Hamas in the Holy Land

JERUSALEM — Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Gaza are glad they got the chance to vote. They aren’t so glad at the outcome of the election.

Hamas, which won 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament, may impose a stronger brand of Islam on mainstream Palestinian society.

Founded in 1987, Hamas is dedicated to spreading Islam around the globe and, as its charter proclaims, destroying the State of Israel. Many, including the U.S. government, define it as a terrorist organization.

Many Christians and moderate Muslims were alarmed by the remarks of Sheikh Mohammed Abu Teir, the No. 2 candidate on the Hamas election list, who announced immediately after the election that his movement plans to introduce shari’a (Islamic law).

Islamic governments often use shari’a to discriminate against Christians and other minorities.

Teir said that Hamas will soon require girls and boys to study in separate classes, but that it does not plan to ban alcohol or to force women to wear a hijab (an Islamic head scarf). Despite these fears, Christians have tried to put an upbeat spin on the proceedings, in which almost 80% of the public voted.

“The democratic process was a great achievement,” said Munib Younan, bishop of the Lutheran Evangelical Church. “Of course, you never know what the results of the democratic process will be.”

Frequent wars, financial instability and Israel’s security barrier — which prevents Palestinians from entering Israel — have all taken their toll on both Christians and Muslims, who have emigrated from the region in large numbers.

As a small but integral part of Palestinian society, Christians would be vulnerable if Hamas decides to change the religious status quo. The tiny Christian minority, which represents less than 2% of the Palestinian population, is already struggling to maintain its community, churches and schools.

Since the election, Christians have been clinging to the hope — shared by their moderate Muslim neighbors — that Hamas will focus more on payrolls and stamping out rampant corruption than on Islamicizing the country.

The Vatican is extremely concerned about the welfare of the dwindling Christian community, which could all but disappear if emigration continues. The Holy See often intervenes with the Palestinian and Israeli governments on the Christians’ behalf, and has made Catholic pilgrimages to the region a top priority.

Younan expressed the belief, shared by many, that most Palestinians, including some Christians, voted for Hamas “because they wanted change and reform, not because they support a radical Islamist agenda or violence.” Change was necessary, Younan says, “because the Palestinians are in desperation. They see the Israeli occupation, land confiscation, settlement growth, home demolitions. Hamas always provides a very good welfare system, and people appreciate that.”

Younan believes that Holy Land Christians can be a moderating influence in a Hamas-led country.

“We Christians are committed to a two-state solution with a shared Jerusalem,” he said. “We will still continue to renounce any type of violence or terrorism.”

On Jan. 31, Younan and other leaders and patriarchs of the traditional Holy Land churches tried to reassure those who “may be afraid or troubled because of this new phase.”

The leaders, who included Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land, and Bishop Pierre Melki, Exarch for the Syrian Catholics, offered to cooperate to bring about “the public good and the national Palestinian aspirations together with the cause of justice and peace in a non-violent way.” They then quoted Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

Father Pizzaballa, whose order maintains and protects the Holy Land’s Catholic churches and institutions, said that “we are of course a little concerned because Hamas is not a simple party. It is an Islamic movement used to terror and is considered by the international community as a terrorist movement.” For the good of the region, he said, “we must hope and pray that Hamas will continue the peace process and the dialogue with Israel.”

The custos said he was certain that the new government “will be respectful of the Christian holy places. It is vital that these holy places and the Christian presence will be maintained as they have been in the past.”

The Hamas organization is extremely popular among the Palestinian lower classes and middle classes because it provides a wide range of social, educational and health benefits. The government, which until now was dominated by the secular Fatah Party, is widely regarded as corrupt and ineffectual in its dealings with Israel and the United States.

Constantine Dabbagh, executive director of the Middle East Council of Churches in Gaza, said there is no reason to believe that Hamas will discriminate against Christians or the handful of other minorities who reside in the West Bank and Gaza.

“We do not expect any changes in the policies toward Christian citizens because we are Palestinians, we are Arabs,” he said.

If anything, Dabbagh surmised, “Hamas will work even harder to grant religious freedom to minorities. We are not foreigners.”

The administrator urged the international donor community not to withhold financial aid from the Palestinians due to the Hamas victory.

“Even before the elections, governments threatened to boycott Hamas and to withhold aid,” he said. “That would be tantamount to collective punishment against the Palestinian people. The international community should not drive Hamas to be more radical than it is already.”

George Giacaman, the director of the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, predicted that the Hamas leadership will bend over backwards to appear religiously moderate and tolerant.

“They are aware of their image,” Giacaman, a Christian from the Bethlehem area, said. “They don’t want to be compared with the Taliban.”

Michele Chabin

writes from Jerusalem.