Freedom of religion in the Palestinian territories

Freedom of religion in the Palestinian territories

Freedom of religion in the Palestinian territories refers to the freedom given individuals in Palestine to observe and practice the religion of their choice. The Palestinian territories include a population of approximately 4.2 million people, with representation of a number of religious groups among Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Religious freedom in the area is impacted by legal and social controls by the occupying Israeli Government as well as those of the Palestinian National Authority (PA). Social influence among the various groups also factors. A 2007 study by the United States Department of State indicated that religious freedom is generally respected by authorities, although discrimination and preferential treatment do exist. It found generally good relations between Christians and Muslims in the area, but high tension between Jewish and non-Jewish populations.

Religious demography

The Gaza Strip has an area of mi2 to km2|143 and a population of 1.3 million. The West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) has an area of mi2 to km2|2238, and its population is 2.4 million persons, not including approximately 250,000 Israelis. East Jerusalem has an area of mi2 to km2|27, and its population is 415,000, including approximately 180,000 Israelis.

Approximately 98% of Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories are Sunni Muslims. The total number of Christians is widely estimated between 40,000 and 200,000 persons, with Christians primarily belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church, but also to the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Catholic Church, various Protestant churches, Syrian Orthodox Church, Armenian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Church, Maronite Church and Ethiopian Orthodox Church.United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, International Religious Freedom Report 2007 - Israel and the Occupied Territories.] Christians are concentrated primarily in the areas of Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bethlehem, but smaller communities exist elsewhere, including in Gaza. According to municipal officials in Bethlehem, since 2002 approximately 2,800 Christians from the Bethlehem area have left the West Bank for other countries. According to Christian leaders, most left for economic and security reasons. Low birth rates among Palestinian Christians and the impact of the separation barrier also contribute to their shrinking numbers. There is also a community of approximately 400 Samaritans located on Mount Gerazim near Nablus in the West Bank.

Adherents of several denominations of evangelical Christians, as well as members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, reside in the West Bank. Foreign missionaries operate in the Occupied Territories, including a small number of evangelical Christian pastors who reportedly sought to convert Muslims to Christianity.


Israeli control

Israel exercises varying degrees of legal, military, and economic control in the Occupied Territories. Israel has no constitution; however, the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty provides for freedom of worship. The Israeli Government generally respects this right in practice in the Occupied Territories, but in 2007 Israel's strict closure policies frequently restricted the ability of Palestinians to reach places of worship and to practice their religions. The ability of Muslims and Christians to worship was also impacted by curfews imposed since October of 2000.

The Israeli Government, citing security concerns, has continued since 2002 to construct a barrier to separate most of the West Bank from Israel, East Jerusalem, and Israeli settlement blocks. Construction of the barrier has involved confiscation of property owned by Palestinians, displacement of Christian and Muslim residents, and tightening of restrictions on movement for non-Jewish communities. There have been reports of land being taken along the barrier's route without compensation under the Absentee Property Statute or military orders. The Israeli Government asserts that it has mechanisms to compensate landowners for all takings, but specific cases document the exceptional difficulty Palestinians had in proving their land ownership to the standards demanded by Israeli courts. Construction of the separation barrier has seriously restricted access by West Bank Muslims and Christians to holy sites in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. The barrier also negatively affects access to schools, healthcare providers, and other humanitarian services provided by religious institutions, although in some cases the Government has made efforts to lessen the impact on religious institutions.

The international community considers Israel's authority in the Occupied Territories to be subject to the 1907 Hague Convention and the 1949 Geneva Convention relating to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War. The Israeli Government considers only the 1907 Hague Convention applicable but maintains that it largely observes the Geneva Convention's humanitarian provisions. The Israeli Government applies Israeli law to East Jerusalem, which it annexed after 1967; however, the U.S. Government considers Jerusalem a permanent status issue to be resolved in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Palestinian control

The PA does not have a constitution; however, the Basic Law provides for religious freedom, and the PA generally respects this right in practice. The Basic Law was approved in 2002 by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and signed by then-President Yasir Arafat. The Basic Law states that Islam is the official religion but also calls for respect and sanctity for other "heavenly" religions (such as Judaism and Christianity) and that the principles of Shari'a (Islamic law) shall be the main source of legislation.

The PA requires Palestinians to declare their religious affiliation on identification papers and strongly enforces this requirement. Either Islamic or Christian ecclesiastical courts must handle all legal matters relating to personal status, if such courts exist for the individual's denomination. In general all matters related to personal status (i.e., inheritance, marriage, and divorce) are handled by such courts, which exist for Muslim and Christians.

The PA does not have a civil marriage law. Legally, members of one religious group mutually may agree to submit a personal status dispute to a different denomination to adjudicate, but in practice this did not occur. Churches that are not officially recognized by the PA must obtain special permission to perform marriages or adjudicate personal status matters; however, in practice nonrecognized churches advised their members to marry (or divorce) abroad.

Churches in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza operate under one of three general categories:
*Churches recognized by the status quo agreements reached under Ottoman rule in the late 19th century. This group includes the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian, Syrian Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox, Episcopal and Lutheran Churches. Their ecclesiastical courts' rulings are considered legally binding on personal status and some property matters.
*Protestant, including evangelical, churches established between the late 19th century and 1967, which, although they exist and operate, are not recognized officially by the PA. This group includes the Assembly of God, Nazarene Church and some Baptist churches. They are permitted free operation and can perform some personal status legal functions.
*A small number of churches that have become active within the last decade and whose legal status is less certain. This includes Jehovah's Witnesses and some evangelical Christian groups. These groups have encountered opposition to their efforts to obtain recognition, both from Muslims, who oppose their proselytizing, and from Christians, who fear the new arrivals may disrupt the status quo. However, these churches generally operate unhindered by the PA.

Since Islam is the official religion of the PA, Islamic institutions and places of worship receive preferential treatment according to the US Department of State. In the West Bank and Gaza, the PA has a Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs, which pays for the construction and maintenance of mosques and the salaries of many Palestinian imams. The Ministry also provides limited financial support to some Christian clergymen and Christian charitable organizations. The PA does not provide financial support to any Jewish institutions or holy sites in the West Bank; these areas are generally under Israeli control. The Government of Jordan maintains responsibility for Waqf institutions in Jerusalem.

The PA requires the teaching of religion in PA schools, with separate courses for Muslim and Christian students. A compulsory curriculum requires the study of Christianity for Christian students and Islam for Muslim students in grades one through six. The PA Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MOEHE) revised its primary and secondary school textbooks. A U.S. Government funded review of Palestinian textbooks concluded that the textbooks did not cross the line into incitement but continued to show elements of imbalance, bias, and inaccuracy. Critics noted the new textbooks often ignored historical Jewish connections to Israel and Jerusalem.

PA President Abbas had informal advisors on Christian affairs. Six seats in the 132-member PLC are reserved for Christians; there are no seats reserved for members of any other faith. The following holy days are considered national holidays: Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Zikra al-Hijra al-Nabawiya, Christmas, and the Birth of the Prophet Muhammad. Christians take Easter as a fully paid religious holiday.

Recent status

In 2007, the United States Department of State released a study of the state of religious freedom in the Palestinian territories as part of its annual study of international religious freedom. According to the report, Christians and Muslims generally enjoyed good relations during the reporting period, although tensions existed. Existing societal tensions between Jews and non-Jews remained high during the reporting period, and continuing violence heightened those tensions. The report concluded that the PA government policy contributed to the generally free practice of religion, although problems persisted related to interfaith-conflicts, including discriminatory and preferential treatment.

Religious access

Among those problems, separation barriers continue to impede access to religious sites. The Israeli Government has attempted to address some of these concerns with eased restriction at checkpoints and crossing terminals.

One particular source of conflict is the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), which contains the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, among the holiest sites in Islam. Jews refer to the same place as the Temple Mount and consider it the location of the ancient Jewish temple. While the East Jerusalem location is under Israeli control, the site is administered by the Islamic Waqf, a Jordanian religious trust with ties to the PA. While Waqf has putative authority over the compound, including who may enter and what they may do, Israeli police control access to the compound, and, according to Waqf officials, are frequently unresponsive to requests to enforce their rules. During Passover in 2007, Israeli police escorted more than 100 activists affiliated with the right-wing group "The Temple Mount Faithful" to enter the compound on two consecutive days, the second day while carrying a model of the Second Temple. Additionally problematic, Waqf officials claim the exclusive right to approve visitation by non-Muslims, while per policy the Israeli Government opposes worship by non-Muslims. However, Waqf officials contended that Israeli police, in contravention of their stated policy and the religious status quo, have allowed members of radical Jewish groups to enter and to worship at the site, including during Passover 2007. Representatives for these Jewish groups claimed successful attempts to pray inside the compound in interviews with the Israeli media. The Waqf interpreted police actions as part of an Israeli policy to incrementally reduce Waqf authority over the site and to give non-Muslims rights of worship in parts of the compound.

Haram al-Sharif has been the site of violent clashes between Israeli police and Muslim worshipers, which Waqf officials alleged were due to the large police contingent kept on the site. At times Muslim worshipers threw stones at police, and police fired tear gas and stun grenades at worshipers. Muslim worshipers also held demonstrations at the site to protest reported right-wing Israeli nationalist plans to damage the mosques or create a Jewish worship area at the site. Israeli security officials and police were generally proactive and effective in dealing with such threats.

Israeli closure policies, too, were found to impact freedom of religion in the study period, with tens of thousands of Palestinians unable to access places of worship in Jerusalem and the West Bank, including during religious holidays. The Israeli Government's closure policy prevented several Palestinian religious leaders, both Muslim and Christian, from reaching their congregations. Muslim and Christian clergy reported problems accessing religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. While the Israeli Government makes special arrangements on religious holidays for both Christians and Muslims, the main complaint remained inadequate free access arrangements in terms of number of permits issued and lack of smooth access.

During the reporting period, Palestinian violence against Israeli settlers prevented some Israelis from reaching Jewish holy sites in the Occupied Territories, such as Joseph's Tomb near Nablus. Since early 2001, following the outbreak of the Intifada, the Israeli Government has prohibited Israeli citizens in unofficial capacities from traveling to the parts of the West Bank under the civil and security control of the PA. This restriction prevented Israeli Arabs from visiting Muslim and Christian holy sites in the West Bank, and it prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting other sites, including an ancient synagogue in Jericho. Visits to the Jericho synagogue have been severely curtailed as a result of disagreements between Israel and the PA over security arrangements.

Settler violence against Palestinians prevented some Palestinians from reaching holy sites in the Occupied Territories. Settlers in Hebron have in previous reporting periods forcibly prevented Muslim muezzins from reaching the al-Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs to sound the call to prayer and have harassed Muslim worshipers in Hebron. Settler harassment of Palestinians in Hebron was a regular occurrence in this reporting period. The Israeli Government did not effectively respond to settler-initiated blocking of Muslim religious sites.

While there were no specific restrictions placed on Palestinians making the Hajj, all Palestinians faced restrictions, such as closures and long waits at Israeli border crossings, which often impeded travel for religious purposes. Palestinians generally were not allowed to use Ben-Gurion Airport. If residents of the Occupied Territories obtained a Saudi Hajj visa, they had to travel by ground to Amman (for West Bankers) or Egypt (for Gazans) and then to Saudi Arabia.

During Jewish holidays the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) closes to Muslims the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the second most important mosque for Muslims in the Occupied Territories after Al Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount. The IDF reopens the al-Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron to Muslim worship for times other than during Jewish holidays. During the reporting period, Israeli officers at times prevented the muezzin at the al-Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron from sounding the call to prayer when Jews were praying in their portion of the shrine.

Religious discrimination

The 2007 study indicated that there were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice, primarily between Christians and Muslims. Relations between Jews and non-Jews often were strained as a result of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as Israel's control of access to sites holy to Christians and Muslims. Relations among different branches of Judaism were also strained. Some non-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem have complained of discrimination and intolerance on the part of some Orthodox Jews.

Societal attitudes continued to be a barrier to interfaith marriage and conversions. Most Christian and Muslim families in the Occupied Territories encouraged their children--especially their daughters--to marry within their respective religious groups. Couples who challenged this societal norm encountered considerable societal and familial opposition. Conversion was particularly challenging for Muslims converting to Christianity.

The report also concluded that the Israeli Government gives preferential treatment to Jewish residents of the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, in a number of ways, including when granting permits for home building and supplying civic services. For example, East Jerusalem's 270,000 Palestinian residents, who represent 33 percent of the municipality's population and pay 30 percent of the taxes, receive only 10 percent of the municipal budget. Palestinians do not recognize Israeli control of East Jerusalem and thus generally choose not to vote in municipal elections and are therefore not represented in the municipal council. According to Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations, the Israeli Government uses a combination of zoning restrictions on building for Palestinians, confiscation of Palestinian lands, and demolition of Palestinian homes to "contain" non-Jewish neighborhoods while simultaneously permitting Jewish settlement in predominantly Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem.

Throughout the reporting period, Israeli authorities required that Christian clergy serving in the West Bank or Jerusalem, except some of those covered by the status quo agreement or who are affiliated with recognized nongovernmental organization (NGOs), leave the country every 90 days to renew their tourist visas, disrupting their work and causing financial difficulties to their sponsoring religious organizations. Catholic and Orthodox priests, nuns, and other religious workers, often from Syria and Lebanon, faced long delays and sometimes were denied applications. The Israeli Government indicated that delays or denials were due to security processing for visas and extensions. The shortage of foreign clergy impeded the functioning of Christian congregations.

In previous reporting periods, the PA failed to halt several cases of seizures of Christian-owned land in the Bethlehem area by criminal gangs. In many cases criminal gangs reportedly used forged land documents to assert ownership of lands belonging to Christians. Police failed to investigate most of these cases. In two cases police arrested and then released the suspects on bail and allowed them to continue occupying the land in question. There were reports this reporting period that PA security forces and judicial officials colluded with members of these gangs to seize land from Christians.

There were also published complaints that Israeli authorities failed to fully investigate incidents of violence against Muslims and Christians and unconfirmed reports of Christians being targeted for extortion or abuse by PA officials which the PA failed to investigate.

The PA has not taken sufficient action to remedy past harassment and intimidation of Christian residents of Bethlehem by the city's Muslim majority. In September 2006, seven churches were attacked in protest against remarks Pope Benedict XVI made about Islam and the Prophet Mohammad. Palestinian leaders across the political spectrum condemned the attacks against churches, calling for unity among all Palestinians--Christian and Muslim. There were numerous other attacks in the Gaza Strip by extremist groups, including against internet cafes, music shops, a Christian bookstore, and the Gaza City American International School. Gunmen reportedly associated with a Salafist Muslim group attacked a Gazan elementary school sports festival sponsored by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), citing the school's mixed-gender activities as contrary to Islamic teachings.

Media coverage

President Abbas took steps to eliminate religious incitement, although some incidents of incitement still occurred. Palestinian media frequently published and broadcast material criticizing the Israeli occupation, including dismissing Jewish connections to Jerusalem and attempting to de-legitimize Jewish history in general. Rhetoric by Palestinian terrorist groups included expressions of anti-Semitism. Some Muslim religious leaders preached sermons on the official PA television station that included expressions of anti-Semitism. Among these, in May of 2005, Sheikh Ibrahim Mudayri preached a sermon in which he compared Jews (in the context of land conflicts) to "a virus, like AIDS." However, PA Minister of Information Nabil Sh'ath called for Mudayris' suspension from the PA religious affairs ministry and his banning from delivering Friday sermons; by the end of the reporting period, Mudayris was no longer delivering Friday sermons. Also, in October 2005, Israeli media quoted PLO Chief Negotiator Sa'eb Erekat's statement that the Iranian President's declaration that Israel should be wiped off the map was "unacceptable."

Israeli settler radio stations often depicted Arabs as subhuman and called for Palestinians to be expelled from the West Bank. Right-wing, pro-settler organizations published several cartoons that demonize Palestinians. Jewish settlers, acting either alone or in groups, engaged in assaulting Palestinians and destroying Palestinian property. Most instances of violence or property destruction reportedly committed against Palestinians did not result in arrests or convictions.

ee also

*Human rights in the Palestinian territories
*Freedom of religion in Israel



* United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. [ International Religious Freedom Report 2007 - Israel and the Occupied Territories] . "This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain."

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