Ma'an News Agency
October 26, 2009 - 12:00am

Israel continues to discriminate against its religious minorities legally, financially and culturally, according to a US State Department review on worldwide religious freedom released on Monday.

In its 2009 International Religious Freedom Report, the foreign service said that despite past documentation of prejudice against minorities, the status of respect for religious freedoms by Israel "was unchanged during the reporting period."

The report comes one day after at least 30 Palestinians were injured and 20 arrested in violent clashes near the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound that followed an early-morning raid by Israel's paramilitary police forces unit. Nine Israeli officers were also hurt in the incident, mostly from rocks thrown by local teenagers in occupied East Jerusalem.

"We would encourage the government of Israel, as we encourage every government, to ensure that multiple religious faiths who live in that place are entitled to freedom to worship," said US Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner during the report's official release in Washington on Monday.

Although its section on Israel and the occupied territories says both people's governments purport to respect freedom of religion, the annual review compiles a vast list of Israeli policies that amount to discrimination against non-Jews.

Additionally, it accuses the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Hamas-backed de facto government in Gaza of failing to adequately investigate or prosecute a handful of instances over the past 12 months.

The report found that inside Israel, "government and legal discrimination against non-Jews" continued unabated, and cited several cases in which Israel also failed to adequately address previous allegations.

For example, the report notes that while more than 20 percent of its population is Muslim and Christian, Israel "provides significantly greater levels of legal protection and government resources to Jewish holy places than to those of other religious groups."

"Israel implements regulations only for Jewish sites," the State Department report said. "Non-Jewish holy sites do not enjoy legal protection," and of the country's 137 designated holy sites, not one is for Christians or Muslims.

More egregious, according to the report, is that holy sites go unprotected as Israel "has drafted regulations to identify, protect, and fund only Jewish holy sites." Although many sites have "de facto protection" because of their importance to foreign tourists, "many Muslim and Christian sites are neglected, inaccessible, or threatened by property developers and municipalities."

In some cases, Israel actually permits "citizens or municipalities to turn old mosques into galleries, restaurants, and museums," according to the State Department.

Israel's own government admits its state budgets cover only the costs of constructing Jewish sites and that it provides just basic maintenance to non-Jewish shrines at a "disproportionally lower level than for synagogues."

Following an order by the country's High Court to explain such unequal policies, Israel responded that specific regulations were not necessary for the protection of any holy sites. However, the report said, Israel "did not explain why it therefore promulgated regulations for Jewish sites but not for non-Jewish sites."

The High Court also ruled that Beersheva municipality could reopen the city's old mosque as a museum, the report said. Approximately 80,000 Bedouins were unable to build or legally maintain mosques "as a result of longstanding government policy to deny ownership claims, building requests, and municipal services." A rights group responded that while there was one synagogue for every 700 Jews, there was not a single mosque for the city's 5,000 Muslims.

Relatedly, religious figures were horrified that the court recently ruled the Simon Wiesenthal Center could continue building on a plot of land containing a centuries-old Muslim cemetery. In March, the court ruled that implementing regulations to protect Islamic holy sites are unnecessary, according to the State Department.

Israel segregates public schools between Jews and non-Jews, the report said, and while its schools for Palestinians offer studies in both Islam and Christianity, state funding for is proportionately less than the funding for religious education courses in Jewish schools. Meanwhile, the country's Ministry of the Interior has not yet ended its policy of differentiating between Jews and non-Jews on national identification documents, the report noted.

There were, however, improvements in Israel's overall treatment of religious minorities within the past 12 months, according to the State Department.

For instance, two defendants were sentenced to two months imprisonment, suspended for three years, for their part in a 2006 incident where some 100 ultra-Orthodox Jews assaulted around 50 Christian tourists in a Jerusalem neighborhood. In September 2008, Israeli police reissued a 1999 directive to police precincts throughout the country reminding them of their duty to fully investigate crimes against minority religious communities, which was apparently lacking.

Also, numerous NGOs in the country continue to promote Jewish-Palestinian coexistence and interfaith harmony, according to the report. "These groups and their events had varying degrees of success," the report said.

According to the same report, Palestinians in the occupied territories continue to suffer violations of religious freedom related to Israel's ongoing military presence.

Following an unsuccessful appeal by the Vatican, the Interior Ministry stated that multiple-entry visas for clergy and other religious workers constituted a security threat and would not be issued. "The shortage of foreign clergy impeded the functioning of Christian congregations," according to the report, which said Israel applies travel restrictions that significantly impede freedom of access to places of worship in the West Bank.

Israeli authorities severely limit the access of Palestinians to the city of Bethlehem's Rachel's tomb, a shrine holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but allowed relatively unimpeded access to Jewish visitors, the report said. "Israeli closure policy," the report continued, prevents "tens of thousands of Palestinians from reaching places of worship in Jerusalem and the West Bank, including during religious holidays such as Ramadan, Christmas, and Easter."

Israeli settlers continued to incite against and assault Palestinians based on their religion and ethnicity, according to the report. "Israeli settler radio stations often depicted Arabs as subhuman and called for Palestinians to be expelled from the West Bank. Some of this rhetoric contained religious references.

"Jewish settlers, acting either alone or in groups, assaulted Palestinians and destroyed Palestinian property," the report noted, saying Israel almost always failed to intervene. "Most instances of violence or property destruction reportedly committed against Palestinians did not result in arrests or convictions during the reporting period." For instance, last August a group of approximately 50 armed settlers forcibly entered the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron before Israeli forces were able to remove them.

Israel bans its Christian and Muslim population from entering Palestinian-controlled cities, the report noted, preventing access to religious sites. For the past 12 months, Israel meanwhile continued its strict closure policies, "severely restricted the ability of Palestinian Muslims and Christians to reach places of worship and to practice their religious rites."

"Many of the national and municipal policies in Jerusalem were designed to limit or diminish the non-Jewish population of Jerusalem," the State Department report said.

Citing documentation of various Israeli policies, the report highlights what it termed a "combination of zoning restrictions on building by Palestinians, confiscation of Palestinian lands, and demolition of Palestinian homes to 'contain' non-Jewish neighborhoods while simultaneously permitting Jewish settlement."

As a matter of policy, according to the State Department, Israel opposes non-Muslim worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound area in the Old City. However, the mosque's actual custodians lack effective authority to remove anyone from the site. "Jews seeking to remove the mosques and to rebuild the ancient temple on the site" are occasionally permitted to ascend the compound, according to the State Department report, citing press sources. Twice over the reporting period, Israeli forces again escorted right-wing activists onto the compound. Police have raided the compound twice more in the past month.

Over the past 12 months, Israel has severely restricted the access of most Muslims from the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem to the mosque. Israeli authorities restrict access for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, as well.

Israel continues to construct a wall around Jerusalem, having the effect of "inhibiting the ability of Palestinians and some Israelis to practice their religion and seriously restricting access by West Bank Muslims and Christians to holy sites." The wall has made it particularly difficult for Bethlehem-area Christians to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and made visits to Christian sites in Bethany and Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who live on the Jerusalem side of the barrier, further fragmenting and dividing the minority community.

According to the report, in implementing construction of the barrier, Israel has confiscated property owned by Palestinians and several religious institutions, displaced Christian and Muslim residents, and tightened restrictions on movement for non-settlers. Israel offered compensation, it said, although not until owners were forced to go through an appeals process. The value of the compensation was not automatic and was subject to appraisal and verification, and most Palestinians and religious institutions refused it "to avoid any perception that accepting compensation would legalize the confiscation of land and building of the barrier," the report pointed out.

Under its section entitled, "Abuses by Rebel or Foreign Forces or Terrorist Organizations," the report said Palestinian armed groups "did not systematically attack anyone in the Occupied Territories for religious reasons."

However, they "often issued statements that contained anti-Semitic rhetoric" in connection with attacks on Israeli targets, the report said.

While nowhere in the report does it accuse Hamas of targeting non-Muslims in Gaza, authorities there "did not adequately address the cases of discrimination against or intimidation of Christians that occurred during the previous reporting period."

The de facto government "often failed to effectively investigate or prosecute religiously driven crimes committed by Muslim extremist vigilante groups," the report said, also quoting Christians in Gaza saying they believed some of their Muslim neighbors were discriminating against them. "[T]hey also raised concerns that no authority was willing or able to reign in extremist groups."

Meanwhile, the PA "sought to protect religious freedom in full and did not tolerate its abuse by either governmental or private actors," the report said. "PA government policy contributed to the generally free practice of religion," although problems persisted.

The State Department applauded Ramallah for taking immediate action against suspects who allegedly vandalized two Christian cemeteries in May 2009. "PA security forces arrested the perpetrators, and PA officials publicly condemned the attack."

There were two relatively minor incidents in in which some Christians were said to have felt harassed or intimidated, according to the report, which the PA did not take sufficient action to investigate. Its judiciary also failed to adjudicate numerous cases of seizures of Christian-owned land in the Bethlehem area by criminal gangs, the report said.

Despite that handful of incidents, the review concluded that in PA-controlled areas, there was very little to report in terms of religious tensions.

"Christians and Muslims generally enjoyed good relations," the report concluded, adding that both Muslims and Christians had "accused Israeli officials of attempting to foster animosity among Palestinians by exaggerating reports of Muslim-Christian tensions."


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