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Palestinian Christians Look Back on a Year of Troubles


3/11/07 Palestine For the full article.. (NY Times) — Jack Massis, 51, a grocer here in this last entirely Christian village in the West Bank , speaks matter-of-factly about how two of his teenage sons were beaten with clubs last month.

They had argued with members of a Muslim family that had moved three years ago to the edge of Taybeh, a picturesque village in the hills near Ramallah with a dwindling population of 1,300. Mr. Massis’ sons had used a road that ran along the newcomers’ property, which the newcomers insisted was private. The sons spent the night in the hospital, and five members of the Muslim family spent a few days in jail.

In the year since Hamas came to power, some of the fears of a newly Islamist cast to Palestinian society are being borne out. Christians have begun quietly complaining that local disagreements quickly take on a sectarian flavor. And reports of beatings and property damage by Muslims have grown.

In one of the most serious cases, Palestinian gunmen in September set the Y.M.C.A. building on fire in the West Bank city of Qalqilya , where Hamas members hold all 15 local council seats. Muslim figures in the city had previously accused the Y.M.C.A. of engaging in missionary activity and warned it to close down.

But few point directly at Hamas, looking instead to the overall stresses on Palestinian society and its increasing thuggishness. As Mr. Massis said of his sons’ beatings, “There are such problems every day.”

While it is hard to gauge what role intimidation and nationalist sensibilities play, there is widespread denial of any official persecution. Some prominent Christians praise the Hamas leadership for allowing the Christian community its religious freedom and conducting itself in a more honorable fashion than the previous government did.

“The Christians are happier now, with Hamas, than in the period before,” said Jeries Khoury, the Christian director of Al Liqa, an institute for religious studies. “They are respected. Of course people are still leaving, but Hamas, or ‘the Muslims,’ are the last reason for that.”

Claudette Habesch, secretary general of Caritas Jerusalem, a branch of the international Catholic relief organization, said that Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian prime minister from Hamas, “is a very civilized man.” She added, “He has gained a lot of respect from the community at large.”

To explain their troubles, many Palestinians point to the economic hardship and unemployment caused by the cutoff of outside aid and Israeli security measures that bar most Palestinians from working inside Israel; the disruptions from internal Palestinian instability and lawlessness; and in some cases, corrupt elements connected with the secular Fatah party that dominated the Palestinian Authority for the decade before 2006.

Other factors make Christians particularly vulnerable. In the Palestinian Authority areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, their numbers are now down to 55,000 or 60,000, or 1.7 percent of the Palestinian population. Those who remain must struggle to preserve their weakened communities and lands from encroachment by stronger parties. And Christians lack the protection other Palestinians claim from large clans or their own militias.

The Christians’ problems are writ large in Bethlehem , where most Palestinian Christians live. Fifty years ago, its population was 90 percent Christian; that has fallen, because of emigration and relatively low birth rates, to just 35 percent.