WASHINGTON – As Islamist extremism grows, Christian existence in Palestinian territory is disappearing at an alarming rate, emphasized a distinguished scholar and international human rights lawyer.
During a discussion last week about the preservation of the 2,000-year-old Palestinian Christian community, Dr. Justus Weiner, a Scholar in Residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, shared horrifying stories of Christians being persecuted and tortured by Palestinian authorities.
He noted that the population in Bethlehem during the 1940s was estimated to be about 75-80 percent Christian, but now that number has dropped to about 12 percent.
Moreover, the overall Christian population of the whole West Bank has decline to about 1.5-1.7 percent of the total population – or "practically at the point of disappearing," Weiner said during the talk at the public policy think tank Hudson Institute on Tuesday.
"Nobody denies this," he added. "People play with the numbers a little bit, but no one denies this (the drastic decline of Palestinian Christian population)."
Christians flee the territory mostly due to social instability, lack of economic opportunities, and religious discrimination - but some even face gruesome torture simply because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
Weiner, one of the world's leading experts on the situation of Palestinian Christians, told of several real-life cases of torture he has examined during his nine years of research on the status of Arab Christians in the West Bank in Gaza.
His first story was about an Armenian Christian jewelry store owner from Jerusalem who was on a business trip to Gaza. The Palestinian police ordered him to turn over half of his gold and money and then subsequently beat him for six hours. After the beating the man still refused to give the police his gold and was beaten for another two hours in the police station. In the end, the Christian man's watch, rings, half of his gold jewelry and $6,000 were taken from him before he was released.
In another case, a Muslim who converted to Christianity was arrested by the Palestinian authorities on fabricated charges and imprisoned for 21 months – of which seven months he was held in solitary underground confinement.
The man in a written testimony recalled he was beaten with sticks, stripped naked and forced to sit on bottles and on the legs of chairs which were turned upside down.
Weiner is working to secure asylum for this man in Norway where he will join his brother – also a Christian convert whom Weiner has helped.
The most severe case presented by Weiner involved an Arab Christian convert who was confined to a tiny cell and regularly left for days without food. During interrogation, he was often tortured by the PA officers who put out cigarettes on his back.
Weiner, who interviewed this man in his office, said he saw first-hand cigarette-burn scars on the man's back.
Moreover, strips of sheet metal were held with tongs in hot fire and touched to the skin of the Christian convert's buttocks and his Achilles tendon where the heat melted through the back of his feet.
The man had provided Weiner photographs of his injuries when it was still fresh as well as hospital documents.
"His injuries are the kind you read in medieval books. It is hard to describe," commented Weiner.
The Christian convert had only begun giving out books on Christianity and speaking to Muslims about his newfound faith when the PA immediately cracked down on him.
During his imprisonment, the convert was promised by the police that he would be freed and given a senior position in the PA with a big office if he reverted back to Islam. He refused, however, and on Jan. 21, 2004 was shot dead by masked men.
"I dedicated my book to this courageous man who continued to practice the religion of his choice even in the face of constant harassment and death threats," said Weiner, pointing out that his murderers have not been brought to justice.
Weiner's talk came just a month after Hamas forcefully took over the Gaza Strip, where it is feared that Christians will suffer even more under the Islamic fundamentalist group as well as the lack of law and order following the military coup.
"It is my hope that if these human rights issues are publicized, that there will be more international pressure on the Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad," concluded Weiner.
"Religious tolerance is a fundamental human right for all people in every part of the world," he said.
"This should be understood as the beginning of everything."