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Reports on Religious Freedom: Palestinian Territories


Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem during the 1967 War. Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) now administer the West Bank and Gaza Strip to varying extents. The PA does not have a constitution; however, the Basic Law passed in 2002 provides for freedom of religion, and the PA generally respects this right in practice. The Basic Law names Islam as the official religion, but also calls for "respect and sanctity" for other religions.

Israel exercises varying degrees of legal control in the West Bank. Israel has no constitution; however, Israeli law provides for freedom of worship, and the Israeli Government generally respects this right in practice. The Israeli Government's strict closure policies, enacted due to security concerns or at the behest of settlers demanding exclusive use of roads located near Palestinian towns, restricted the ability of Palestinians to reach places of worship and practice their religions.

There was no change in the status of the PA's respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There generally are amicable relations between Christians and Muslims. Societal attitudes are a barrier to conversions from Islam. Relations between Jews and non-Jews, as well as among the different branches of Judaism, are sometimes strained. Societal tensions between Jews and non-Jews exist primarily as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict; such tensions remained high during the period covered by this report. The violence that has occurred since the outbreak of the Intifada in October 2000 has significantly curtailed religious practice in the occupied territories, including damaging severely places of worship and religious shrines.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the PA in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The occupied territories are composed of the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. The Gaza Strip covers an area of 143 square miles, and its population is 1,274,868 persons. The West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) covers an area of 2,238 square miles, and its population is 2,237,194 persons. East Jerusalem covers an area of 27 square miles and its population is approximately 390,000 persons.

The vast majority (98.4 percent) of the Palestinian residents of the occupied territories are Sunni Muslims. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there are 39,560 Palestinian Christians living in the territories. However, according to the sum of estimates provided by individual Christian denominations, the total number of Christians is approximately 200,000. A majority of Christians are Greek Orthodox (approximately 120,000), and there also are a significant number of Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics (approximately 50,000 total), Protestants, Syriacs, Armenians, Copts, Maronites, and Ethiopian Orthodox. In general Christians are concentrated in the areas of Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bethlehem. In 2002 approximately 500 Christians from Bethlehem left the occupied territories for other countries. According to Christian leaders, most of the Christians left their homes for economic and security reasons and not due to religious discrimination. Jewish Israeli settlers reside in the West Bank (approximately 180,000), Gaza (approximately 6,500), and Jerusalem (approximately 200,000). There is a community of approximately 550 Samaritans (an ancient offshoot of Judaism) located on Mount Gerazim near Nablus in the West Bank.

Several evangelical Christian as well as Jehovah's Witnesses' missionary groups operate in the West Bank.

Foreign missionaries operate in the occupied territories including a small number of evangelical Christian pastors who seek to convert Muslims to Christianity. While they maintain a generally low profile, the PA is aware of their activities and generally does not restrict them.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Palestinian Authority has no constitution; however, the 2002 Basic Law provides for religious freedom and the PA generally respects this right in practice. The PA has not adopted legislation regarding religious freedom; however, both the Basic Law and the draft Constitution address religion. The Basic Law states that "Islam is the official religion in Palestine," and that "respect and sanctity of all other heavenly religions (i.e., Judaism and Christianity) shall be maintained." In 2002, the Basic Law was approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and signed by PA President Yasir Arafat The March 2003 version of a draft constitution states that "Islam is the official religion of the State, and "Christianity and all other monotheistic religions shall be equally revered and respected." It is unclear whether the injunction to "respect" other religions would translate into an effective legal protection of religious freedom. The Basic Law states that the principles of Shari'a (Islamic law) are "the main source of legislation," while the draft constitution states that Shari'a is "a major source of legislation."

Churches in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza may be subdivided into three general categories: Churches recognized by the status quo agreements reached under Ottoman rule in the late 19th century; Protestant and evangelical churches that were established between the late 19th century and 1967, which, although they exist and practice their faith, are not recognized officially by the PA; and a small number of churches that became active within the last decade, whose legal status is more tenuous.

The first group of churches is governed by the 19th century status quo agreements, which the PA respects and which 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 the list. The PA accepted these churches and their rights immediately. Like Shari'a courts under Islam, these religious groups are permitted to have ecclesiastical courts whose rulings are considered legally binding on personal status issues and some land issues. Civil courts do not adjudicate on such matters.

According to the PA, no other churches have applied for official recognition. However, the second group of churches, which includes the Assembly of God, Nazarene Church, and some Baptist churches, has 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 in their efforts to obtain recognition, both from Muslims, who oppose their proselytizing, and Christians, who fear that the new arrivals may disrupt the status quo. These churches generally operate unhindered. At least one of these churches deferred plans to request official recognition from the PA after the outbreak of the Intifada in October 2000.

In practice, the PA requires Palestinians to be affiliated with a religion. Religion must be declared on identification papers, and all personal status legal matters must be handled in either Shari'a or Christian ecclesiastical courts.

Since Islam is the official religion of the Palestinian Authority, Islamic institutions and places of worship receive preferential treatment. The PA has a Ministry of Waqf and Religious Affairs, which pays for the construction and maintenance of mosques and the salaries of many Palestinian imams. The Ministry also provides some Christian clergymen and Christian charitable organizations with limited financial support. The PA does not provide financial support to any Jewish institutions or holy sites in the Occupied Territories; however, it paid for the refurbishment of Joseph's Tomb--a shrine in Nablus holy to both Jews and Muslims--after Palestinian demonstrators damaged it in 2000. In 2002 Palestinian militants again damaged Joseph's Tomb, and the PA has yet to repair the shrine.

The PA requires that religion be taught in PA schools. There are separate courses for Muslim and Christian students and there is a compulsory curriculum that requires the study of Christianity for Christian students in grades one through 6.

The PA does not officially sponsor interfaith dialog; however, it attempts to foster goodwill among religious leaders. The PA makes a strong effort to maintain good relations with the Christian community, and there is no pattern of PA harassment of Christians. Within the Ministry of Religious Affairs, there is a portfolio responsible for Christian affairs, and PA Chairman Yasir Arafat has an advisor on Christian affairs. Six Christians and 1 Samaritan sit on the 88-member PLC in seats set aside for representatives of these religions.

The Palestinian Authority observes several religious holidays, including, 'Eid al-Fitr, 'Eid al-Adha, Zikra al-Hijra al-Nabawiya, and the Prophet Muhammed's birthday. Christians also may observe the holidays of Christmas and Easter.

Israel has no constitution; however, the law provides for freedom of worship, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

The Israeli Government gives preferential treatment to Jewish residents of the occupied territories and East Jerusalem in the areas of permits for home building and civic services. For example, Arab residents of Jerusalem pay the same taxes as Jewish residents; however, Arab residents receive significantly fewer municipal services than Jewish residents. Many of the national and municipal policies enacted in Jerusalem are designed to limit or diminish the non-Jewish population of Jerusalem. 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.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Since the start of the Intifada, officials in the Jerusalem Waqf prohibited non-Muslims from entering the sanctuary of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, the third holiest shrine in Islam and the holiest site in Judaism. Waqf officials claimed that this was a temporary closure implemented because they could not justify allowing non-Muslims to visit the Haram al-Sharif at a time when Palestinian Muslims from the occupied territories were prevented from visiting and worshiping there.

However, in June 2003, armed Israeli police officers began escorting groups of Christian and Jewish tourists into the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount against the wishes of the Waqf authorities. Israeli police spokesmen indicated that the visits were an effort by the Government of Israel to re-assert the right of non-Muslims to visit the shrine. Although the situation remained fluid, these visits continued until the end of the reporting period.

A 1995 Israeli High Court of Justice ruling guides Israeli policy regarding Jewish prayer at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The ruling theoretically allowed small numbers of Jews under police escort to pray at the site. Israeli police consistently have declined to enforce this ruling on public safety grounds, and publicly have indicated that this policy has not changed in light of the renewed visits of non-Muslims to the compound.

In 2002 Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian officials arranged to repair a bulge that appeared in the southern wall of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. After disagreements between Israeli and Waqf officials over the cause of the bulge halted repair work for several months, Jordanian engineers visited the site in November 2002 to examine the damage and, at the end of the period covered by this report, were working to repair it.

Personal status law for Palestinians is based on religious law. For Muslim Palestinians, personal status law is derived from Shari'a, and the varied ecclesiastical courts rule on personal status issues for Christians. In the West Bank and Gaza, Shari'a pertaining to women is part of the Jordanian Status Law of 1976, which includes inheritances and marriage laws. Under the law, women inherit less than male members of the family do. The marriage law allows men to take more than one wife, although few do so. Prior to marriage, a woman and man may stipulate to terms in the marriage contract, which, in the event of divorce, would govern financial and custodial matters. However, only an estimated 1 percent of women utilize this section of the law, leaving the vast majority of women at a disadvantage when it comes to divorce or child custody.

Due to the continued Intifada, violence remained a significant problem during the period covered by this report. The violent confrontations that had erupted in September 2000 continued on an almost daily basis and resulted in the deaths and injuries of thousands of persons.

Due to the increased violence and security concerns, the Israeli Government imposed strict closures and curfews on the occupied territories in October 2000 that still were in place at the end of the period covered by this report. Such restrictions significantly impeded freedom of access to places of worship for Muslims and Christians during the period covered by this report.

Based on security concerns, the Government of Israel in 2002 began construction of a security barrier in the occupied territories. The practical effect of the construction has led to the confiscation of non-Jewish property and the displacement of Christian and Muslim residents, and worsening of restrictions on freedom of access to places of worship for non-Jewish communities.

In February, the Government of Israel issued confiscation orders for land in Bethlehem that surrounds Rachel's Tomb (a shrine holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims) that would place the shrine on the Israeli part of the security barrier. Jewish tourists visiting the shrine have occasionally been harassed by Palestinians, but some Muslims and Christians claimed that confiscating land around the shrine in response impedes their access to the site and unjustly harms the landowners in question. The Government of Israel has yet to build the separation barrier in this area.

The Government of Israel also confiscated land from the Baron Deir monastery in Bethlehem, belonging to the Armenian Patriarchate, for construction of an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) patrol road in the area. Although negotiations between the Patriarchate and the Government of Israel reduced the amount of land confiscated, the parties had not reached agreement on compensation for damage done to the property by the IDF during incursions into Bethlehem in April 2002.

In practice, Israeli closure policies, imposed due to security concerns, prevented 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. On a number of occasions, the Israeli Government also prevented worshipers under the age of 45 from attending Friday prayers inside the Haram al-Sharif. The Israeli Government stated that it did so in an effort to prevent outbreaks of violence following Friday prayers (see Section III). In April 2002, there were minor clashes in Jerusalem near the Old City's Lion Gate after Israeli police barred male worshippers under the age of 40 from attending afternoon prayers. Those who were refused entry marched in protest and threw stones at the police; however, no injuries were reported.

During the period covered by this report, the Israeli Government's continued closure policy prevented a number of Palestinian religious leaders (both Muslim and Christian) from reaching their congregations. The Israeli Government pledged to create a "hotline" to facilitate the movement of clerics through checkpoints in 2001; however, it had not done so by the end of the period covered by this report. In previous years, several clergymen reported that they were subject to harassment at checkpoints.

During the period covered by this report, the Israeli Government continued to refuse recognition to the duly elected Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Eirinaios I. Eirinaios I was elected in August 2001, and because of the lack of recognition by the Israeli Government has been unable to conclude financial or legal arrangements on behalf of the Patriarchate for the past 2 years. In 2002 the Israeli police confiscated the passport of Archimandrite Attallah Hanna, an Israeli citizen and a priest with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. His passport had not been returned by the end of the period covered by this report.

Palestinian violence against Israeli settlers prevented some settlers from reaching Jewish holy sites in the occupied territories during the period covered by this report. Some Israelis were unable to reach Jewish sites in the occupied territories such as Rachel's Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron due to the ongoing violence, including on religious holidays.

Settler violence against Palestinians prevented some Palestinians from reaching holy sites in the occupied territories. According to press reports, for 3 weeks in October 2002 settlers in Hebron forcibly prevented Muslim muezzins from reaching the al-Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs to sound the call to prayer.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Since the establishment of the PA, there have been periodic but not independently verified allegations that a small number of Muslim converts to Christianity at times are subjected to societal discrimination and harassment by PA officials, including detention and questioning by security forces. During the period covered by this report, there were no such allegations.

During the past few years, Israeli forces deliberately mistreated or accidentally injured several Christian religious leaders and lay members. On April 4, 2002, patriarchs of several major Christian denominations in Jerusalem claimed that the IDF forcibly entered numerous churches in Bethlehem and Ramallah and mistreated clergymen. For example, the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop claimed that an IDF unit entered a Syrian Orthodox Church in Bethlehem, damaged property, and threatened a 70-year-old priest with a gun. On April 7, 2002, an Israeli army unit operating in Ramallah forced its way into the Lutheran Church of Hope and used the pastor as a human shield, forcing him to walk ahead of the unit into potentially hostile areas as it searched the premises. On April 8, another Israeli army unit similarly used a Christian religious leader, Reverend Ramez Ansara of the Lutheran Evangelical Church. On April 10, an IDF sniper shot and injured an Armenian lay monk during a standoff at the Church of the Nativity.

According to some Palestinian individuals and human rights organizations, Israeli soldiers at times arbitrarily enforced closure in such a way as to interfere with Muslim religious practices. In particular there were allegations that Israeli soldiers closed the al-Ram checkpoint at sundown late in 2001 during Ramadan, preventing thousands of Muslims from returning home to break their fasts.

On June 13, the day that Muslims celebrated the Prophet Mohammed's birthday, IDF personnel closed the al-Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in violation of the Hebron Protocol, which states that the mosque should be available to Muslim worshipers on Muslim holidays. On June 24, Israeli officers issued a new order preventing the muezzin at the al-Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron from sounding the call to prayer when Jews are praying in their portion of the shrine.

Although it is difficult to assess culpability in the destruction of and damage to many places of worship in the occupied territories, their destruction or damage affects the practice of religion and religious freedom. Among the sites damaged were St. Mary's Convent, the chapel at Bethlehem University, the Lutheran Church and orphanage in Beit Jala, the Latin Convent in Beit Sahour, the Bethlehem Bible College, a Syrian Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Pilgrim's House, and the Omar Ibn al-Khattab Mosque. Both, the ninth century al-Khader Mosque in Nablus, reputed to be the oldest mosque in the occupied territories, and the church of Mar Mitri, the oldest Christian church in Nablus, were destroyed.

During the past 2 years, there were credible reports that Israeli soldiers acted on their own and caused significant damage to Palestinian church property. On January 24, the IDF fired a missile that penetrated the roof of St. Philip's Episcopal Church in the Gaza Strip and exploded inside. The explosion created a 1.5 meter crater near the altar and shattered all the stained glass windows and chandeliers. Church officials report that they filed a claim with the IDF for $30,000 of damage, but have not yet received a response. At the end of the reporting period, the Church was not repaired and remains unusable.

In 2002, gun and tank fire damaged the Holy Family Hospital, the Lutheran Christmas Church, and the Dar al-Kalima Academy in Bethlehem. Such damage often was extensive and included destruction of church and school property, including religious symbols. Damage in a number of these cases exceeded $85,000, and the institutions have filed claims for restitution with the Israeli Government. The Israeli Government did not refurbish any of the places of worship that the IDF damaged while operating in the occupied territories, and denied requests for compensation submitted in that regard. The Government stated that it was not responsible for damages incurred during a state of war.

Armed action by Palestinian gunmen and members of the Palestinian security services against Israeli forces damaged some religious buildings. During a 2002 armed standoff between Israeli forces and a group of approximately 160 Palestinian gunmen, including PA security forces, the Church of the Nativity, the Latin (Roman Catholic) section of the Nativity compound, and the Greek Orthodox and Armenian monasteries sustained considerable material damage.

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.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Generally there are amicable relations between Christians and Muslims; however, tensions do exist and occasionally surface. Relations between Jews and non-Jews, as well as among the different branches of Judaism, often are strained. Tensions between Jews and non-Jews exist primarily as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as Israel's control of access to sites holy to Christians and Muslims. Some non-Orthodox Jews have complained of discrimination and intolerance on the part of some Orthodox Jews.

Societal attitudes are a barrier to conversions, especially for Muslims converting to Christianity. One senior Christian cleric reportedly quietly dissuaded a number of such prospective converts from being baptized in Jerusalem for fear that they would be ostracized by their families or subjected to violence. In previous years, there were reports that some Christian converts from Islam who publicized their religious beliefs were harassed.

There are some reports of Christian-Muslim tension in the occupied territories. For example, on January 31, 2002, Palestinian Christian taxi driver stabbed and killed a Muslim during a dispute at the Qalandiya checkpoint. That night male friends and relatives of the Muslim retaliated by attacking Christian-owned shops and residences in Ramallah. In addition, there have been periodic accusations that Muslim members of the Tanzim militia deliberately opened fire on the Israeli neighborhood of Gilo from Christian areas in Beit Jala to draw IDF fire onto the Christian homes. Both Muslim and Christian Palestinians have accused Israeli officials of attempting to foster animosity among Palestinians by exaggerating reports of Muslim-Christian tensions.

Interfaith romance is a sensitive issue. Most Christian and Muslim families in the occupied territories encourage their children--especially their daughters--to marry within the faith. Couples who have challenged this societal norm have encountered considerable societal and familial opposition. For example, some Christian women who have married Muslim men received death threats from Christian family members and community figures.

In general, evangelical churches have not been welcomed by the more established Christian denominations.

The strong correlation between religion, ethnicity, and politics in the occupied territories at times imbues the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a religious dimension. The rhetoric of some Jewish and Muslim religious leaders has been harsher since the outbreak of the Intifada in October 2000. During the first year of the Intifada there were a number of attacks on Muslim and Jewish places of worship and religious shrines in the occupied territories.

There were some reports of settler violence against Palestinian religious establishments during the period covered by this report. According to press reports, on October 12, 2002, Israeli settlers in Hebron broke into the offices of the Waqf in Hebron and destroyed furniture and allegedly burned deeds to all of the Waqf's property in the city.

In October 2002, two men who appeared to be Orthodox Jews vandalized a neon crucifix on the roof of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Jerusalem. At the end of the period covered by this report, there had been no arrests.

During the period covered by this report, Muslims on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on two separate occasions threw stones over a high wall onto the Western Wall plaza where Jews were praying.

The rhetoric of some Jewish and Muslim religious leaders was harsh and at times constituted an incitement to violence during the period covered by this report. For example, PA-controlled television stations frequently broadcast anti-Semitic statements by Palestinian political and spiritual leaders and PA officials. Some prominent Israelis also made public anti-Arab statements.

Although the PA temporarily removed almost all inciteful and religiously intolerant material in PA-controlled media for parts of the reporting period, Israeli activists report numerous examples from 2002 and early 2003 in which PA television shows invoked anti-Semitic messages or attempted to de-legitimize Jewish history in general. Israeli settler radio stations often depict Arabs as subhuman and call for Palestinians to be expelled from the West Bank.

There were instances of ultra-Orthodox Jews harassing Christians and Muslims. On several occasions during the period covered by this report, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews known as the "Temple Mount Faithful" attempted to force their way inside the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. In addition, the same group periodically attempted to lay a cornerstone for the building of a new Jewish temple that would replace the Islamic Dome of the Rock shrine, an act that Muslims considered an affront. In May 2002 a group of Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) interrupted an evangelical Christian conference in Jerusalem and threw a stink bomb into the congregation. Conference organizers accused the Haredim of stealing sound equipment during the incident.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem maintains an ongoing dialog with officials in the Palestinian Authority, and (in conjunction with Embassy Tel Aviv) with Israeli officials on human rights issues, including issues of religious freedom. The Consulate also maintains contacts 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--as well as with the various Christian churches and Jewish communities in Jerusalem.

The Consulate investigates allegations of abuses of religious freedom. During the period covered by this report, the Consulate investigated a range of charges, including allegations of damage to places of worship, allegations of incitement, and allegations concerning access to holy sites.

Sources: U.S. State Department - Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor