BETHLEHEM – Al-Qaida training videos and literature were recently distributed to Palestinians in Bethlehem, according to local sources speaking to WND.

The information prompted some leaders there to express deep concern about the growing trend of what they said was Islamic extremism and Christian intimidation in one of the holiest cities for Christianity.

According to local sources, the al-Qaida materials were mass produced and were provided to young Muslim men in Bethlehem. The sources didn’t know where the materials originated. Among the materials distributed was an al-Qaida video – screened by WND – in which the global jihad group teaches the viewer how to behead “infidels” and kidnap civilians and soldiers.

Palestinian security officials in Bethlehem said some al-Qaida-like materials were recently confiscated from local Palestinians, but they fiercely denied the presence of al-Qaida in Bethlehem.

“This is the kind of stuff we see all the time in the Middle East. It’s run-of-the-mill al-Qaida material downloaded from the Internet and given out by some civilian sympathizers,” said a Palestinian security official. “It’s not a big deal.”

“There is absolutely no al-Qaida anywhere in Bethlehem,” the official said.

Ayman Abu Eita, head in Beit Sahour of Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah organization, also strongly denied knowledge of al-Qaida or global jihad-linked groups in Bethlehem. Beit Sahour is a small Bethlehem satellite town.

Leaders of Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror groups in Bethlehem also told WND they were not aware of any al-Qaida elements in Bethlehem.

Local Christian leaders speaking to WND said they cannot confirm any al-Qaida groups present in Bethlehem, but stated they are concerned by what they said was growing radicalization and militancy among Palestinian groups who reportedly have been targeting Christians in the city.

Christian leaders, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said they face an atmosphere of regular hostility and intimidation by Muslims. 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 recently ransacked and Christian homes attacked.

The 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 where 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.

“It is a regular phenomenon in Bethlehem. They go to a poor Christian person with a forged power of attorney document, 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 said.

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.

A February 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.

Bethlehem Christian leaders noted they cannot complain to local authorities since the city’s security forces are controlled by the PA.

“What authorities?” said one Christian leader, rhetorically. “You mean the security forces controlled by the Palestinian government, which is allowing this to happen?”

Qumsiyeh commented, “The gangs hide behind the security forces, and one cannot petition the court system. That takes years and many times a verdict isn’t even reached.”

Qumsiyeh himself has been targeted by local militias. Earlier this year, after speaking out publicly against anti-Christian violence, Qumsiyeh says his house was attacked with Molotov cocktails.

“It was an absolute miracle I wasn’t killed. Also my wife was outside at the time. My home has a big gas line that could have exploded,” he said.

Fatah’s Abu Eita claimed Bethlehem’s Christians were making up stories about persecution.

“Most of those Christians who left Bethlehem gave the impression of persecution just as an excuse to justify why they left Bethlehem.”

Eita claimed a security “wall” that Israel constructed in 2002, which he said “circles the city,” strangled Bethlehem’s economy and prompted the mass fleeing of Christians.

But Israel did not build a wall that encircles Bethlehem. It built a fence only where the Bethlehem area interfaces with Jerusalem. A tiny segment of the barrier facing a major Israeli roadway is a concrete wall, which Israel says is meant to prevent gunmen from shooting at Israeli motorists. The barrier was built after repeated terror attacks launched from Bethlehem.

The vast majority Bethlehem’s Christian emigration occurred between 1995 and 2001, before Israel’s barrier was constructed.

Bethlehem consisted of upwards of 80 percent Christians when Israel was founded in 1948, but the Christian population has declined to about 23 percent with a large majority of Muslims. The 23 percent Christian 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 per year.

Israel controlled Bethlehem until 1995, when it signed the territory over to the PA as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords. Reports of Christian intimidation by Muslims immediately began to surface after the PA gained control.

Then-PA President Yasser Arafat unilaterally fired the city’s Christian politicians and replaced them with Muslims. 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.

Arafat also converted a Greek Orthodox monastery next to the Church of Nativity into his official Bethlehem residence. The Nativity church is believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus.

Israeli security officials said they did not have information about the presence of al-Qaida-linked groups in Bethlehem, but pointed to what they called the “model” of anti-Christian attacks in territory evacuated by Israel.

Since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, multiple groups claiming to represent al-Qaida have taken credit for attacks and have released statements and videos.

Islamist organizations expressing sympathy for al-Qaida also have been carrying out attacks in Gaza against Christian and non-Muslim establishments.

Last week, one person was killed when attackers fired at a United Nations school in Gaza during a co-ed children’s event. Attackers announced on loudspeakers they were angry over the participation of boys and girls in a sports event.

Last month, Palestinians bombed a Christian book store funded by American Protestants that exclusively sold Christian books. Two nearby Internet cafes also were bombed.

In September, Palestinian gunmen attacked and set fire to the Young Men’s Christian Association headquarters in Qalqiliya, a large West Bank city controlled by Hamas. Qalqiliya was previously administered by Israel, but was handed to the Palestinian Authority as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Qumsiyeh told WND if current trends continue, there may be no Christians left in Bethlehem in 15 years. He said he appealed to U.S. Christian leaders to help initiate housing projects and find ways to fortify and strengthen Bethlehem’s Christian population, but that little assistance was offered.

“The way things are, soon there will not be a single Christian living in the land of Jesus,” he said.

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