle paragraph of his letter referred to the two conversions. The first paragraph spoke of the plight of Christians in the Middle East in general. And in Iraq and Egypt in particular.

Your objectivity in this matter is called in question by your citation of remarks by the Palestine Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), a lobbying body notorious for its anti-Israel activism, its failure to decry human rights abuses by Palestinians in the Palestinian areas or in Israel, its whitewashing of terrorist actions by Palestinians, its open support for Hamas (denounced as a terrorist organization by the European Union, the US, Canada, Israel and Japan, its false accusation that Israel is an ‘apartheid state’, and its extreme bias against Israel.

You are, of course, perfectly free to refer to them, but surely only after you have made clear their partisanship. And I would have hoped you would like at least one Israeli site as a point of reference, given that Israel continues to have a security presence in Judaea and Samaria (currently called the West Bank), and possibly a neutral site (hard as they are to find).
There is no recognition on the Tanáiste’s part that different types of Christian persecution are frequent and almost ubiquitous in the Palestinian territories, especially Gaza, and that this persecution takes the forms of murder, arson, rape and intimidation

I do take your point that Hiba Abu Da’ud and Ramiz al-Amash, the two Christians referred to by Mr Williams as forced converts to Islam, have declared that they converted of their own free will. I would not choose to exemplify anti-Christian animus by these two converts. But I am surprised that you do not seem to have employed a non-Muslim expert on Islam to provide you with a broader picture of conversion as a theme within Islamic culture. A better understanding of this sensitive subject might help shed further light on the cases of conversion we are familiar with.

The forced conversion of Christians and Jews is rare in Islamic history, since both communities are permitted to keep their lives and property if they agree to submit to Muslim rule and to observe a series of humiliating impositions. Nevertheless, a Muslim may not be punished for the killing of a Jew or a Christian. In the modern period, when contact with Christian powers has become commonplace, anxieties about colonization, imperialism (but not Islamic imperialism) and, of course, inability to cope with the reality of Israel as an advanced and tolerant state have often been deflected onto local communities. After 1948, for example, Jewish communities living in Arab countries were expelled, leaving 900,000 as refugees. This did not happen to the Christian communities, but over the years pressure has been placed on Christians to leave Pakistan, Bangladesh, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere. Do not forget that North Africa and the Levant were wholly Christian regions that fell to Islam in the 7th century and have, over the years, seen Muslims replace Christians almost everywhere. In the modern period, it must be noted that Christians have increased in numbers in only one Middle Eastern state, namely Israel. In all others, numbers have plummetted.

You are right in saying that many Christians leave the West Bank and Gaza for economic reasons, and you identify the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza as a key factor. Of course, the blockade is legal under international law and essential as a means of restricting the smuggling by sea of weapons that may be used by Hamas and affiliate bodies, largely to attack Israel. But Gaza itself is far from being economically deprived. Apart from the large sums Hamas receives in aid (but spends on other things), the strip has some 600 millionaires and several thousand near millionaires. Members of Hamas and others drive luxury cars (smuggled in through tunnels), eat at a couple of first-class restaurants, and buy luxury goods in a large shopping mall. This suggests to me that economic woes may not be the primary factor driving Christians to leave. That it was the rise of militant Islamism more than anything that prompted Christian departures is best illustrated by the fact that the exodus increased during the two intifadas. ‘Between October 2000 and November 2001, 2,766 Palestinian Christians left the West Bank, of which 1,640 left the Bethlehem area and another 880 left Ramallah.’ (Cited Weiner, see below.) The Christian population of Bethlehem only dropped sharply after 1994, when the town came under control of the PA. Prior to that, this had been the ,most highly populated Christian presence anywhere in the Holy Land. U.S. Congressman J.C. Watts attributes the departure of Palestinian Christians to being “driven [out] by the steady persecution of the PA and the realization that they will face worse treatment under a possible future Palestinian state.”

More pertinent than economic considerations – or so it seems to me – is the broad context of intimidation and control that today’s Christians live under in Gaza and the West Bank. I recommend that you read a very helpful report on this written by Justus Reid Weiner, a legal expert who has specialized in this field. He does not gloss over the facts. His book is entitled ‘Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society’, and you can consult it online. (

Weiner and others have identified a range of events that show increasing animosity towards Christians in Palestinian areas. The introduction to Weiner’s treatise refers to the Christian community there and says ‘They are a group whose persecution has gone almost entirely ignored by the international community, the relevant NGOs, and other human rights advocates. Facing widespread corruption in the PA security and police forces, facing growing anarchy and lawlessness in an increasingly xenophobic and restless Muslim populace, the Palestinian Christians have been all but abandoned by the very people whose task it is to protect them. The current massive emigration of Palestinian Christians from the territories can be demonstratively linked to the political empowerment of the Palestinian Authority in those areas.’

Weiner himself dedicates his book to one Ahmad El-Achwal [Ahamd al-Ashwal], a Palestinian Muslim who converted to Christianity, was subjected to imprisonment, torture and intimidation at the hands of the Palestine Authority, and was murdered in 2004. He was a father of eight children, who lived in a refugee camp. His conversion to Christianity was entirely of his own free will.

Achwal’s murder is paralleled by the killing of Rami Khadir Ayyad in 2007. Ayyad was the proprietor of the only Christian bookshop in Gaza, an outlet run by the Palestine Bible Society. Miltants put his shop to the torch, stabbed him to death, and left his body in a street in Gaza City. For years, he had received death threats for his missionary work among his fellow Palestinians. Some months earlier, a bomb caused severe damage to the Bible Society’s main building. To understand this properly, it is vital to bear in mind that, in all Islamic countries, proselytism by any religion but Islam is strictly banned by law, while any attempt to teach one’s religion may end – as it often does – in death. Even religious aid workers are open to the mere suspicion of being abroad in order to spread Christianity – as witness the killing in 2010 of ten medical aid workers in Afghanistan: their murders were justified by the Taliban on a charge of being there to spread Christianity.

In these countries, many Christian or Baha’i missionaries live quiet lives, perhaps until they die, knowing that open proclamation of their faith will inevitably lead to disaster. In Iran, the Baha’is – the country’s largest religious minority – have been hanged, dispossessed, denied permits to work in their professions, and denied entry to higher education. All their holy places, shrines, and cemeteries have been reduced to rubble. This is an example of how an Islamic regime treats non-Muslims in general. Christians in Saudi Arabia will be arrested and punished even for holding prayer sessions or Bible readings in their homes. So severe is the ruling Wahhabi sect that it has destroyed most of the earliest holy sites and cemeteries in Mecca and Medina. Recently in Mali, Islamists have destroyed most of the shrines belonging to the well-known tendency of Islamic mysticism, Sufism. In Pakistan, the blasphemy law has been used repeatedly to accuse Christians of disrespect for Islam or Muhammad or the Qur’an. As you may well know, the most recent example was an 11-year-old girl with Down’s Syndrome. Even here, the penalty called for was death. If a handicapped eleven-year-old child was deemed a suitable object for condign punishment, how much more are adult Christians the potential victims should anyone raise doubts about them. Let me assure you that this is as true in Gaza and the West Bank as it is in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. In most Muslim countries, Jews are not welcome at all.

My point in raising the situation in other countries is simply this, that if Christians have been killed in a relatively tolerant country like Morocco (where I used to teach), it may be presumptuous to imply that Christians in violence-prone areas like Gaza, Judaea and Samaria do not suffer from a similar level of brutality and  intimidation.

Let’s return to the Palestinian territories. According to the World News Daily, ‘The once vibrant Christian communities of Bethlehem and Nazareth, with roots in the “land of Jesus” going back to first century Israel, are rapidly declining in the face of a systematic campaign of persecution conducted by the same Muslim terrorists intent on driving the Jews into the sea.

‘Beatings, sham legal proceedings, property seizures, dismissal and replacement of elected Christian leaders, accusations of selling property to Jews and intimidation by gunmen with links to the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have so reduced Christian populations in the cities of Jesus’ birth and boyhood’ one community leader predicts all Christians will be gone within 15 years.’

The same source states that Bethlehem-area Christian leaders and residents, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity... said they face an atmosphere of regular hostility and intimidation by Muslims.’ Again, ‘Christian leaders said one of the most significant problems facing Christians in Bethlehem is the rampant confiscation of land by Muslim gangs.’

Another source says ‘One Christian Bethlehem resident [said] 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 a good deal of the intimidation comes from gunmen associated with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah organization.’ And again, Islamists march through Nazareth chanting ‘Islam is the only truth’ and ‘Islam shall rule all’. Why wouldn’t Christians feel intimidated? These are men with guns in a place brimming with a culture of death and a crippling need to assert male power through bombing, shooting and the slitting of throats. This may be done mainly to Jews, but Christians are a captive group who serve well enough as a people on whom to vent their anger.

In September 2005, a ‘riotous, murderous’ mob of Muslim extremists attacked the West Bank Christian village of Taiba, chanting ‘Let’s burn the infidels, let’s burn the Crusaders’. Nothing was done to compensate the Christians or to punish their Muslim attackers.

In 2007, Muslim terrorists ransacked a Christian complex in Gaza and did irreparable damage to a Catholic school and a convent.

Lina Ata’ Allah, a receptionist at the Silesian Convent and Church in Bethlehem illustrates the pettiness of pressures on Christians since the PA took control: ‘They spit at us, try to force us to wear headscarves, and in the [Islamic] fasting month of Ramadan that begins in a few days, the Palestinian police even arrest us for smoking or eating on the streets.…The Muslims want to get rid of us, they want us to live like them.’ Another example of this petty diminishing of Christians on the West Bank is the decision of the Voice of Palestine radio station that Christian names must not be included in any obituaries announced on their services. Again in Bethlehem, where there were once numerous Christian shops on Nativity Square, doing profitable business for the tourist trade, since PA control almost all these shops have been replaced by Muslim ones. As Said Ghazali reported in the Palestinian weekly newspaper the Jerusalem Times, ‘Cemeteries have been vandalized in Bethlehem. In Nazareth…property was damaged and Christian symbols were desecrated. Worshippers were prevented from attending religious services. An atmosphere of fear has been created.’ Other Christian holy places have been threatened or attacked.

A particularly vicious anti-Christian activity is the rape of young Christian women. Rapists are seldom punished in Muslim countries, since blame is placed on the victim. To have been raped means, in some cases, that a girl may be killed by her parents or brothers in an honour killing. Otherwise, the girl will be rendered ‘dirty’ and not capable of marrying a Christian man. This is when a Muslim man may offer to marry her, something that is the only solution for such a young woman. After marriage, she will be offered the option of converting to Islam. Such incidents are not uncommon, and you should bear them well in mind when considering instances of forced conversion. In the case that was mentioned, I would doubt very much that the woman and possibly the man were under some form of coercion.

Samir Qumsieh runs Bethlehem Radio al-Mahid. He has registered over 100 attacks on the town’s Christian community just for the two to three years 2003 to 2005. In 1948, Bethlehem had a Christian population of 80%. Since the PA took control in 1995, that figure has dropped to 23% or, according to other sources, 12%. Boundary changes skilfully adjusted by Yassir Arafat when he was given authority in the West Bank in 1994 have been a primary factor in creating this imbalance.The same thing has been true in Nazareth, Jerusalem and elsewhere. To place this in context, wherever Christians have lived in the Middle East, there has been a drastic decline, often from majority status to that of a tiny rump. Numbers have dropped significantly in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq. (For a series of articles on this wider picture, see The Middle East Quarterly, 2001 8:1, here:

In 2005, Christians handed a dossier with full details of Muslim violence and intimidation to Church leaders. But those leaders have done nothing. Instead, they have acquired a reputation for corruption and collusion with the Muslim authorities. Seeking a quiet life without confrontation is an ages-long response to finding oneself beneath the boot of powerful opponents, and while it may in some measure be excused, it has not helped Christians under Hamas or PA rule to expose their plight to the world, including Ireland. Likewise, when Christians have made direct approaches to PA president Mahmoud ‘Abbas, their pleas for help have gone unanswered.

If you are still sceptical about the problem, may I refer you to as statement by the senior Franciscan cleric in Jerusalem, Father Pierbattista Pizzbella: ‘The problem exists. The Christian community has always suffered in the last few years because we are a minority. Many have the temptation to leave, so the community is shrinking.’ And they leave because Muslims intimidate them. Economic reasons play a part, as you suggest, but they are less important than the stimulus of fear. If economic concerns alone that forced Christians to leave, one has to ask why the same pressures did not to a great extent apply to the Muslim part of the population. In the West Bank, the population growth rate is over two percent, with a net migration rate of zero. Christians leave, few Muslims do so. I have to conclude that special factors pertain in the Christian case, and I do not find it hard to believe that these factors are a manifestation of the Christian persecution to which I have already alluded. It should be noted that there were no reports of Christian persecution in the West Bank or Gaza while Israel was in control, but that intimidation began after Israel handed the West Bank to Fatah in 1995 and then evacuated Gaza in its entirety in 2005, leaving first Fatah then the terrorist organization Hamas to run the area.

American Congressmen and Senators have spoken openly about the persecution of Christians under the PA and Hamas. There is nothing secret about it. Yet you present a concocted picture in which all seems rosy in this area. You write that ‘Christians are an integral and long established part of the Palestinian community’. When the issue of a Christian exodus is raised, you write that ‘the overwhelming majority of the decrease is due to economic migration as a result of the Israeli blockade of Gaza rather than any other factor’. Will you, in the light of all the evidence I have given you here repeat those manifest untruths to my face? Your e-mail to Mr Williams presents a distorted image of the region, making Palestinian society seem rose-tinted and the only real fault is the Israeli blockade of a terrorist entity that has been recognized as that by several countries who are Ireland’s allies.

Many decades ago, the Palestinians (who were then merely Arabs) embarked on a policy to kill as many Jews as possible, and to that end they have fought three major wars, carried out almost daily terrorist activity against civilians, and used two intifadatan to kill more Jews in more places. Is it surprising that such people, who constitute some of the worst in any society, primarily through their use of the suicide bomber, might not hold back from persecuting or killing Christians?

You write at the start of your letter, ‘Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is a fundamental human right protected in international human rights law, and the Tanáiste strongly believes that individuals should never be intimidated or suffer any form of prejudice or persecution as a result of their religious beliefs.’ You end by saying ‘Ireland will continue to raise issues concerning freedom of religion in all multilateral for a to ensure that all individuals have the right to practice their faith.’

No doubt you and the Tanáiste believe all that in the abstract, but I see none of it brought to reality. The Baha’is of Iran have for decades now been unable to practise their faith openly and are persecuted on its account. Christians in Saudi Arabia face imprisonment just for praying together. Christians in Pakistan are arrested and sometimes killed. Coptic Christians in Egypt are subjected to all forms of abuse and not even allowed to repair churches. And across the Palestinian regions, as I have set out briefly in this letter, Christians of all types are harassed, killed and raped. Just because they are Christians. In Hebron on the West Bank, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the second holiest sanctuary of the Jewish people, has been taken by Muslims and turned for the most part into a mosque.

What have the Tanáiste or the Taoiseach or the Dáil done to alleviate the sufferings of the groups I have mentioned, and others across the Muslim world? Have you written little letters reassuring complainants that all is really well and that the persecutors are sweet and loving folk who deserve our understanding? Perhaps you use highly biased sources like the Palestine Centre for Human Rights.

Something is wrong. I would not have expected to read a letter like the one you sent to Barry Williams, coming from a holder of a high state office in a Western country ostensibly dedicated to democracy, freedom, and human rights. You must do something about this. You must find broader and more reliable sources of information on all these matters. Whatever the advantages of trade with Islamic states, I plead with you not to sell out to their demands to place Islam on top of everything they say and do, and their unconcealed insistence on keeping non-Muslims in their place or in no place at all.

I hope I have made my argument clearly enough. Naturally, I am willing to answer any questions you may have or to add to any point that has been left unclear. But I do hope to receive an answer that involves a reconsideration of your reply in the light of the evidence I have presented, that things are neither happy nor promising under PA and Hamas rule, and that it may not be long before towns like Nazareth and Bethlehem will be emptied of Christians and the churches and holy places there turned into mosques, a fate that has befallen numerous important churches from the beginning of Islam until now.

Is mise le meas

Dr. Denis MacEoin