Bethlehem’s skyline

JERUSALEM – A Molotov cocktail and gunshots targeted the car of Bethlehem’s Christian mayor yesterday, as local leaders there quietly fingered Islamists for attempting to intimidate Christians in one of the most important cities for Christianity.

“It’s in retaliation for the Passover festivities we held two weeks ago,” claimed one Bethlehem Christian leader, speaking to WND on condition of anonymity out of fear for his life.

“We had very loud and public Christian displays,” he said. “Now they (Islamists) want to send us a message not to get too comfortable.”

Mayor Victor Batarsa’s car was hit while it was parked in front of his home in the central shopping area of Bethlehem. Batarsa said he was not home at the time of the attack.

A security source in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah organization, speaking to WND, blamed Islamists in Bethlehem connected to Fatah’s rival, the Hamas terrorist organization.

Christians previously comprised the vast majority of the city, but most fled after PA Leader Yasser Arafat took control of the territory. Still, according to the city’s bylaws, Bethlehem’s mayor must be a Christian.

WND previously reported al-Qaida training videos and literature were distributed to Palestinians in Bethlehem, prompting some leaders there to express deep concern about the growing trend of what they said was Islamic extremism and Christian intimidation.

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.

Muslims intimidate, persecute Christians

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,” Qumsiyeh said. “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.”

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?” asked 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,” he said. “Also my wife was outside at the time. My home has a big gas line that could have exploded.”

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,” he said.

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

Bethlehem’s population was more than 80 percent Christian when Israel was founded in 1948, but the Christians have 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.

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.

Islamist organizations have also been carrying out attacks against Christian and non-Muslim establishments in other Palestinian cities.

In 2007, 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.

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

Just before that, 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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