The Plight of Palestine’s Religious Minorities

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By Thursday, March 5, 2015

Last year, the Palestinian Authority made a promise to respect “the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, electoral rights and rights to due process and a fair trial” by signing the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The PA has also signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Arab Charter on Human Rights.

All of these documents guarantee freedom of religion in some way.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that religious minorities under the PA enjoy freedom. In fact, according to a new report from the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, these minorities face many “unreported, often censored, violations by Palestinian governing authorities against Palestinians.” The JIJ report is an effort to provide a voice for those marginalized Palestinians — mostly Christians — who cannot speak for themselves.

 

The United Nations Human Rights Committee defines the freedom of religion as the right to have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice. Religious freedom does not merely guarantee an individual’s right to practice the religion of his or her choosing; it also guarantees him freedom from religion. While on paper this freedom is theoretically available to everyone in the world, the Pew Research Center claims that “nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with high restrictions on religion.”

The JIJ report suggests that “Palestine” is one such (aspiring) country.

While acknowledging the “extreme complexity” of the religious situation in the West Bank and Gaza, JIJ calls for Palestinian leaders to be held accountable for the religious freedom violations they have committed against their own people.

The Palestinian Basic Law currently functions as Palestine’s temporary constitution and says that, while Islam is the official Palestinian religion, “respect for the sanctity of all other divine religions shall be maintained.” But that same document allows for legislation that contradicts the freedom of religion by specifying that Shari’a is the country’s main source of legislation.

To ensure that its citizens have complete freedom of religion, a country must “allow for the freedom of religious minorities not to participate in the religious customs of other religions,”must not restrict religious practice or ritual, and must not attempt to impose a dominant religious belief or lifestyle onto its citizens.

JIJ points to a common thread of either implied or explicit antagonism toward Palestine’s religious minorities that is woven through many of the country’s laws.

For example, residents of the West Bank are subject to hard labor for life for selling land to an “enemy state or one of its subjects” (referring to Jews and sometimes Christians). Most Palestinians take this to mean that they are forbidden to sell property to any non-Muslim. JIJ calls this “religious discrimination against the potential buyers who are obstructed from obtaining property due to the fears of selling it to them,” a violation of the ICCPR’s Article 17, which says that “everyone has the right to own property.”

The discussion of freedom of religion flows over into personal status laws because, in the Palestinian territories, these laws depend on a person’s religion. For example, Palestinian marriages are invalid if they are made between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man; in the West Bank, that invalidity extends to marriages between a Muslim man and a Jewish or Christian woman. In addition, mothers are able to gain custody of their children if, and only if, they are not apostates of Islam — i.e., converts to another religion.

Children of “invalid” marriages are considered born out of wedlock and cannot be registered or obtain identification, a violation of the ICCPR’s Article 16 which says that “everyone shall have the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.”

Muslims – or Muslim converts – in the territories have full rights to citizenship, but the same cannot be said of those who choose to leave Islam. Although the letter of the Palestine law allows for the adoption or rejection of Islam, converts to another religion end up losing all social and religious protection and can face the loss of property, the nullification of marriage and, ultimately, the loss of their lives via the death penalty. In addition, those who identify as secular or atheistic often hide their non-beliefs under a religious façade to avoid arrest.

JIJ also accuses the PA of violating the inherent right to life, which is also promised in the ICCPR. This treaty allowed the death penalty to be imposed for only the “most serious of crimes,” but JIJ points out the PA’s consideration of conversion from Islam or the sale of land to a non-believer “serious crimes” punishable by death – a belief the rest of the civilized world does not share.

The PA does not always publicly discriminate and persecute Christians, but only intervenes on behalf of Christians selectively or not all, especially when it means taking a stance against a Muslim. That being said, the situation for Christians in the West Bank is far better than for Christians in Gaza where they are “treated as second-class citizens.”

While registered Christians certainly do not have an easy life under Palestinian governance, JIJ says that converts from Islam to Christianity are in an even worse situation. The PA and Palestinian society forbids conversion, forcing converts to live secret lives pretending to be Muslim to avoid arrest – or worse. Christian churches are often afraid to allow converts in their midst for fear of attack, and the PA does not involve itself when converts are hurt or killed. According to JIJ, “evangelizing to Muslims is not accepted.”

Jews are also ostracized in the land that would be Palestine. While those Jews living in the West Bank are not legally subject to the PA’s control, they are still affected by extreme prejudice. In Gaza, they are forbidden. The Hamas Charter, Article 7, says that, “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight and kill the Jews.” Many Palestinian officials have expressed their concern about Jews’ assimilating into Palestinian culture and have argued against allowing Israeli settlers to hold dual nationality in the event of a two-state solution.

 

After systematically looking into dozens of Palestinian laws, citing a multitude of examples of religious persecution, and interviewing many Palestinians on the ground, JIJ concludes that, despite the Palestine’s professed promise of religious freedom, existing laws (and the failure to enforce them) do not protect religious minorities.

Many Palestinian laws directly contradict both the PABL and the ICCPR. JIJ calls on the PA to “protect and respect” its international obligations and uphold the freedom of religion.

JIJ believes that the Palestinian Authority does religious minorities a disservice by adhering to outdated and discriminatory practices and failing to give its own citizens the freedoms that they deserve. JIJ asks that the international community “hold the Palestinian leadership accountable for respecting and protecting the rights of those under its governance,” and said that facts should replace “distorted misunderstandings of the regional situation.”

For more information about JIJ, visit their website at www.jij.org.

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