'Islamic mafia' accused of persecuting Holy Land Christians

Bethlehem, Middle East - Christians in the Holy Land have handed a dossier detailing incidents of violence and intimidation by Muslim extremists to Church leaders in Jerusalem, one of whom said it was time for Christians to "raise our voices" against the sectarian violence.

The dossier includes 93 alleged incidents of abuse by an "Islamic fundamentalist mafia" against Palestinian Christians, who accused the Palestinian Authority of doing nothing to stop the attacks.

The dossier also includes a list of 140 cases of apparent land theft, in which Christians in the West Bank were allegedly forced off their land by gangs backed by corrupt judicial officials.

From the birthplace of Christ at Bethlehem to the site of his Crucifixion in Jerusalem, Christian Church leaders have long been desperate not to upset the delicate ethnic and sectarian balance in the region by blaming either Jews or Muslims for the decline of their once robust religious community.

That self-imposed silence now appears to be crumbling.

"The problem exists," said Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Jerusalem's senior Franciscan, known as the Custos of the Holy Land. "The Christian community has always suffered in the last few years because we are a minority. Many have the temptation to leave, so the community is shrinking."

While he stressed that "we are not talking about a confrontation with all Muslims", he added that "we don't want to see violations of the law - sometimes we have to raise our voices".

The alleged attacks on Christians have come despite repeated appeals to the Palestinian Authority to rein in Muslim gangs.

A spokesman for the Apostolic Delegate, the Pope's envoy to Jerusalem, said nothing had been done to tackle the problem. "The Apostolic Delegate presented a list of all the problems to Mr [Yasser] Arafat before he died," he said. "He promised a lot but he did very little."

In the offices of his tiny Christian television station in Bethlehem, Samir Qumsieh said this week that Christian appeals to Mr Arafat's successor as Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, had also gone unheeded.

"At least Arafat responded," he said, "Abbas does not answer our letters."

Mr Qumsieh said he was trying to repair relations between Palestinian Christian and Muslim communities, convening a meeting attended by members of both faiths in Bethlehem last week.

But he said that the Christian community was faced with "very brutal" adversaries. "A criminal mafia and Islamic fundamentalists work together," he said. "Their interests met to take our land away." He said that one man had lost his finger in one land dispute which turned violent and that a group had attacked and injured a Greek orthodox monk at a 5th century monastery outside Bethlehem.

The dossier currently in Church hands details far worse allegations of violence, notably the torture and murder of two Christian girls in 2003 after they were deemed prostitutes. A post mortem examination reportedly proved they were virgins.

Some Christians note that land grabs are common in the growing lawlessness of the West Bank and are not necessarily motivated by sectarian rivalry.

They add that increasingly entrenched Islamic extremism has driven a wedge between the communities, especially over women's dress and freedom of expression.

Several Christians tell the story of a moderate Muslim imam in Bethlehem's biggest mosque, who was repeatedly threatened after giving a sermon calling for an end to the anti-Christian discrimination and land grabs.

Last weekend, the Christian village of Taybeh was ransacked and burned by a Muslim mob, incensed that a boy there had been seeing a girl from their neighbouring village of Deir Jarir.

"I am pessimistic about our future as Christians here," said Mr Qumsieh, adding that Christians now form about two per cent of the population of the Holy Land, down from almost 20 per cent 60 years ago.

"We have a low birth rate, and now with intimidation and emigration, our future is very dark," he said.