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Bethlehem Christians fear neighbors

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1167467807655&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull Jan. 25, 2007 0:00 | Updated Jan. 25, 2007 15:00 Bethlehem
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      http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1167467807655&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

      Jan. 25, 2007 0:00 | Updated Jan. 25, 2007 15:00
      Bethlehem Christians fear neighbors
      By KHALED ABU TOAMEH
      BETHLEHEM

      A number of Christian families have finally decided to break their
      silence and talk openly about what they describe as Muslim
      persecution of the Christian minority in this city.

      The move comes as a result of increased attacks on Christians by
      Muslims over the past few months. The families said they wrote
      letters to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the Vatican,
      Church leaders and European governments complaining about the
      attacks, but their appeals have fallen on deaf ears.

      According to the families, many Christians have long been afraid to
      complain in public about the campaign of "intimidation" for fear of
      retaliation by their Muslim neighbors and being branded
      "collaborators" with Israel.

      But following an increase in attacks on Christian-owned property in
      the city over the past few months, some Christians are no longer
      afraid to talk about the ultra-sensitive issue. And they are talking
      openly about leaving the city.

      "The situation is very dangerous," said Samir Qumsiyeh, owner of the
      Beit Sahur-based private Al-Mahd (Nativity) TV station. "I believe
      that 15 years from now there will be no Christians left in Bethlehem.
      Then you will need a torch to find a Christian here. This is a very
      sad situation."

      Qumsiyeh, one of the few Christians willing to speak about the harsh
      conditions of their community, has been the subject of numerous death
      threats. His house was recently attacked with fire-bombs, but no one was hurt.

      Qumsiyeh said he has documented more than 160 incidents of attacks on
      Christians in the area in recent years.

      He said a monk was recently roughed up for trying to prevent a group
      of Muslim men from seizing lands owned by Christians in Beit Sahur.
      Thieves have targeted the homes of many Christian families and a
      "land mafia" has succeeded in laying its hands on vast areas of land
      belonging to Christians, he added.

      Fuad and Georgette Lama woke up one morning last September to
      discover that Muslims from a nearby village had fenced off their
      family's six-dunam plot in the Karkafa suburb south of Bethlehem. "A
      lawyer and an official with the Palestinian Authority just came and
      took our land," said 69-year-old Georgette Lama.

      The couple was later approached by senior PA security officers who
      offered to help them kick out the intruders from the land. "We paid
      them $1,000 so they could help us regain our land," she said, almost
      in tears. "Instead of giving us back our land, they simply decided to
      keep it for themselves. They even destroyed all the olive trees and
      divided the land into small plots, apparently so that they could
      offer each for sale." When her 72-year-old husband, Fuad, went to the
      land to ask the intruders to leave, he was severely beaten and
      threatened with guns.

      "My husband is after heart surgery and they still beat him,"
      Georgette Lama said. "These people have no heart. We're afraid to go
      to our land because they will shoot at us. Ever since the beating, my
      husband is in a state of trauma and has difficulties talking."

      The Lamas have since knocked on the doors of scores of PA officials
      in Bethlehem seeking their intervention, but to no avail. At one
      stage, they sent a letter to Abbas, who promised to launch an investigation.

      "We heard that President Mahmoud Abbas is taking our case very
      seriously," said Georgette Lama. "But until now he hasn't done
      anything to help us get our land back. We are very concerned because
      we're not the only ones suffering from this phenomenon. Most
      Christians are afraid to speak, but I don't care because we have
      nothing more to lose."

      The couple's Christian neighbor, Edward Salama, said the problem in
      the city was the absence of law and order. "We are living in a state
      of chaos and lawlessness," he said. "The police are afraid of the
      thugs who are taking our lands."

      Salama expressed deep concern over the conditions of Christians in
      Bethlehem, noting that many were leaving the country as a result of
      the deterioration.

      "When I see what's happening to Christians here, I worry a lot for
      our future," he said. "They are targeting Christians, because we are
      seen as weak."

      The Lamas said they decided to go public with the hope that the
      international community would intervene with the PA to halt the
      land-grab. "We will fight and fight until we recover our land," Fuad
      Lama said. "We will resort to the courts and to the public opinion for help.

      "Unfortunately, Christian leaders and spokesmen are afraid to talk
      about the problems we are facing. We know of three other Christian
      families - Salameh, Kawwas and Asfour - whose lands were also
      illegally seized by Muslims."

      A Christian businessman who asked not to be identified said the
      conditions of Christians in Bethlehem and its surroundings had
      deteriorated ever since the area was handed over to the PA in 1995.

      "Every day we hear of another Christian family that has immigrated to
      the US, Canada or Latin America," he said. "The Christians today make
      up less than 15 percent of the population.

      People are running away because the Palestinian government isn't
      doing anything to protect them and their property against Muslim
      thugs. Of course not all the Muslims are responsible, but there is a
      general feeling that Christians have become easy prey."
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