Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Reports on Religious Freedom: Palestinian Territories



Religious freedom in various parts of the Occupied Territories falls under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel, or Hamas (in the Gaza Strip). The laws and policies of the PA and Israel protect religious freedom, and in practice the two governments generally respected these rights. Neither the PA nor Israel demonstrated a trend toward improvement or deterioration in respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom. The “de facto” Hamas authorities in Gaza restricted religious freedom, and the regime’s level of respect for religious freedom in law and in practice remained problematic during the year.

The PA does not have a constitution, but the Palestinian Basic Law generally functions as a temporary constitution. The basic law provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites, unless such practices violate public order or morality. PA policy protected the generally free practice of religion, although problems persisted during the year. The basic law states that Islam is the official religion and the principles of Sharia (Islamic law) shall be the main source of legislation. The basic law also proscribes discrimination based on religion and stipulates that all citizens are equal before the law and that basic human rights are liberties that shall be protected.

Israel exercises varying degrees of legal, military, and economic control in the Occupied Territories. Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty provides for the protection of religious freedom. The Israeli government respected the right to freedom of religion within the Occupied Territories during the year, although the government’s closure policies and the separation barrier restricted the ability of Palestinian Muslims and Christians to reach some places of worship and to practice their religious rites, particularly in Jerusalem. Israeli security authorities at times restricted Muslim and Christian worship within Jerusalem. Israeli policies also limited the ability of Israeli Jews to reach places of worship in areas under Palestinian control.

Since the 2007 Hamas coup in the Gaza Strip, Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, has exercised de facto authority over the territory and has enforced conservative Islamic law, harassed non-Muslims, and imposed religious restrictions on women.

There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Christians and Muslims generally enjoyed good relations during the year in the Occupied Territories and in Jerusalem. However, societal tensions remained high among Jewish communities, and between Jews and non-Jews; continuing violence heightened those tensions.

U.S. consulate general officials in Jerusalem monitor religious persecution and discrimination, and raise instances of alleged abuses or discriminatory practices with the relevant government officials at all levels, as well as with religious and human rights groups.

Section 1- Religious Demography:

Approximately 98 percent of Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories are Sunni Muslims. Although there is no official count, there are 51,710 Christians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, according to the Diyar Consortium, a Lutheran ecumenical institution. A majority of Christians are Greek Orthodox; the remainder consists of Armenian Orthodox, Copts, Episcopalians, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Maronites, Roman Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, and several other Protestant denominations. Christians are concentrated primarily in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus, and Bethlehem, but smaller communities exist elsewhere. A very small number of adherents of several denominations of evangelical Christians, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses, reside in the West Bank. There is also a community of approximately 400 Samaritans in the West Bank.

According to local Christian leaders, Palestinian Christian emigration has accelerated since 2001, reducing the number of Christians in Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories. Lower birth rates among Palestinian Christians also contribute to their shrinking numbers.

Section 2- Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom:

a. Legal/Policy Framework

The laws and policies of the PA protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom. The PA does not have a constitution but has stated that the Palestinian basic law functions as its temporary constitution. The basic law and other laws and policies protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally enforced these protections. The basic law states that Islam is the official religion and the principles of Islamic law shall be the main source of legislation. It provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites, unless they violate public order or morality. The basic law also proscribes discrimination based on religion, stipulates that all citizens are equal before the law, and holds that basic human rights and liberties shall be protected.

Islam is the official religion of the PA, and Islamic institutions and places of worship receive preferential financial support from the government. The PA Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) and Religious Affairs pays for the construction and maintenance of mosques, and also pays the salaries of most Palestinian imams in the West Bank. The ministry also provides limited financial support to some Christian clergymen and Christian charitable organizations. The PA does not provide financial support to Jewish institutions in the West Bank; the Israeli government controls most Jewish holy sites in the West Bank.

Personal status law for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is based on religious law. For Muslim Palestinians, personal status law is derived from Sharia, while various ecclesiastical courts rule on personal status matters for Christians. Islamic or Christian religious courts must handle all legal matters relating to personal status. In general all legal matters related to personal status -- including inheritance, marriage, dowry, divorce, and child support -- are handled by such courts, which exist for most Muslim and Christian traditions.

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. The PA requires Palestinians to declare their religious affiliation on identification papers.

All legally recognized individual sects are empowered to adjudicate personal status matters, and most do so in practice. The PA does not have a civil marriage law. Legally members of one religious group may agree to submit a personal status dispute to a different denomination to adjudicate it, but this was not known to occur in practice. Churches that are not officially recognized by the PA must obtain special permission to perform marriages or adjudicate personal status matters; many unrecognized churches advise their members to marry or divorce abroad.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has 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 religion.

Churches in the West Bank and Gaza operate under one of three statuses: churches recognized by the PA in accordance with the status quo agreements reached under Ottoman rule in the late 19th century and Protestant churches with established episcopates; 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 PA respects the 19th century status quo agreements reached with Ottoman authorities that govern the first group of churches. These agreements specifically established the presence and rights of the Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian, Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Syrian Orthodox churches. The Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches were added later to this list. Upon its establishment, the PA recognized these churches and their rights. 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 Assemblies 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 some are able to perform certain personal status legal functions, such as issuing marriage certificates.

The third category consists of a small number of proselytizing groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and some evangelical Christian groups. These churches also generally operated unhindered by the PA.

The PA requires the teaching of religion in PA-operated 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.

Church leaders cited the limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions, difficulties in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits for Christian clergy, Israeli government family-reunification restrictions, and taxation problems as reasons for increased emigration.

The site referred to by Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) contains the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Jews refer to the same place as the Temple Mount and recognize it as the foundation of the first and second Jewish temples. The location has been under Israeli control since 1967, when Israel captured the eastern sector of the city (the Israeli government formally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, and Israel applies its laws in East Jerusalem). However, the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount is administered by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, a Jordanian-funded and administered Islamic trust and charitable organization.

Under Oslo-era agreements, both Israel and the PA share responsibility for the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, although disagreements over division of responsibilities are significant.

Israel exercises varying degrees of legal, military, and economic control in the Occupied Territories. Israel’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty provides for the protection of religious freedom, although the government’s closure and curfew policies and its separation barrier restricted the ability of Palestinian Muslims and Christians to reach some places of worship and to practice their religious rites at certain locations, particularly in Jerusalem. Israel’s separation barrier also limited access to holy sites and seriously hindered the work of religious organizations and their delivery of humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians, especially in and around East Jerusalem. Israeli security authorities at times restricted Muslim and Christian worship within Jerusalem. Israeli policies also limited the ability of Israeli Jews to reach places of worship in areas under Palestinian control.

Since the 2007 Hamas coup in the Gaza Strip, Hamas has exercised de facto authority over the territory and has enforced conservative Islamic law, harassed non-Muslims, and imposed religious restrictions on women.

The PA observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: the Birth of the Prophet Muhammad, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Zikra al-Hijra al-Nabawiya, and Christmas (both Western and Orthodox). The PA maintains a Friday-Saturday weekend, but Christians are allowed to take Sunday off instead of Saturday. Christians take Easter as a paid religious holiday.

b. Government Practices

There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including of religious prisoners and detainees.

The PA has implemented a policy of unifying the message in weekly sermons in the West Bank in an effort to control incitement from the pulpit. Before the ban on incitement, imams sometimes were accused of delivering hateful sermons. The PA also prohibited the broadcast of Qur’an recitations from minarets in the West Bank prior to the call to prayer. The PA oversaw approximately 1,800 mosques in the West Bank and paid imams’ salaries.

Anti-Semitic sermons promoting incitement were given by clergy in Gaza, including one by a Hamas preacher that called for the death of Jews.

PA TV broadcasted a documentary in which Jewish religious rites were characterized as “sin and filth.” Some groups, like Hamas, continued to make frequent anti-Semitic statements during the year.

Members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community contended that PA-appointed clerics declared Ahmadis to be apostates, resulting in a rise of anti-Ahmadiyya activity in the West Bank. These Ahmadis reported that the PA’s Sharia courts annulled several Ahmadiyya marriages during the year.

During the year the PA began refusing church-issued documents from the First Baptist Church of Bethlehem. PA officials claimed that status quo churches in the West Bank in 2010 demanded that the PA discontinue recognizing legal-status documents--particularly marriage certificates--issued by the First Baptist Church, stating that the documents were allowing West Bank Palestinians to convert from their original church in order to divorce and remarry under terms their original church did not permit.

The PA and Israeli Defense Force (IDF) jointly provided access for approved visits by Jews to holy sites in the West Bank in areas under PA security control (Area A), particularly to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. Some Jews complained that securing an IDF escort to Jewish holy sites in Area A required extensive coordination. Jewish groups visited the site during hours of darkness and with a significant PA and IDF security escort. The PA and IDF coordinated the visit of 1,300 Jewish worshipers who came to pray overnight on October 5 at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus before Yom Kippur. Upon arrival the worshippers reportedly found spray-painted swastikas and other graffiti on the walls. The Israeli civil administration filed a complaint with the Palestinian Authority.

Some observers of archaeological practices in Jerusalem alleged that the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), a government entity, exploited archaeological finds that bolster Jewish claims to the city while overlooking other historically-significant archaeological finds. The archaeological finds in the area of Silwan underscore early Jewish history in Jerusalem; critics said that the IAA and Elad (a Jewish settler organization with excavation responsibilities) undervalued the area’s diverse religious history and were intent on highlighting only the city’s Jewish history.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation continued to promote ongoing archaeological excavations north of the Western Wall plaza. Supporters of the project have said that the archaeological finds shed light on the Jewish presence in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period. However, the excavations occur in the Muslim Quarter underneath mostly Arab-owned properties, creating friction with the Old City’s Arab residents.

Construction for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in West Jerusalem continued during the year on the grounds of the Mamilla cemetery, a 1,000-year-old Muslim cemetery containing the gravesites of several prominent Palestinian families and, according to Islamic tradition, Prophet Muhammad’s companions and tens of thousands of Salah ad-Din’s warriors. In October 2008 Israel’s high court ruled that the Simon Wiesenthal Center could continue construction of the museum, despite the objections of several Muslim organizations. In July the national-level Jerusalem District Planning Committee voted to permit the issuance of construction permits for a revised, scaled-down plan of the museum. According to press reports, this construction has resulted in the excavation and dumping of skeletal remains. The project has received criticism from Islamic and Palestinian institutions. Supporters of the U.S.-based center cited an 1894 ruling by the Islamic law court, which stated that the cemetery was no longer sacred because it was abandoned. The high court explained in its ruling that the construction site had served as a municipal parking lot for almost 50 years without a single complaint leveled against such use, and noted that Islamic authorities in 1929 had allowed construction in other parts of the abandoned cemetery. Ahmad Natour, president of the Sharia appeals court, Israel’s religious court for Muslim issues, stated in February that the sanctity of Muslim cemeteries was “eternal” and disputed the authority of the judge who authorized the parking lot, claiming that the judge did not follow legal procedure and that he was later convicted of criminal fraud. Some Islamic groups continued to object to the project on religious grounds during the year. On June 27, between 50 and 70 original tombstones were demolished overnight by bulldozers in an area of the cemetery not slated for construction.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land (CRIHL -- an umbrella body of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious institutions that includes the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the PA Ministry of Islamic Waqf, the PA Islamic Sharia courts, and the Christians Patriarchates and Bishoprics of the Holy Land), and foreign governments strongly criticized the September 5 arson attack against a mosque in Qusra, in the West Bank, and a number of rabbis visited the village to express their criticism of the arson to residents. The prime minister’s spokesman called the arson “an act of extremism that aims to compromise the relationship between different religions in Israel,” and said that Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered police and security forces to arrest those responsible.

The government of Israel continued to apply travel restrictions during the year that impeded access to particular places of worship in the West Bank and Jerusalem for Muslims and Christians. Strict closures and curfews imposed by the Israeli government negatively affected residents’ ability to practice their religion at holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, as well as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

The Israeli government kept in place an amended visa issuance process for foreigners working in Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories, which also significantly impeded the work of Christian institutions. Reports of Christian clergy, nuns, and other religious workers unable to secure residency or work permits increased during the year. Christian advocates claimed that the difficulty of obtaining permits gradually worsened in the last 10 years. Israeli authorities continued to limit visas for Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank or Jerusalem to single-entry visas, complicating clergy travel, particularly to areas under their pastoral authority outside the West Bank or Jerusalem. This disrupted their work and caused financial difficulties for their sponsoring religious organizations. Clergy, nuns, and other religious workers from Arab countries faced long delays and sometimes authorities denied their applications. The Israeli government indicated that delays or denials were due to security processing for visas and extensions.

Separately Israel generally prohibited entry into Gaza by Arab Christian clergy, including bishops and other senior clergy to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority.

The Israeli government granted 400 permits to members of Gaza’s Christian community to enter Israel and the West Bank to associate with family members located outside Gaza during Christmas. However, permits were not issued to all members of a family, which religious contacts said reduced the overall number of permits used, as families opted not to be separated on the holy day. No permits were issued for male Gazans between 16 and 45 years old.

The government of Israel’s construction of a separation barrier, begun in 2002 due to security concerns, limited access to holy sites and seriously impeded the work of religious organizations that provide education, health care, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians, particularly in and around East Jerusalem. The Israeli government made some accommodations for Palestinian Christians in the West Bank to access Jerusalem for religious purposes, although it made few accommodations for Palestinian Muslims to enter Jerusalem for religious purposes. During the month of Ramadan, the Israeli authorities temporarily increased access for Palestinian West Bank residents without a permit to Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount to include men over the age of 50 and women over the age of 45. Married men between the ages of 40 and 50 and women between the ages of 35 and 45 were made eligible for special permits. Israeli authorities also temporarily permitted West Bank residents to use the Beit El checkpoint to exit Ramallah en route to Jerusalem, instead of just the Qalandiya crossing.

The separation barrier significantly impeded Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and made visits to Christian sites in Bethany and Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who live on the Jerusalem side of the barrier. Foreign pilgrims and religious aid workers occasionally experienced difficulty 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. Construction of the separation barrier continued south of Jerusalem near the Cremisan convent of Salesian nuns and their school of approximately 170 students. The barrier, if completed, would separate the convent and school from the Palestinian communities they serve.

The Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount has been under Israeli control since 1967 but the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf maintains administrative custody of the site. The government of Israel, as a matter of stated policy since 1967, opposes non-Muslim worship at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and many Jewish leaders promote the view that Jewish law prohibits Jews from entering the compound due to the risk of accidentally defiling the (unknown) location of the Temple’s Holy of Holies, and they instead direct worshippers to the Western Wall. Israeli police generally did not permit public prayer by non-Muslims and publicly indicated that this policy remained operative, even though non-Muslims visited the compound. Israeli police regulated traffic in and out of the compound and screened non-Muslims for religious paraphernalia.

The government of Israel restricted access to the Haram al-Sharif /Temple Mount for Muslims in the Occupied Territories and occasionally restricted access for Muslims resident in Jerusalem. While West Bank Muslims with permits to enter Jerusalem generally were able to visit the site, and in isolated cases permits were issued for Muslims to enter Jerusalem for religious purposes, Israel’s permitting regime also generally restricted most West Bank Muslims from accessing the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The Israeli government provided Muslims from Gaza no opportunity to access the site. Israeli security authorities in Jerusalem frequently restricted access to Friday prayers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for residents in East Jerusalem. Citing security concerns, authorities also frequently barred entry of male residents under the age of 50, and sometimes barred women under the age of 45. Infrequently authorities would close the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount entirely, often after skirmishes at the compound between Arabs and Israeli police.

Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the compound, including high-ranking Palestinian officials and Jerusalem Islamic Waqf employees. Waqf officials complained that Israeli police increasingly violated agreements regarding control of access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. Israeli police have de facto control of the compound, with police stationed outside each entrance to the site and also conducting routine patrols on the outdoor plaza. Israeli police have exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance -- the only entrance through which non-Muslims may enter the compound -- and in general allowed visitors through the gate during set visiting hours. Waqf employees were stationed inside each gate and on the plaza, and they could object to the presence of particular persons, such as individuals dressed immodestly or causing disturbances, but they lacked effective authority to remove persons from the site.

Israeli authorities and Jerusalem Islamic Waqf officials generally prohibited non-Muslim worship at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The Israeli High Court ruled in 1997 that “Jews, even though their right to the Temple Mount exists and stands historically, are not permitted to currently actualize their right to perform public prayer on the Temple Mount.” Although most mainline Orthodox Jewish teaching discourages Jewish visits to the compound, some Jewish organizations have legally and physically challenged these restrictions. During the year several Jewish groups visited the compound, escorted by Israeli police, and performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration. Waqf officials criticized the visits, and in some instances, the visits sparked violence between Arabs and Israeli police. Christians were prohibited from performing public prayers at the site. According to local media reports, on August 23, Israeli police escorted some 40 Israeli activists onto the compound. The presence of the activists reportedly caused a commotion among Arab worshippers; police arrested five Arab worshippers and removed them from the area.

There were also disputes between the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf and Israeli authorities over Israeli restrictions on Waqf attempts to carry out maintenance and physical improvements to the compound and its mosques. Israeli officials said the Waqf is required to coordinate all changes to the compound with the Israeli government; Waqf officials generally refused to coordinate maintenance and upkeep because they said this violates previous agreements between Israel and the Jordanian government.

The approval process for a permanent ramp leading to the Mughrabi Gate of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount continued during the year. Excavations in the immediate vicinity of the Mughrabi Gate did not proceed.

The Western Wall, the place of worship nearest the holiest site in Judaism, was open to visitors from all religions during the year, and Muslims and Christians were permitted to make individual prayers at the site. However, the Israeli government exercised its prohibition of mixed gender prayer services at religious sites. Men and women at the Western Wall must use separate areas to visit and pray, and the women’s section is less than half the size of the men’s section. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which manages the infrastructure at the Western Wall plaza, announced in August that it would replace the existing partition separating women and men with a one-way mirror, which would allow women to observe religious services in the men’s section, such as bar mitzvahs, while preventing men from seeing through to the women’s section. Women are not allowed to conduct prayers at the Western Wall while wearing prayer shawls and are not permitted to read from Torah scrolls. The gender restrictions also affect Muslims and Christians at this site.

Arab Christian leaders said that Israeli security authorities obstructed access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for Palestinian Christian residents of the West Bank, including clergy, which significantly reduced their ability to enter Jerusalem. Some Christian leaders said that Israeli authorities gave preferential treatment to Jews celebrating Passover and to international visitors making pilgrimages when the authorities enacted restrictions that impeded the activities of local Christians celebrating Easter. Jerusalem Christians had to pass through four police checkpoints before reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; according to Christian advocates, pepper spray was used indiscriminately at the various checkpoints. On Good Friday, the Israeli police temporarily blocked the Latin Patriarch from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and pushed him, to make way for pilgrims, setting off a small fight before the procession was allowed to continue, according to a joint report by the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel and the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre. During other holy days, Christian leaders also stated that the police did not always honor requests to provide security escorts for religious processions, which left them vulnerable to harassment in the Old City from non-Christians.

During the year Israeli authorities severely limited the access of Palestinians to Rachel’s Tomb, a Bethlehem shrine holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims under Israeli jurisdiction in Area C, but allowed relatively unimpeded access to Jewish visitors.

During the year the IDF limited access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a holy site revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the tomb of Abraham. The IDF restricted Muslim access to the site for 10 nonconsecutive days, including Passover and Yom Kippur; Jews were restricted access to the site for 10 nonconsecutive days corresponding with Muslim holidays. Muslims may enter only through one entry point, and must submit to intensive IDF security screening. Jews have access to several entry points and are not required to submit to security screening. Both Muslims and Jews are able to pray at the site simultaneously; in only one space, through the tomb of Abraham, can both sides see one another through Plexiglas.

While there were no specific restrictions placed on Palestinians making the Hajj, in practice, closures and long waits at Israeli-controlled crossings often impeded travel for religious purposes for all Palestinian religious groups.

Since early 2001, following the outbreak of the Second Intifada, the Israeli government has prohibited Israeli citizens in unofficial capacities from traveling to the parts of the West Bank under civil and security control of the PA. This restriction prevents Jewish Israelis from routinely visiting several Jewish holy sites, although the IDF occasionally provides security escorts for groups to visit selected Jewish holy sites. Beginning in 2009 restrictions on Arab Israelis visiting Area A cities in the West Bank gradually were lifted by the Israeli Ministry of Defense’s coordinator for government activities in the Territories.

c. Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

The PA did not officially sponsor interfaith dialogue during the year; however, it sent representatives to meetings on improving interreligious relations and supported efforts to foster goodwill among religious leaders.

The PA continued coordinating with the local leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Franciscans (representing the Latin Patriarchate), and Armenian Orthodox churches to raise funds for repairs and to conduct a study of the roof ahead of restoration work on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The churches stated that the PA’s involvement as a neutral party helped them to reach an agreement where they had failed to do so in the past by themselves. The PA also funded renovations to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, which began in 2010 and concluded during the year.

PA-Israeli security cooperation at Joseph’s Tomb improved during the year. The PA reached an agreement with the IDF and the Ministry of Defense’s civil administration to station 10 permanent police officers at the tomb, according to press reports. The PA also implemented strict rules of engagement to prevent the improper use of force. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, the PA Ministry of Islamic Waqf, and the PA Islamic Sharia courts continued dialogue through the CRIHL. On September 5, the CRIHL strongly criticized the arson and vandalism of four mosques; it also spoke out against other acts of religious intolerance during the year.

The Israeli high court ruled in 2010 that the segregation of men and women on some public streets and sidewalks in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem was illegal. The ruling ended a tradition of gender segregation during the Jewish festival of Sukkot. Local authorities gave permission for a barrier to be erected again this year and the high court upheld its previous decision, stating that this was the last year such a barrier would be allowed.

d. Abuses by Rebel or Foreign Forces or Terrorist Organizations

Hamas maintained control of Gaza throughout the year and sometimes exploited its security apparatus to arrest or detain Muslims in Gaza who did not abide by Hamas’ strict interpretation of Islam.

During the year terrorist organizations, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, carried out attacks against Israeli citizens, mostly in the form of indiscriminate rocket and mortar attacks from the Gaza Strip. Terrorists often issued statements that contained anti-Semitic rhetoric in conjunction with the attacks.

Hamas maintained control of Gaza throughout the year and enforced a conservative interpretation of Islam on Gaza’s Muslim population. For example Hamas operated a women’s prison during the year to house women convicted of “ethical crimes” such as “illegitimate pregnancy.” During the year Hamas’ “morality police” punished women for riding motorcycles and dressing “inappropriately.” Inappropriate dress included wearing Western clothing, such as jeans and blouses, shortsleeved shirts, and in some cases, not wearing a head covering. Couples in public frequently were stopped, separated, and questioned by plainclothes officers to determine if they were married; premarital sex is a crime punishable by imprisonment. Hamas also harassed men and women to dress modestly, tried to enforce sexual segregation in public, confiscated novels it deemed offensive to Islam from a bookshop, banned women from smoking, and arbitrarily closed or restricted businesses that allowed unmarried and unrelated men and women to “mix,” according to press reports and Human Rights Watch.

During the year Hamas and other violent extremists in Gaza sought to bolster attendance at their youth programs and marginalize programs that did not teach a strict interpretation of Islam. Local religious leaders also received warning ahead of Christian holidays against any public display of Christianity.

Hamas largely tolerated the small Christian presence in Gaza and did not force Christians to abide by Islamic law, although they were indirectly affected by Hamas’ religious ideology, according to church leaders.

Due to Hamas’ continued control of Gaza, the PA was unable to investigate and prosecute Gaza-based cases of religious discrimination.

Section 3 - Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Because ethnicity and religion are often inextricably linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents specifically as ethnic or religious intolerance.

Palestinian Christians and Muslims generally shared good relations, identifying more closely on ethnic and political similarities than religion. However, tensions were substantial between Jews and Palestinian Christians and Muslims, largely as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s control of access to sites holy to Christians and Muslims. Relations among Jews living in Jerusalem and the West Bank were strained because of different interpretations of Judaism, and some non-Orthodox Jews and Christians experienced discrimination and harassment by some Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews. Christians also faced discrimination and threats from Muslim extremist vigilante groups in Gaza, and Hamas did not sufficiently investigate or prosecute religiously driven crimes committed by such groups.

Some settlers continued to threaten “price tag” attacks this year on Palestinians in response to Israeli government actions that were contrary to settlers’ interests. These attacks increased from four in 2010 to 10 such incidents during the year, which included acts of vandalism, arson, and anti-Muslim graffiti on mosques located primarily in the West Bank, as well as anti-Christian graffiti on churches in Jerusalem. On September 5, Jewish settlers vandalized and set fire to the al-Nurayn mosque in the West Bank village of Qusra in what Israeli and Palestinian media speculated was a “price tag” attack in reprisal for Israel’s dismantling of three buildings in Migron, a settlement outpost constructed on privately owned Palestinian land, hours earlier. The mosque’s walls were spray-painted with the Star of David and the slogan “Migron and ‘Alei Ayin are Social Justice,” and with anti-Muslim graffiti, such as “Mohammed is a pig.”

Israeli settlers in the West Bank on several occasions during the year framed violence against Palestinian persons and property as necessary for the defense of Judaism. Some Jewish groups called for the destruction of the Islamic Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque to enable the building of a third Jewish temple.

Some Haredim at the Western Wall harassed visitors and Jewish worshippers who did not conform to Jewish Orthodox traditions. Members of the Jewish Conservative Masorti and reform movements publicly criticized the growing “Haredization” of the Western Wall throughout the year.

In Jerusalem some ultra-Orthodox Jews denigrated Jerusalem residents who did not adhere to their strict interpretation of Orthodox Jewish law. Haredim protested municipal and commercial properties in Jerusalem that did not observe the Jewish Sabbath.

Some ultra-Orthodox youth in religious studies programs insulted and spat on Christian clergy, nuns, and seminarians in Jerusalem’s Old City and vandalized several monasteries. According to a press report, four ultra-Orthodox men in March spat at Armenian Orthodox clergymen in a funeral procession.

The ultra-Orthodox anti-missionary organization Yad L’Achim, led by Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifshitz, continued to harass Messianic Jews (people who identify as Jews and follow Jewish traditions but believe Jesus was the Messiah) in settlements whom it identified, often incorrectly, as “missionaries.” The group continued to distribute posters that threatened missionaries and also called on the postal authority to prevent the distribution of missionary material through the mail.

A small number of proselytizing groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and some evangelical Christians, encountered opposition to their efforts to obtain recognition in areas administered by Israel and the PA. This treatment was attributed to alleged concerns among Muslim and established churches about proselytizing by these groups and disruption of the status quo.

Official PA media sought to control and eliminate statements and material that could be considered incitement; criticism largely focused on the policies and actions of the government of Israel and Israeli citizens, and not on religious factors.

Mainstream independent Palestinian news outlets, including Al Quds, Al Ayyam, and Ma’an, attempted to avoid publishing material that incited hatred and limited their criticism to governmental policies and actions of individuals and not of ethnic or religious groups. Nonetheless anti-Semitic expressions by opinion writers were carried in the mainstream Palestinian media, including claims by a Muslim cleric that Judaism is a “distorted, corrupted, falsified religion” and that Jews are inherently evil, having inherited their nature from Cain who, according to the Bible, murdered his brother Abel.

Other nonofficial PA and nonmainstream Palestinian media outlets, particularly those controlled by Hamas, continued to use inflammatory language during the year. Hamas television broadcast content that sometimes praised holy war to expel the Jewish presence in the region. In addition some children’s programs broadcast glorified “martyrdom.”

Zayzafouna, a Palestinian youth magazine funded by UNESCO, published a story about a teenage girl who dreams of four role models, one of whom was Hitler. In the dream Hitler tells the girl that he killed the Jews “so you would all know that they are a nation which spreads destruction all over the world.” UNESCO cut funding of Zayzafouna following the publication of this anti-Semitic content. However, the PA continued to fund the magazine and Zayzafouna continued to publish questionable material.

According to press reports, in August Jerusalem Mufti Muhammad Hussein publicly criticized Israel’s designation of some holy sites in Jerusalem and the West Bank as Israeli heritage sites, saying that Israelis and Palestinians were “now in a period of war, not one with tanks and rockets, but one of religion, faith, and distorting Islamic history and tradition.” He also claimed that Israel was preparing to destroy the Haram al-Sharif (Dome of the Rock) and al-Aqsa Mosque.

Hamas’ efforts to bolster conservative principles in Gaza negatively affected some Gazan Christians, and they raised concerns that Hamas failed to defend their rights as religious minorities.

The desecration of The Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem continued throughout the year. Jewish tombstones in The Mount of Olives cemetery were vandalized during the year, trash commonly littered the cemetery, and maintenance was largely insufficient. The prime minister’s office funded the installation of security cameras at the Mount of Olives cemetery. The cemetery is monitored in real-time and the footage proved successful in prosecuting offenders during the year.

There were occasional reports of societal abuses or discrimination between Christians and Muslims, and societal attitudes continued to be a barrier to conversions, especially for Muslims converting to Christianity. However, conversion is not illegal under PA law. Both Muslim and Christian Palestinians accused Israeli officials of attempting to foster animosity among Palestinians by exaggerating reports of Muslim-Christian tensions.

Interfaith dating remained a sensitive issue. Most Christian and Muslim families in Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories pressured their children, especially their daughters, to marry within their respective religious groups. Couples who challenged this societal norm, particularly Palestinian Christians or Muslims who married Jews, encountered considerable societal and family opposition. Nongovernmental organization advocates reported that it was more difficult for Christian Palestinians to get a divorce because of restrictions by some churches.

Harassment of Messianic Jews by Orthodox Jews continued during the year.

Established Christian groups generally 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 existing conditions.

Section 4 - U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. consulate general in Jerusalem regularly met with religious representatives to ensure their views were reported and addressed. The consulate general maintained a high level of contact with representatives of the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf. U.S. government officials had frequent contact with Muslim leaders throughout Jerusalem and the West Bank. The consulate general also maintained regular contact with leaders of the Christian and Jewish communities in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. During the year the consul general and consulate general officers met with the Greek Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), and Armenian Orthodox Patriarchs; leaders of the Syrian Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, Greek Melkite Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches; and Christian evangelical groups. Consulate general officers met with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Haredi rabbis, and with representatives of various Jewish institutions.

During the year the consulate general investigated a range of charges, including allegations of damage to places of worship, incitement, and allegations concerning access to holy sites, and visited the Cremisan convent of Salesian nuns. Consulate general officers met with representatives of the Bethlehem and Ramallah-area Christian communities.

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