A senior Palestinian official has enraged Palestinian Christians by referring to them as the "Merry Christmas Group" and accusing them of supporting the Islamist movement, Hamas. Jibril Rajoub, chairman of the Palestinian Football Association and a top Fatah official who previously served as commander of the Palestinian Authority's (PA) notorious Preventive Security Force in the West Bank, made the offensive remarks during a recent interview with an Egyptian television station.
Referring to the Palestinian local elections, which were supposed to be held on October 8 but were suspended due to the continued power struggle between Fatah and Hamas, Rajoub said in the interview:
"Even some of our brothers, the 'Merry Christmas Group,' voted for Hamas [in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary election]. Today, no one will vote for Hamas. What has Hamas given them? Hamas has brought nothing but destruction."
The interview was later broadcast on the PA's official Palestine TV -- a move that has been interpreted as an endorsement of the attack on Palestinian Christians. Critics argued that Palestine TV should have at least removed the parts where Rajoub hurls insults and accusations against the Christians.
Although Rajoub has since half-heartedly apologized for insulting the Palestinian Christian minority, his remarks continue to draw strong condemnations from many Christians and even some Muslims.
This was the first time that a senior representative of the PA leadership had come out against the Christian community. Many Christians said that Rajoub's derogatory remarks would further heighten tensions between them and the Muslims in the Palestinian territories. They pointed out that by referring to Christians as a "group," the top PA official was in fact excluding them from being an integral part of the Palestinian people.
Rajoub's remarks reflect the arrogant and disrespectful attitude of many in the PA leadership towards Palestinian Christians. This stands in sharp contrast to the PA leadership's public policy, which demonstrates utmost respect for Palestinian Christians and considers them equal citizens and partners in the Palestinian "national project." Judging from the angry reactions of Palestinian Christians, this is not a case where they are prepared to turn the other cheek.
In an open letter to Rajoub, who previously served 17 years in Israeli prison for terror-related charges, Pastor Danny Awad of Baraka Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem wrote:
"We are an inseparable part of the Palestinian people and some of us have died defending the Palestinian cause. We are not a group that came from Mars. We have been here for more than 2000 years. We are not a group to be devalued by you. We are not strangers or guests or aliens who speak a foreign tongue."
Habib Efram, Syriac League President, condemned Rajoub's anti-Christian remarks as "harmful, strange and provocative." Referring to the situation of Christians of the Middle East, he said:
"We longer know from where to receive the blows. We reject and denounce the remarks of the member of the Fatah Central Committee, Jibril Rajoub, and demand a public apology. We also call upon the Palestinian leadership to intervene to correct the situation."
In an earlier comment, Efram stated:
"Christians are the weakest link in the region -- to a point where Christian presence in cities and villages in Iraq and Syria is nearing extinction. If ISIS is finished, what assurances do we have that a new ISIS will not emerge to threaten Christians? We must resist with all available means. Christians must remain in the Middle East. We need to change our methods and we need to have a political program."
Efram's comments signal that Christians in general and those living in the Palestinian territories in particular see Rajoub's derogatory remarks as part of the widespread persecution of Christians in Arab and Islamic countries. It is a campaign that has claimed the lives of thousands of Christians over the past few years, prompting many of them to flee to the US, Canada, Australia and Europe.
Archbishop Theodosius (Hanna Atallah) of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said that Rajoub's statements were harmful not only to Christians, but to all Palestinians. "These remarks are alien to our national culture," he added.
"Palestinian Christians are not a group. Rather, we belong to the first Church in Palestine and we are proud to be Christians. We are not imposed merchandise from the West. The Christian presence in Palestine has a glorious and ancient history. Both Christians and Muslims are proud of this history. These offensive remarks will only make us more determined to stick to our national presence, message, identity and link to this holy land. The remarks do not represent our people or national heritage."
Rajoub's inflammatory remarks came at the peak of the local election campaign and were destined to wreak real damage to Fatah at the ballot boxes. The claim that some Christians had voted for Hamas in the 2006 election has never been verified. But had the Palestinian High Court not suspended the local elections, disgruntled Christians from Bethlehem and other Palestinian cities and villages likely would have voted for anyone but Fatah. Such aspersions cast by a senior PA official very close to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are taken extremely seriously. Interestingly, Abbas himself has not repudiated Rajoub's remarks -- a fact that has added to the outrage among the Palestinian Christian community.
But while Abbas has remained silent on the controversy prompted by his top official, some Fatah officials have joined the calls for Rajoub to apologize.
Acutely aware of the damage that such remarks could cause Fatah, the faction's leaders in Bethlehem, where Christians have over the years become a minority, have taken matters into their hands and offered their own apology. "The Christians are entitled to an apology," said Mohamed al-Masri, Secretary-General of Fatah in Bethlehem. "In Bethlehem, we are one family and there was never a 'group' of people among us. The Christians were always owners of the land and partners in blood, unity and decision-making."
In a move that can only be described as ironic, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have come out against Rajoub's anti-Christian remarks. These groups never miss an opportunity to lash out at Fatah and its leaders, by depicting them as traitors acting against the interests of the Palestinians. Yet for these two Islamist groups to talk about the rights of Christians is laughable. Under their rule in the Gaza Strip, the number of Christians has declined over the two decades from 3500 to 1300.
Earlier this year, Palestinian Christians suffered another blow when Hamas destroyed the ruins of an ancient Byzantine church that was recently discovered in the Gaza Strip. The ruins of the 1800-year-old church were discovered in Palestine Square in the Al-Daraj neighborhood of Gaza City, where Hamas is planning to build a large shopping mall. Palestinian Christians expressed disappointment over the lack of interest that the international community, including the Vatican and Christian communities around the world, had shown in this case, which they regarded as an assault on their heritage and holy sites.
Similarly, the attack on the Palestinian Christians by a top representative of the Palestinian Authority leadership has also failed to draw the attention of the international community. It must be acceptable, from their point of view, for a Palestinian official to ridicule Palestinian Christians and accuse them of supporting Hamas. Had the comments come from an Israeli official, the coverage might have been a bit different.
Rajoub's incendiary words coincided with a warning about the waning Christian presence in the Middle East, issued by Dr. Hanna Issa, Secretary-General of the Islamic-Christian Commission for Supporting Jerusalem and Holy Sites.
"What is happening in the region, namely the decrease in the number of Christians, is a catastrophe not only for Christians, but also for Muslims," he cautioned. "This will lead to the disintegration of society and make it lack diversity and scientific, economic and cultural competencies because of the Christians who are leaving." After noting that while Christians make up nearly 20% of the Palestinian population around the world, they are less than 1% of the Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, Issa concluded:
"It is in the interest of Muslims in the world in general and the Middle East in particular to preserve the Christian presence in the Arab world and to protect it with all their force. Christian emigration from the Middle East will impoverish the Arab culture and identity."
Rajoub's disparagement of Palestinian Christians is indeed likely to encourage Christians to leave the Western-funded Palestinian Authority areas. Such comments are particularly unwelcome at a time when Christians in Syria, Iraq and Egypt are facing a campaign of terrorism and intimidation by Muslim extremists. Unless the Westerners who are funding the PA raise their voices against such abuse of Palestinian Christians, Christians in Bethlehem may, irrespective of local elections, decide to vote with their feet.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.