01/26/2006, 00.00
PALESTINE
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Christians anxious over Hamas victory

by Abu Mahmud
There is widespread unease but no certainty that situation of Christians will deteriorate in the Palestinian territories. Church authorities will seek reconfirmation of the February 15, 2000, Basic Agreement between the Holy See and the Palestine Liberation Organisation that guarantees religious freedom, upholds established Church rights and protects the Holy Sites.

Bethlehem (AsiaNews) – "A disaster, Hamas's victory is a disaster for Christians," said an agitated K. M., a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem after poll results from yesterday's elections showed the Islamist party gaining 77 of the 132 seats in the new Palestinian legislative council.

Even taking a more positive view, little good for Palestinian Christians can come from Hamas's success. The party favours a theocratic state and is opposed to secular Arab nationalism which was the best hope Arab Christians had since the 19th century to be treated as equal citizens under the law in Arab countries.

"It was pay-back time for the Palestinian National Authority (PNA)," K. M. said, "for their incompetence and corruption. But for us, everything becomes dangerous."

"Hamas is a fundamentalist movement. Now with an absolute majority they can adopt any law. They are likely to pass law inspired by the Sharia," he said. "Some have promised that they are going to impose taxes on Christians [as dhimmis] the way they used long time ago."

Given the new situation, Palestinian Christians might be spurred to work with secular parties hoping that their fortunes might rise again in Palestinian politics when the next elections take place. Christians can also become more involved in 'civil society' organisations.

Church authorities will have to get in touch with the new Palestinian rulers to reconfirm the Basic Agreement signed by the Holy See and the PLO on February 15, 2000.

As Fr David-Maria A. Jaeger, a Franciscan expert on State-Church relations in the Holy Land, said, historically Hamas was never part of the PLO, which signed the agreement for and on behalf of the PNA. In principle, this means that whoever is fully or partially in charge of the PNA must abide by its terms. Among other things, the agreement guarantees religious freedom, uphold the Church's established rights and protects the Holy Sites.

But for K.M. "the future remains uncertain. The US and Israel have said they won't accept Hamas as a partner in future peace talks. However, according to the principles of democracy Hamas was elected by the will of the people. After preaching democracy across the Middle East, the Americans can't go back on their words now."

The results of the Palestinian elections will force many in the West to reflect on the value of pushing for quick democratisation in the region without taking into account local social, economic and cultural conditions.

Democracy is much more than open and fair elections. It is wise to remember that secular liberal democracies were historically realised in societies in which highly educated, economically well-off middle classes, thirsty of civil rights, reached a certain critical mass.

This cannot be said of either Palestinian territories or Iraq, or Algeria (in the early 1990s). And historically liberal democracy never flourished in countries under foreign belligerent occupation like the Palestinian territories since 1967.

"The danger for us is real," said K.M. "In Bethlehem we have four members of parliament: two for Fatah (including a Protestant Christian) and two for Hamas. One of the elected Hamas MPs is a fundamentalist Muslim sheikh who from time to time preaches again the Christian presence in Palestine."

"What can Christians do? Perhaps, many will think of emigrating, thus further emptying the Holy Land" of its Christians, he lamented.

In reality though, some observers point out that there is no certainty that conditions for Christians are going to deteriorate. Such conditions are the same for the Muslim majority and are more influenced by the general situation of the occupied territories than by what the PNA's semi-autonomous institutions can do.

There is even an outside chance that Hamas's greater internal discipline might end the 'fauda', the chaos that currently prevails in the territories, and which Christians in Bethlehem and elsewhere have had to endure.

What the election results do make clear is that a peace treaty between Israel and Palestine is needed now more than ever, a peace treaty achieved as part of an international peace conference that would also ensure that the future Palestinian constitution and the effective management of public affairs in Palestine are based on proper guarantees for human and civil rights.

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