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The Islamification of Palestine

Originally Published in the National Post: Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It remains to be seen what was accomplished at the Fatah-Hamas summit held earlier this month. Yet one thing was made abundantly clear by the very fact of the meeting – Palestinian Christians have new cause to worry about their religious liberty. Home
The feuding Palestinian parties met in the holy city of Mecca (Makkah), hosted by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. Mecca is an odd choice for a summit site, because non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medinah. There are checkpoints on the highways into the holy cities, at which non-Muslim motorists who may have missed the “Muslims Only” signs are advised not to go any further.
Media reports were remarkably silent on the question of holding the Palestinian summit in a city where Palestinian Christians – a small minority, but historically active in Palestinian leadership – are barred by law. Perhaps a waiver was given to allow non-Muslims to temporarily enter, perhaps not. Perhaps the Christians were hustled through the airport on diplomatic passports; perhaps they were whisked through in disguise. Perhaps they converted before the summit; or perhaps they were just left at home. In two weeks of heavy media coverage, I have not seen the issue addressed.
Perhaps it is now simply accepted that the Palestinian question is to be understood as an exclusively Islamic question. In the last year, I have written twice in these pages about the Islamification of Palestinian politics, as the cause has been transformed from a nationalist project to a religious one. The Mecca summit would seem to confirm that this is now quasi-official policy.
“What is happening on the ground [in Gaza] serves only the enemies of the Arab-Islamic nation and, if it continues, it will deprive the Palestinian people of the fruits of their long heroic struggle to recover their national rights,” King Abdullah said during his talks with Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas.
What precisely is the “Arab-Islamic” nation of which the King speaks? Does it include only those who are Arab and Muslim – a “nation” that would exclude Egyptian Coptic Christians, Iraqi Chaldean Christians, as well as Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Palestinians? Meeting in Mecca would suggest that in the “Arab-Islamic” nation, the Islamic bit is the more important, in which case one wonders what relationship Iranians, Pakistanis and Indonesians might have with this new nation.
But the principal question is for those Palestinian people who wish “to recover their national rights” as King Abdullah puts it. Are those national rights to be understood in Islamic terms? Is the long delayed Palestinian state to be an Islamic republic? And if Palestinian leaders feel comfortable meeting in cities where Christians are banned, what confidence can Christians worldwide have that our holy sites – in Bethlehem and the Old City of Jerusalem – would be safeguarded should they ever come under the jurisdiction of a Palestinian state?
The centuries-old presence of Christians in the “Arab-Islamic” world is dwindling. Where there were hundreds of thousands, there are now communities of only a few dozen families. Most dramatic of all, Bethlehem, once a majority-Christian city, is now three quarters Muslim. Christians increasingly feel like aliens among their own people, as Islamic identity dominates the national ties of Palestinian heritage. Meetings in Mecca will only confirm the fears of Palestinian Christians that there is little future for them in the “Arab-Islamic” nation.
The fact that most Arabs are Muslims need not be ignored, and imposing a suffocating secularism – the Turkish model – on the citizens of the Arab lands is neither feasible nor desirable. It is also not necessary, as Arab countries have long experience with religious minorities living in relative harmony within Islamic majorities. Religious liberty for Christians and others in Islamic-majority Arab countries is not something foreign; it has been respected in times past, and Christian communities have been able to flourish. The future can return to the experience of the past.
There must be room in the future of the Arab nations for their countrymen who worship differently. Yet there is no room for them in Mecca. Let Mecca remain, if it must, a meeting place exclusively for Muslims. It should never be a place for national summits.
© National Post 2007