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Reuters fails to root out facts on Palestinian Christians

3/13/2007 Palestine (CAMERA) A Reuters report on the dwindling Christian population in Palestinian-controlled territories charges it is due to despair over “life under Israeli occupation” while ignoring overwhelming evidence that it has been caused by widespread intimidation of Christians by Muslims. Indeed, the article (“Misery Tempts Palestinian Christians to Flee,” by Alistair Lyon, Mar. 11, 2007) quotes unnamed Palestinian “Christian leaders” to the effect that “they face no religious persecution from the Palestinian Muslim majority or from Israel .”

It is certainly no surprise to read that Arab Christians are free from religious persecution at the hands of Israelis – after all, rather than dwindling, the Arab Christian population in Israel itself is growing, and at about the same rate as the Israeli Jewish population . But it’s another matter entirely to read that Palestinian Christians are also free from persecution at the hands of their Muslim neighbors, a claim which flies in the face of much recent testimony from Palestinian Christians themselves.

An article in the British Daily Mail, for example (“O, Muslim Town of Bethlehem,” Dec. 16, 2006), while mentioning the undoubted difficulties created by Israel’s security barrier, reported that the main problem facing Palestinian Christians is a Muslim campaign of persecution and even violent attacks:

Life for Palestinian Christians … has become increasingly difficult in Bethlehem – and many of them are leaving. The town’s Christian population has dwindled from more than 85 per cent in 1948 to 12 per cent of its 60,000 inhabitants in 2006. There are reports of religious persecution, in the form of murders, beatings and land grabs. …

-George Rabie, a 22-year-old taxi driver from the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala, is proud of his Christianity, even though it puts him in daily danger. Two months ago, he was beaten up by a gang of Muslims who were visiting Bethlehem from nearby Hebron and who had spotted the crucifix hanging on his windscreen.

“Every day, I experience discrimination,” he says.” “It is a type of racism. We are a minority so we are an easier target. Many extremists from the villages are coming into Bethlehem .”

-Jeriez Moussa Amaro, a 27-year-old aluminium craftsman from Beit Jala is another with first-hand experience of the appalling violence that Christians face. Five years ago, his two sisters, Rada, 24, and Dunya, 18, were shot dead by Muslim gunmen in their own home. Their crime was to be young, attractive Christian women who wore Western clothes and no veil. Rada had been sleeping with a Muslim man in the months before her death.

A terrorist organisation, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, issued a statement claiming responsibility, which said: “We wanted to clean the Palestinian house of prostitutes.” Jeriez says: “A Christian man is weak compared to a Muslim man. “They have bigger, more powerful families and they know people high up in the Palestinian authority.”

The fear of attack has prompted many Christian families to emigrate, including Mr Canawati’s sister, her husband and their three children who now live in New Jersey in America . … Samir Qumsieh is general manager of Al-Mahed – Nativity – which is the only Christian television station in Bethlehem . He has had death threats and visits from armed men demanding three acres of his land – and he is now ready to leave.

“As Christians, we have no future here,” he says.

Similarly, an article by Khaled Abu Toameh in the Jerusalem Post (“Bethlehem Christians fear neighbors”) reports that:

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 …

“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’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.”

… 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.”

Even the New York Times, in an article that did its best to minimize Muslim/Christian tensions in the Palestinian territories, could not avoid mentioning at least some of the difficulties besetting Christians:

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. (New York Times, March 11, 2007)

Alistair Lyon’s failure to report the truth about the campaign of intimidation and violence inflicted upon Palestinian Christians, his failure to even mention the attack on the Y.M.C.A., is nothing short of scandalous. But, unhappily, it’s also not a great surprise, considering the rest of Alistair Lyon’s work. Long billed as Reuters Middle East Diplomatic Correspondent and now tagged as a “Special Correspondent,” Lyon has repeatedly referred to the violent Palestinian intifada against Israel , which featured so many suicide bombings and other grisly attacks against civilians, as an “uprising against occupation” or a “revolt against occupation.” But Lyon ignores that the end of “occupation” was on the table at Camp David in 2000 when Yasir Arafat rejected the Clinton peace proposals and turned instead to war. That is, it was Arafat and the Palestinians who rejected the end of occupation, and therefore their “uprising” could be against many things, except “against occupation.”

Lyon ’s work as an editor has also been called into question. For example, according to blogger Scott Burgess (The Daily Ablution), after the London suicide bomb attacks in 2005 Lyon sent the following memo to Reuters staffers :

Stories from Baghdad , Jerusalem or other places in the Middle East that have suffered suicide bombings should avoid easy comparisons with the London attacks. The technique may be the same, but the specifics of what lies behind them may be very different and our stories need to reflect the nuances.

Clearly the “nuances” are that suicide bombs in London are different from suicide bombs in Jerusalem , because Londoners are innocent in ways that Jerusalemites – especially Jewish Jerusalemites – are not. And similarly in Baghdad , since it is now an American project.

The bottom line is that the naked bias and journalistic dereliction displayed by Alistair Lyon would disqualify him from working at just about any media outlet in the free world, with the obvious exception of Reuters and its British cousins, the Independent and the Guardian.