A Palestinian's Refuted Story of Religious Persecution Is Replayed in the U.S. Congress

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A Palestinian's Refuted Story of Religious Persecution Is Replayed in the U.S. Congress

Six years ago, Muhammad Bakr defied the Muslim tradition of his Palestinian village near Nablus, rejected the teachings of the prophet that he was named for, and convened to Christianity. As a result, Bakr was jailed by the Palestinian Authority (PA) for a year and tortured into confessing to false charges, claim Bakr and his pastor.

But human rights groups and Palestinian Christians don't believe that Bakr was arrested for his faith. Instead, they say that Bakr's story was used by Israeli and pro-Israeli Christian groups to stir up international concern about the plight of Christians under the four-year-old Palestinian government.

The same American religious right that publicized Bakr's story is one of the strongest advocates for current legislation that would level sanctions against countries that harass or jail Christians because of their faith. The Freedom From Religious Persecution Act was passed by an overwhelming House majority on May 14th, and soon will be voted on by the United States Senate. While the PA is not named as an offending government in the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, it would be subject to scrutiny if the bill were passed, particularly after reports of religious persecution that have been circulated by Bakr's pastor, David Ortiz, and the Israeli government.

"David Ortiz is very well-connected in the U.S., including several senators and within Christian right circles," says Jennifer Moorehead of LAW, a Jerusalem-based human rights organization. "The Christian right has in turn influenced several congresspeople who were already hostile to the Palestinians." The problem with that, says Moorehead, is that extensive investigations by both LAW and the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group have found that Ortiz's claims of systematic police arrest and harassment of Christians due to their faith are unfounded.

Palestinian Christian leaders have repeatedly denied that the PA has subjected them to "relentless persecution," as an Israeli report claimed. "I don't believe for a second that [Palestinian President] Yasser Arafat or anyone else said `Go and attack the Christians,'" says Issa Bajalia, a Palestinian evangelical Christian pastor.

Christians point out that while they only make up 2.2 percent of the Palestinian population, they have many representatives in high posts of the Palestinian government. And, says LAW, the eight Christian converts from Islam that Ortiz claims have been persecuted were targeted by police for other reasons.

Palestinian Christian leaders have repeatedly denied that the PA has subjected them to "relentless persecution."

Ortiz is an American Pentecostal minister who moved to an Israeli West Bank settlement with the intention of converting Jews and Muslims to Christianity. He openly believes that, "God is bringing the Jews on this land and he has a plan for them." That isn't a popular opinion among the 2.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza and hope to establish a state there.

Moorehead thinks that Ortiz's beliefs, activities, and where he lives are the reasons why his small congregation has faced difficulties from Palestinian security forces. Frequent visits with Ortiz in the settlement, the attention Ortiz has drawn to the PA, as well as their own previous social and criminal problems, make Ortiz's converts targets for police hostility.

While there is no proof that these eight men have been arrested for their faith, the Israeli government has used their story in its own campaign against the Palestinian leadership. Not long after Bakr's arrest, an Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs report was leaked to the press. The report detailed several Palestinian religious conflicts, including Bakr's case, and quoted the dwindling numbers of Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Gaza as proof that the PA was hostile to non-Muslims. …