International Religious Freedom Report: The Occupied Territories
(Including the areas subject to the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority)
The Palestinian Authority (PA) does not have a Constitution; however, the Palestinian Basic Law states that Islam is the official religion and the principles of Shari'a (Islamic law) shall be the main source of legislation. The Basic Law also provides for respect and sanctity for other "heavenly" religious groups, and the PA generally respected this right in practice.
There was little change in the status of the PA's respect for religious freedom during the reporting period. President Abbas took steps to eliminate religious incitement, although some incidents of incitement still occurred during the reporting period. There were unconfirmed reports that Christians were targeted for extortion or abuse during the period covered by this report and that the PA did not take action to investigate these injustices, some allegedly perpetrated by PA officials. The Gaza Strip was under the control of Hamas during the reporting period, and the PA was therefore unable to enforce respect for religious freedom or address reports of harassment of religious groups in the Gaza Strip.
Israel exercises varying degrees of legal, military, and economic control in the Occupied Territories, and although Israel has no Constitution, its Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty provides for freedom of worship. The Israeli Government generally respected this right in practice in the Occupied Territories during the reporting period. However, Israel's strict closure policies had the effect of frequently restricting the ability of Palestinians to reach places of worship and to practice their religions. Israeli law also restricted the ability of Israeli Jews to reach places of worship in areas under Palestinian control.
The construction of a separation barrier by the Government of Israel due to security concerns, particularly in and around East Jerusalem, severely limited access to holy sites and seriously impeded the work of religious organizations that provide education, healthcare, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians. Such impediments were not exclusive to religious believers or to religious organizations, and at times the Israeli Government made efforts to lessen the impact on religious communities. The Israeli Government confiscated land belonging to several religious institutions to build its separation barrier. Most Palestinians and religious institutions refused compensation to avoid any perception that accepting compensation would legalize the confiscation of land and building of the barrier. According to the Israeli Government, it sought to build the barrier on public lands where possible, and when private land was used, provided opportunities for compensation. In principle, compensation was offered automatically with every confiscation order related to the barrier; however, owners needed to go through an appeals process. The value of the compensation was not automatic and was subject to appraisal and verification.
Christians and Muslims generally enjoyed good relations, although tensions existed. Societal tensions between Jews and non-Jews remained high during the reporting period, and continuing violence heightened those tensions.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Palestinian Authority as part of its overall policy to promote human rights and focused on some specific instances of crime and attacks targeting particular religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The Gaza Strip has an area of 143 square miles and a population of 1.5 million. The West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) has an area of 2,238 square miles, and its population is 2.6 million persons, not including approximately 250,000 Israelis. East Jerusalem has an area of 27 square miles, and its population is 415,000, including approximately 180,000 Israelis.
Approximately 98 percent of Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories are Sunni Muslims. While estimates vary in the absence of reliable census data, there are about 120,000 Christians in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 Christians in the Gaza Strip. A majority of Christians are Greek Orthodox; the remainder consists of Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Protestants, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Copts, Maronites, and Ethiopian Orthodox denominations. Christians are concentrated primarily in the areas of Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bethlehem, but smaller communities exist elsewhere. According to local Christian leaders, Palestinian Christians emigration has accelerated since 2001, reducing the number of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Most left for security and economic reasons, often related to construction of the barrier; however, low birth rates among Palestinian Christians 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.
A very small number of adherents of several denominations of evangelical Christians, as well as members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, reside in the West Bank.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The PA does not have a Constitution; however, the Basic Law provides for religious freedom, and the PA generally respected this right in practice. The PA sought to protect religious freedom in full and did not tolerate its abuse by either governmental or private actors.
The Basic Law states that "Islam is the official religion in Palestine," and that "respect and sanctity of all other heavenly religious groups shall be maintained." The Basic Law states that the principles of Shari'a are "the main source of legislation."
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; 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; and a small number of churches that have become active within the last decade and whose legal status is less certain.
The first group of churches is governed by nineteenth century status quo agreements reached with Ottoman authorities, which the PA respects, and that specifically established the presence and rights of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian, Syrian Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Coptic, and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches. The Episcopal and Lutheran Churches were added later to this list. The PA, immediately upon its establishment, recognized these churches and their rights. Like Shari'a courts under Islam, these religious groups are permitted to have ecclesiastical courts whose rulings are considered legally binding on personal status and some property matters for members of their religious communities. Civil courts do not adjudicate such matters.
Churches in the second category, which includes the Assembly of God, Nazarene Church, and some Baptist churches, have unwritten understandings with the PA based on the principles of the status quo agreements. They are permitted to operate freely and are able to perform certain personal status legal functions, such as issuing marriage certificates.
The third group of churches consists of a small number of proselytizing churches, including 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.
Established Christian groups in general did not welcome less-established churches. A small number of proselytizing groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses and some evangelical Christians, encountered opposition to their efforts to obtain recognition, both from Muslims, who opposed their proselytizing, and from Christians, who feared the new arrivals might disrupt the status quo.
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 Muslims and Christians.
All legally recognized individual sects are empowered to adjudicate personal status matters, and in practice most did so. 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.
Since Islam is the official religion of the PA, Islamic institutions and places of worship receive preferential treatment. 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 revised its primary and secondary school textbooks. A U.S. government-funded review of Palestinian textbooks undertaken by the Israeli-Palestinian Center for Research and Information concluded that the textbooks did not cross the line into incitement but continued to show elements of imbalance, bias, and inaccuracy. Critics noted, however, that 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 Palestinian Legislative Council 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. The Palestinian Authority maintains a Friday/Saturday weekend, but Christians are allowed to take Sunday off instead of Saturday. Christians take Easter as a fully paid religious holiday.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
PA government policy contributed to the generally free practice of religion, although problems persisted during the reporting period. In East Jerusalem, the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) 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. The location has been, as with all of East Jerusalem, under Israeli control since 1967, when Israel captured the city (East Jerusalem was formally annexed in 1980, and thus Israel applies its laws to East Jerusalem). The Haram al-Sharif is administered, however, by the Islamic Waqf, a Jordanian-funded and administered Muslim religious trust for East Jerusalem with ties to the PA.
The Israeli police have exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance to the compound and limit access to the compound from all entrances. In general, non-Muslim visitors were allowed to enter the compound at the Mughrabi Gate during set visiting hours. The Waqf can object to entrance of particular persons, such as non-Muslim religious groups, or to prohibited activities, such as prayer by non-Muslims or disrespectful clothing or behavior but it lacks effective authority to remove anyone from the site. In practice, the press reported that police sometimes allowed religious radicals (such as Jews seeking to remove the mosques and to rebuild the ancient temple on the site) and immodestly dressed persons to enter and sometimes were not responsive to enforcing the site's rules.
During the Jewish holiday of Sukkot in 2007, Israeli police escorted activists affiliated with "The Temple Mount Faithful" onto the compound carrying a model of the Second Temple. During the reporting period, the police prevented some non-Muslim religious observance on the site. During Passover in 2008, Israeli police prevented Orthodox (Haredi) Jews from sacrificing a lamb at the site.
The Government of Israel, as a matter of stated policy, has opposed worship at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount by non-Muslims since 1967. Israeli police generally did not permit public prayer by non-Muslims and publicly indicated that this policy has not changed in light of the renewed visits of non-Muslims to the compound. 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 worship at the site, including during Sukkot in 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.
Although Israeli activity at the Haram al-Sharif generated criticism from Palestinian political and religious officials, there were few violent clashes during the reporting period between Israeli police and Muslim worshippers on the Haram al-Sharif.
Citing violence and security concerns, the Israeli Government has imposed a broad range of strict closures and curfews throughout the Occupied Territories since October 2000. These restrictions largely continued during the reporting period and resulted in significantly impeded freedom of access to places of worship in the West Bank for Muslims and Christians.
The Israeli Government prevented Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from reaching the Haram al-Sharif by prohibiting their entry into Jerusalem. Restrictions were often placed on entry into the Haram al-Sharif for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, especially males under the age of 45. During Ramadan in 2007, the Government of Israel prohibited males under the age of 50 from entering the Haram al-Sharif due to security concerns.
There were also disputes between the Muslim administrators of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Israeli authorities regarding Israeli restrictions on Waqf attempts to carry out repairs and physical improvements on the compound and its mosques. Israeli authorities halted excavations near the Mughrabi gate which had begun during the previous reporting period. Israeli authorities began a construction approval process for a permanent ramp onto the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.
Personal status law for Palestinians is based on religious law. For Muslim Palestinians, personal status law is derived from Shari'a, while various ecclesiastical courts rule on personal status matters for Christians. A 1995 PA presidential decree stipulated that all laws in effect before the advent of the PA would continue in force until the PA enacted new laws or amended the old ones. Therefore, in the West Bank, which was formerly under Jordanian rule, the Shari'a-based Jordanian Status Law of 1976 governs Muslim women's status (among other matters). Under that law, which includes inheritance and marriage laws, women inherit less than male members of the family. The marriage law allowed men to take more than one wife, although few did so. Prior to marriage, a woman and man may stipulate terms in the marriage contract that govern financial and child custody matters in the event of divorce. Reportedly, few women used this section of the law.
Muslim women generally are discouraged from including divorce arrangements in a marriage contract as a result of social pressure. The PA personal status law states that child custody for children below the age of 18 is given to the mother. Child support and "divorce benefits" are also guaranteed by law. It is also customary that a sizable sum of a deferred dowry is documented in the marriage contract. Personal status law for Muslims in Gaza was based on an Egyptian interpretation of Shari'a during the period covered by this report; however, similar versions of the attendant restrictions on women described above apply there as well.
The Israeli Government, citing security concerns, has continued since 2002 to construct a separation barrier, the route of which had the effect of inhibiting the ability of Palestinians and some Israelis to practice their religion during the reporting period. 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.
Construction of the separation barrier continued in and around East Jerusalem during the reporting period, seriously restricting access by West Bank Muslims and Christians to holy sites in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. The route of the barrier also limited Palestinians' access to schools, healthcare providers, and other humanitarian services provided by religious institutions, although in some cases the Government made efforts to lessen the impact on religious institutions.
The separation barrier made it particularly difficult for Bethlehem-area Christians to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and it made visits to Christian sites in Bethany and Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who live on the Jerusalem side of the barrier, further fragmenting and dividing this small minority community. Foreign pilgrims sometimes experienced difficulty in obtaining access to Christian holy sites in the West Bank because of the barrier and Israeli restrictions on movement in the West Bank. The barrier and checkpoints also impeded the movement of clergy between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries, as well as the movement of congregations between their homes and places of worship.
Israel maintained a new crossing terminal from Jerusalem into Bethlehem for both tourists and non tourists. After initial complaints of long lines, the Israeli Government instituted new screening procedures and agreed to ease access into Bethlehem during the Christmas holiday season, with restrictions eased from December 24 to January 19. The press estimated that 22,000 tourists visited Bethlehem on Christmas Day 2007, an increase of 50 percent over 2006.
The Government of Israel constructed a barrier around Rachel's Tomb, a shrine holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. While Jewish visitors had unimpeded access, Palestinian access to Rachel's Tomb remained severely limited.
The barrier in Bethany blocked the annual Orthodox Palm Sunday procession from Lazarus' Tomb in Bethany to the Old City of Jerusalem, but Israel constructed a crossing terminal to allow foreign pilgrims and Christians living on the West Bank side of the barrier to participate in the procession. The terminal allowed restricted access through the barrier.
Israeli closure policies also had the effect of preventing tens of thousands of Palestinians from reaching places of worship in Jerusalem and the West Bank, including during religious holidays such as Ramadan, Christmas, and Easter. 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 made 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 forcibly prevented Muslim muezzins from reaching the al-Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs to sound the call to prayer and harassed Muslim worshippers in Hebron.
While there were no specific restrictions placed on Palestinians making the Hajj, all Palestinian religious groups faced restrictions in practice, such as closures and long waits at Israeli border crossings, which often impeded travel for religious purposes.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
Many of the national and municipal policies in Jerusalem were designed to limit or diminish the non-Jewish population of Jerusalem. According to Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations, the Israeli Government used 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.
During the reporting period, Israeli authorities limited visas to Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank or Jerusalem to single-entry visas, complicating clergy's travel outside of the area. This disrupted their work and caused 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.
During Jewish holidays the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) closed 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 reopened 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 (Muslim call to prayer) 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.
The Qalqilya branch of the YMCA closed following a firebombing of its office by local Muslims in April 2006. During the reporting period, the YMCA in Qalqilya reopened. Various political factions in the city and representatives of the Municipality condemned the incident and expressed their sympathy to the YMCA.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the Occupied Territories.
Forced Religious Conversions
There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Palestinian media published and broadcast material criticizing the Israeli occupation, including dismissing Jewish connections to Jerusalem. During the reporting period official PA media contained almost no derogatory statements about Israel and Jews. Other Palestinian media not under the control of the PA, particularly those controlled by Hamas, continued to use inflammatory language during the reporting period.
Unofficial Palestinian television broadcasting content sometimes praised suicide bombing and holy war until Palestine is free of Jewish control. Some children's programs aired on unofficial Palestinian television legitimized the killing of Israelis and Jews.
On November 18, 2008, Filastin--a Hamas publication--published an anti-Semitic caricature of Jewish man digging his way underground escaping from a mosque. The shape the man is digging forms a swastika.
On November 27, 2007, Filastin published a caricature that depicted Jews in an anti-Semitic manner.
On August 13, 2007 Al-Hayat al-Jadida published a cartoon that depicted Jews in an anti-Semitic manner.
In a column in the weekly Al Risalah, Sheik Yunus al-Astal, a Hamas legislator and imam, discussed a Quranic verse suggesting, "suffering by fire is the Jews' destiny in this world and the next."
Abuses by Rebel or Foreign Forces or Terrorist Organizations
Terrorists did not systematically attack anyone in the Occupied Territories for religious reasons, although criminal activity that may be linked to terrorism affected Christians in the Gaza Strip. Hamas authorities often failed to effectively investigate or prosecute religiously driven crimes committed by Muslim extremist vigilante groups in Gaza.
Due to the Hamas take-over of the Gaza Strip, the PA was unable to pursue cases of religious discrimination there. Attacks on the Christian community in Gaza increased during the reporting period, and the press reported the Hamas regime did not arrest suspects in these attacks. There were numerous attacks during the reporting period in the Gaza Strip by Muslim extremist groups who went by variations of the name "Swords of Right," "Swords of Justice," and "Swords of Islam." Some Gazan Christians stated that they believed they were under scrutiny for being different from their Muslim neighbors, and they raised concerns that no authority was willing or able to reign in extremist groups. During the reporting period, attackers sought to intimidate Christians into handing over deeds to property.
On May 31, 2008, unidentified militants attacked a guard at the Lighthouse Baptist School in Gaza City and stole a bus from the Holy Book Association. On May 16, 2008, unknown assailants detonated a bomb outside a Christian school in Gaza City causing no injuries. Hamas officials stated they were looking into the incident, and the case remained open at the end of the reporting period.
On February 21, 2008, armed militants forced their way into the Lighthouse Baptist School in Gaza City, assaulted a guard, and vandalized classrooms. On February 15, armed men broke into the YMCA compound in Gaza City and attacked the guards. They set off two bombs, one in the library damaging thousands of books.
On December 8, 2007, masked gunmen attempted but failed to abduct a guard at a church in Gaza City.
On October 6, 2007, Rami Khader Ayyad was abducted and killed by unknown men on his way home from work at the Baptist-affiliated Holy Bible Association in Gaza. His body was found on October 7 in a field in Gaza City. According to Palestinian sources, Ayyad received three death threats and owned a bookstore previously targeted by the Army of Islam. A relative of Ayyad told the press on October 8 that Ayyad was being pressured to convert to Islam and that the Holy Bible Association offices were attacked with an explosive device several months before.
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom
The PA did not officially sponsor interfaith dialogue during the reporting period; however, it sent representatives to meetings on improving interreligious relations and attempts to foster goodwill among religious leaders. In early 2008 the PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs banned several imams from delivering Friday sermons because of the imams' extremist rhetoric.
Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination
The strong correlation between religion, ethnicity, and politics in the Occupied Territories at times imbued the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a religious dimension.There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, primarily between Christians and Muslims during the reporting period. 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 Jews living in Jerusalem and the West Bank were strained based on different interpretations of Judaism, and some non-Orthodox Jews experienced discrimination on the part of some Haredi Jews.
Societal attitudes continued to be a barrier to conversions especially for Muslims converting to Christianity; however, conversion is not illegal in the Occupied Territories. Muslim-Christian tension increased during this reporting period in the Gaza Strip, although some instances of Muslim-Christian violence appeared related to social or interfamily conflicts rather than religious disputes. Both Muslim and Christian Palestinians accused Israeli officials of attempting to foster animosity among Palestinians by exaggerating reports of Muslim-Christian tensions.
The PA did not take sufficient action during the reporting period to remedy past harassment and intimidation of Christian residents of Bethlehem by the city's Muslim majority. The PA judiciary failed to adjudicate numerous cases of seizures of Christian-owned land in the Bethlehem area by criminal gangs. PA officials appeared to have been complicit in property extortion of Palestinian Christian residents, as there were reports of PA security forces and judicial officials colluded with gang members in property extortion schemes. Several attacks against Christians in Bethlehem went unaddressed by the PA, but authorities investigated attacks against Muslims in the same area.
Israeli settler radio stations often depicted Arabs as subhuman and called for Palestinians to be expelled from the West Bank. Some of this rhetoric contained religious references. Pro-settler organizations such as Women in Green, and various Hebron-area publications, published several cartoons that demonized 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 n arrests or convictions during the reporting period.
Palestinian media frequently published and broadcast material that included anti-Semitic content. Rhetoric by Palestinian terrorist groups included expressions of anti-Semitism, as did sermons by some Muslim religious leaders carried on the official PA television.
Interfaith romance was a sensitive issue during the reporting period. 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.
In March 2005 a dispute over the sale of property owned by the Greek Orthodox Church to investors in Jerusalem's Old City led a Holy Synod meeting in Istanbul to depose the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem, Irineos I, in May 2005. In December 2007 the Government of Israel recognized Theophilus III as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.
There were instances of Israeli nationalists harassing Muslims during the period covered by this report. On a few occasions a group known as the Temple Mount Faithful attempted to force their way inside the wall enclosing the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The same group periodically attempted to lay a cornerstone for the building of a new Jewish temple that would replace the Muslim Dome of the Rock, an act that Muslims considered provocative and offensive. Members of this organization were allowed access to the Haram a-Sharif/Temple Mount during Sukkot in 2007.
Harassment of Messianic Jews (people who identify as Jews and follow Jewish traditions but who believe Jesus was the Messiah) by Orthodox Jews increased during the reporting period. Orthodox Jewish groups published announcements in religious newspapers calling Messianic Jews "dangerous" and calling for their expulsion from Israeli areas.
In early May 2008 a group of rabbis called for a boycott of an International Bible Quiz in Jerusalem after discovering that one of the four finalists from Israel was a Messianic Jew.
On March 20, 2008, a 15-year-old boy from the West Bank settlement of Ariel was seriously wounded by shrapnel after a bomb exploded that was concealed in a traditional Purim gift basket in front of his home. The boy's father is a Messianic Jew and was previously the victim of a smear campaign by Orthodox Jews, who hung posters of his face and called him a "dangerous missionary." Local contacts believed the family was attacked because of their religious beliefs, and the family's lawyer reported that the investigation progressed slowly and received very little attention from the police.
On October 23, 2007, suspected arsonists set fire to the Narkis Street Baptist Church in West Jerusalem. The pastor of a Russian Messianic Jewish congregation that meets in the church stated Yad l’Achim , a Haredi anti-missionary organization, threatened him and his congregation over the few years leading up to the attack.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
U.S. officials discussed religious freedom matters with the PA as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
The U.S. consulate regularly met with religious representatives to ensure their legitimate grievances were reported and addressed. The Consulate maintained a high level of contact with representatives of the Jerusalem Waqf, an Islamic trust and charitable organization that owns and manages large amounts of real estate, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem. U.S. officials had frequent contact with Islamic leaders throughout Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. The consulate also maintained regular contact with leaders of the Christian and Jewish communities in Jerusalem and the West Bank. During the reporting period, the Consul General and consulate officers met with the Greek, Latin, and Armenian Patriarchs, leaders of the Syrian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Coptic, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches, as well as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). The consulate also met with rabbis, other central figures from Orthodox religious groups, and other Jewish communities.
During the reporting period, the consulate investigated a range of charges including allegations of damage to places of worship, incitement, and allegations concerning access to holy sites. Consulate officers met with representatives of the Bethlehem Christian community and traveled to the area to investigate charges of mistreatment of Christians by the PA. The consulate raised the issue of seizure of Christian-owned land in discussions with PA officials.
Source: U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report 2008, Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, (September 19, 2008)