WASHINGTON – When Saeed and Nasser Salamah, Arab brothers and residents of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, converted from Islam to Christianity, they didn’t know it would cost them their homes, their friends – possibly even their lives.

Saeed Salamah was an active member of Fatah, Arafat’s own party, when he converted. For this “crime” of conscience, he was imprisoned and tortured, according to a French Christian group and the Religious Freedom Council.

The brothers decided their only hope was to escape to Israel – and then, perhaps, to France or some other Western nation where they could practice their new faith freely.

With one of them facing a death sentence, they escaped from a Palestinian Authority jail and made it to Israel.

But their problems are far from over.

Israel has only been willing to issue them 30-day permits. They are now facing deportation back to the Palestinian Authority – and, perhaps, death.

Fatah has accused both brothers of being Israeli collaborators. That charge often results in public lynching in the Palestinian Authority. The brothers now fear a sister may have been murdered since they arrived in Israel. She has vanished without a trace, they say.

Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., and the Religious Freedom Coalition are calling upon Israel to extend asylum – at least long enough so arrangements for emigration to Europe or elsewhere can be made.

Davis, who sits on the House International Relations Committee and the Subcommittee on the Middle East, has formally asked the Israeli government through U.S. Ambassador Daniel Ayalon to assist the Salamahs.

“I request that you contact your appropriate officials in the Israeli government on behalf of these two brothers and recommend that they be granted asylum in your country,” Davis’ letter to Ayalon said. “I will conclude by noting that your nation remains in my thoughts and prayers due to the countless violent attacks your countrymen have endured in the past months.”

At least 200 Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel are being held in Palestinian Authority prisons, according to Arab sources.

Most were arrested by PA security forces in the Gaza Strip over the past two years, the sources said. Dozens of suspected Palestinian collaborators have been killed since the beginning of a Palestinian uprising in September 2000.

In a three-month period last summer, some 14 Palestinians were lynched in the town of Tulkarm alone – all on charges of collaboration with Israel.

More than 60 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been killed since the beginning of the intifada for allegedly helping Israel’s Shin Bet security service. The PA executed at least five others for the same reason.

Palestinian human-rights groups and families of the detainees have complained that many were tortured during interrogation and some were forced to sign confessions.

William Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition, has worked to expose anti-Christian persecution within the Palestinian Authority. That bigotry, he says, is often disguised by charges of collaboration with Israel.

“In that part of the world, your religion is on your birth certificate,” he said. “In the case of Muslims renouncing their birth religion of Islam can result in banishment or violence.”

Murray said one of the brothers has been tortured by the PA police so severely that he bears the permanent scars of that ordeal.

“We have an opportunity to reach out and help Palestinians who don’t hate America, and it is an opportunity we should not ignore,” Murray said.

He added: “There is widespread knowledge of the persecution of Jews in Islamic areas of the world, but little attention is paid to the price that is paid by Muslims who convert to Christianity. That price is often death.”

Murray concluded, “The Religious Freedom Coalition will work vigorously to bring these brothers and their families to safety, either in Israel or another Western nation.”

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