Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Justus Reid Weiner, a Scholar-in-Residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an independent policy studies center. He currently teaches courses on human rights and international law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His main research field is the human rights challenges facing Arab Christians. He is the author of the new book, "Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society".
FP: Justus Reid Weiner, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Weiner: Thank you Jamie.
FP: First things first, what motivated you to write this book?
Weiner: My initial interest in human rights began at the age of 10 or 11 when my great-grandfather, then almost 90, came for an extended visit. Jacob, who spoke with a heavy Yiddish accent and was missing the index finger on his right hand, regaled me with stories about his childhood in Odessa during the reign of the Czar. He described what it was like for Jews living in fear of pogroms in which the police looked the other way as drunken anti-Semites roamed the streets murdering any Jews they came across. I was embarrassed to ask him what happened to his finger, but Jacob told me anyway. Like in other Jewish families, Jacob's parents feared the Czar's conscription gangs who, without asking for permission, would kidnap boys of 12 and ship them off to serve in Siberia or the Far East. The term of service was 20 years and few ever returned to their families. To prevent this, Jacob's parents got him drunk and took him to the butcher who chopped off his trigger finger, rendering him unsuitable for army service. As I was then almost the age at which Jacob lost his index finger, I had nightmares about what he told me.
My specific interest in the plight of Christians living in Palestinian society is more recent. Eight years ago I met a Christian pastor who, knowing that I was a human rights lawyer, urged me to investigate the human rights abuses directed at Muslims who converted to Christianity. I knew nothing about this, and frankly doubted that anyone would victimize the adherents of the world's largest religion. But as I began to interview people most were reluctant to even meet me. If they agreed to reveal what they had suffered, they insisted that I refer to them by a pseudonym.
FP: Why do you think there has been an increase in Islamic fundamentalism in Palestinian society?
Weiner: The increase is a regional phenomenon. Indeed it would be hard to find any predominantly Muslim country in the Middle East, North Africa or even into Asia, where Islamic fundamentalism is not on the rise.
FP: Tell us about the persecution of Palestinian Christians and why their persecution became so much worse since the Oslo peace process began.
Weiner: These are acutely trying times for the Christian remnant residing in areas ‘governed’ by the Palestinian Authority. Tens of thousands have abandoned their holy sites and ancestral properties to live abroad, while those that remain do so as a beleaguered and dwindling minority. They have faced virtually uninterrupted persecution during the decade since the Oslo peace process began, living amidst a Muslim population that is increasingly xenophobic and restless. Chaos, nepotism, and corruption are endemic. Their plight is, in part, attributable to the influence of Muslim religious law (Sharia) on the inner workings of the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, the Christians have been abandoned by their religious leaders who, instead of protecting them, have chosen to curry favor with the Palestinian leadership.
My new book reveals and analyzes why this persecution, largely ignored by the international community, the media, and even the human rights organizations, has metastasized to the extent that it threatens the very existence of this 2000-year-old community. If current demographic trends continue Bethlehem runs the risk, in another 15 years, of becoming a Christian theme park for tourists -- with no "real" living Christians.
FP: Christian Palestinian women have suffered terribly. Can you tell us some of the details of their plight?
Weiner: Christian women suffer rampant sexual harassment, rape and even forced marriage. For example, Islamic militants have attempted to force Christian women wearing modern, revealing clothing to conform to the strict, modest Muslim dress code. In addition, Muslim men have attempted to rape Christian women, sometimes achieving their objective. These victims may, ironically, end up marrying the man who raped them because in their society they are regarded as unclean for marriage purposes.
Christian men risk being jailed when they intervene to rescue Christian women being attacked or insulted. The Muslim perpetrators get off scot-free because they have family members in the upper echelon of one (or more) of the 12 "security" forces.
FP: Why does the international community ignore the plight of Palestinian Christians?
Weiner: This is something I have never fully understood. This is a human rights issue par excellance, not merely a Christian issue.
Perhaps a partial answer is simple ignorance -- as only of late have a few courageous Christians begun to complain to the media and human rights groups. Scholars are beginning to address this tragedy as well. But really, there can be no justification, just excuses.
FP: Islamic militants want Christian women to dress more modestly yet at the same time they engage in sexual crimes (i.e. rape) against them. Isn’t there some kind of pathological contradiction here in terms of what sexual morality is? So it is supposedly wrong for a woman to wear what she wants, but it is somehow ok to rape her? What gives here? And what kind of God does a person believe in when he is raping a woman and thinks that God is happy with, and supportive of, what he is doing?
Weiner: Yes, Islamic militants frequently complain that Christian women dress immodestly and they use that “justification” to harass, or in some cases, even to rape them. And this phenomenon is not by any means unique to the West Bank and Gaza – it has been addressed in articles from far-flung countries with substantial Muslim immigration such as Australia and Norway.
While some Muslim men may truly be offended by women’s revealing modern fashion, Islamic law no doubt provides others with a handy excuse for criminal conduct. Of course Western courts would never accept the argument that women who don’t wear the veil are announcing to the world that they are sluts or even prostitutes. In Western jurisprudence such a “justification” would simply not be tolerated.
By way of background, the Qur’an (Islam’s holy book) is rife with gender and religious discrimination. Thus, for example, Muhammad taught that women are inferior to men, their testimony in court carries less weight, and their inheritance rights are halved. Marriage (or sexual relations) between Christian men and Muslim women is prohibited, and punishable by death. But a Muslim man is allowed to marry a Christian woman, even if he has abducted and raped her. Moreover, their offspring would be forced to accept Islam, and the woman would have no say if her husband engaged in polygamy by marring up to three additional wives.
Historically Christian women taken captive by Muslims in warfare have been enslaved or worse. And even when there is no conflict, legally speaking it is virtually impossible to convict a Muslim man of raping a Christian woman. This follows from the fact that testimony of non-Muslim witnesses inadmissible in Muslim courts. Furthermore, it is most unlikely that the Christian rape victim with be able to find four male Muslims willing to testify on her behalf that they had witnessed the penetration. Indeed, even leveling such a charge can backfire on the victim. That is, if a woman levels a charge of rape against a Muslim man and cannot prove it, she runs the risk of being severely punished for fornication or adultery, both ruthlessly punished by Islamic law.
FP: If the Palestinians received their own state, what kind of state do you think it would be? Would democratic rights be respected? How would Christians exist in such a state?
Weiner: Your question is profound. It forces me to think and worry. Certainly precedent is not encouraging. Former Chairman Yasser Arafat's (and current leader Mahmoud Abbas’s) commitment to democratic values was/is vague at best. The Palestinian Authority’s indoctrination of Palestinian children, from a very young age, to hate and kill Christians and Jews, for example, directly contributes to a culture that produces suicide bombers and cheers on September 11.
Moreover, the testimonies provided in my new book make it pointedly clear that lawlessness and anarchy have swept the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent years. Gangs of Muslim thugs and thieves have created what a former Palestinian Cabinet Minister described as “total chaos.” It is essential that the Palestinian Authority arrest these militants who, in their range of mafia-like conduct, frequently abuse and intimidate Christians.
But let’s think optimistically for a moment. Clearly, if the Palestinian Authority's were to adopt sound human rights policies and practices it would contribute immeasurably to the survival of the Christians, not to mention the success of any future peace process. Christian Palestinians' expectations regarding an improvement in their personal liberty deserves to be met, and should not be limited to empty promises and rhetoric.
FP: What can we do to help Christians being persecuted by Palestinians?
Weiner: In essence, the U.S. statute known as the International Religious Freedom Act was intended to enable the President and the State Department to use incentives and pressures to improve the lives of groups like the Palestinian Christians. But regrettably, because the U.S. wants to maintain friendly relations with countries that are crucial to its national security and policy interests, President George W. Bush may choose largely symbolic steps to oppose religious persecution abroad.
President Bush however, has made the support and spread of religious and political freedoms a cornerstone of his foreign policy during his second term. Clear evidence of this comes from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's trip to China earlier this year, during which she made a highly publicized visit to a church. In remarks she made to the press following her visit, Secretary Rice described how "religious communities are not a threat to transitioning societies; in fact, they are very often... a force for good, for stability and for compassion in societies that are undergoing rapid change." If the Bush Administration were to target the Palestinian Authority explicitly with its stated policy - which makes religious freedom part of the Bush Doctrine of democratization – it could only improve the situation for Palestinian Christians.
The United Nations is less likely to perform a useful role. The UN’s feeble response to the gross human rights violations perpetrated by the Palestinian Authority further exemplifies the extent to which the desire for peace between Israel and the Palestinians supercedes the basic rights of individuals, especially the Christian minority, living under the Palestinian Authority. That is, he UN has taken the posture of compromising its role as protector of human rights in order to maintain a political role in negotiating peace. Unfortunately, through the discretionary use of its own human rights doctrine, the UN has sacrificed not just its legitimacy and objectivity, but the human rights of minority groups such as the Palestinian Christians.
I am not suggesting that human rights concerns should trump considerations of peace making, national security or economic stability, but rather that the necessity of the realization that peace, national security, and economic stability often depend directly on the respect for human rights. This situation must be recognized by those who would otherwise willfully ignore the plight of Palestinian Christians in the name of peace. There cannot be peace in the Middle East until the Palestinians respect the rights of their internal minorities. This is no less important a prerequisite to negotiations than the oft-repeated demands of a cessation of terror.
The future of the Palestinian Christian community and any other religious minority living under the PA will rest on the potential for religious tolerance and the rejection of fundamentalist and archaic attitudes towards non-Muslims. As long as the constitution of the PA reflects the principles of Sharia law, it seems as though the emergence of religious tolerance will remain highly unlikely. As long as the PA continues to shirk its agreed-upon commitments to uphold the principles of religious freedom, the Palestinian Christians will continue to suffer. Furthermore, as long as the international community continues to ignore the human rights problems in the Palestinian territories, there will be no chance for a proper liberal democracy to emerge upon completion of the peace process. Instead, the world will be left with yet another Middle Eastern autocracy that abuses the most basic human rights values without regard for international norms.
FP: Justus Weiner, thank you for joining us today.
Weiner: Thanks for the opportunity.