PALESTINIANS: HOUSES TORCHED AS MUSLIM-CHRISTIAN TENSIONS FLARE
<------ Bethlehem at Christmas
Bethlehem, (AKI) - Samir Qumsieh is an angry man. For him and fellow Palestinian Christians last Sunday's attack in Taybeh, northeast of Ramallah - eight houses petrol-bombed, people beaten up and cars vandalised - is the latest in a series of Muslim assaults. This time the culprits have been identified - 15 Muslim youths from the neighbouring West Bank village of Dir Jarir - but after spending several hours in police detention they were set free. The reason for the Palestinian authorities' decision: "To cool things down, we were told" says Qumsieh.
Qumsieh, who runs the only Christian private TV channel in the West Bank, the Bethlehem-based al-Mahed, or "The Nativity" explained in an interview with Adnkronos International (AKI) the sequence of events that led to Sunday's incident.
"The youths are relatives of a Dir Jarir woman killed last Thursday by her own Muslim family - a "honour killing" to punish her for the shame of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy," he says.
Seeking more revenge, the family then organised an expedition against the man they allege was responsible for making the woman pregnant: the Christian owner of a Taybeh tailoring workshop where she worked. Palestinian Authority police forces arrived in time to prevent the man's lynching, but not the torchings of the houses, and the destruction of the cars
The Taybeh villagers, who are mostly Christian, in part accept that the police were delayed because they had to wait for permission from the Israeli military to leave Ramallah and enter the village. But to them the fact that the Muslim aggressors have been released while the Christian tailor-shop owner is still being held, at best symbolises the PA's indifference to the plight of Palestinian Christians, at worst shows it is taking sides against them.
"Many cases like this are happening and the time has come for Abu Maazen (PA president Mahmoud Abbas) to take a decisive stand," says Qumsieh, who together with other prominent Christian Palestinians wrote a letter to the PA president in February listing their grievances.
"We have had no reply and our anger and our fear are growing," he says.
Christians, who represent less than two percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, are facing what Qumsieh calls a campaign of "religious racism." Since 2003 he has registered more than 100 attacks against the community including murders, rapes and extortion. "Some people lay the blame on Islamic extremists, but this is only part of the truth."
The most common attacks are perpetrated by what he calls "the Muslim land mafia," it involves targeting Christian land or homeowners and threatening them, with the aim of forcing them off their property. Qumsieh believes PA officials are involved in this practice. "It was the situation under [former PA president] Arafat and it is the situation under Abu Maazen," he says.
Christian Palestinians, while a tiny minority, consider themselves an integral part of the Palestian population and of a future Palestinian state, says Qumsieh, who believes his TV station is playing a vital role in reaching out across the religious divide.
Founded in 1996 al-Mahed, located near Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, is the only TV station in the Arab world that transmits Christian Masses and services - for Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics and several other denominations. "But we also broadcast Muslim prayers on Friday for Muslim worshippers who cannot attend mosque," explains Qumsieh, who says that some other Islamic programmes are in the pipeline.
During the Israeli army's siege of the Church of the Nativity in 2000, when Palestinian militants sought refuge in the building, al-Mahed was the only local station to cover the six-week long standoff. It has withstood Israeli incursions and Yasser Arafat even pulled the plug on the station for twenty days when it criticised the Palestinian leader's autocratic policies.
"But our biggest enemy is a shortage of funds. We need support to continue the work we are doing, yet no one seems interested," Qumsieh notes.