Thursday, February 2, 2006

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — While Israelis struggle to come to terms with the election of Hamas in Palestinian elections last week, another group also is worried by the rise of the avowedly Islamist organization — the Christian Arab minority centered here in Jesus’ birthplace.

The Palestinian draft constitution of 2003 establishes Islam as the official religion while noting that Christianity will be “equally revered.” It also names Islamic Sharia law as “a major source for legislation.”

The secular Fatah government, which drafted the language, posed little threat to the estimated 30,000 Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza. But some are wondering whether Hamas will use the articles to make their daily lives more difficult.

“I know they are not Taliban,” said one Bethlehem mother of two, who did not want her name used. “But I wonder what they mean by ‘Islamic.’ We are Christian, we don’t want trouble.”

She said she does not want to wear a headscarf on the street, as many Christians in Iraq do for their own safety. And she cannot imagine having to “defend” the Christian holy sites.

Not all of Bethlehem’s Christians were unhappy to see the long-ruling Fatah party unseated by the militants of Hamas, who despite their harsh anti-Israeli rhetoric are more disciplined than Fatah.

Afram Shahin sells religious icons, olive-wood crosses and trinkets to the few tourists who wander past his gift shop in this picturesque but troubled town. He said he does not fear Hamas, but eagerly awaits its arrival as the new sheriff in town.

“Hamas will bring order, and I am ready,” said the Christian retailer, who has been robbed twice — once by Fatah-aligned gumen — and found the local police unresponsive.

In a hopeful sign yesterday, the top Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, offered militiamen to defend a Gaza church against threats by Fatah gunmen angered over the publication of controversial cartoons in Europe.

“You are our brothers,” Mr. Zahar told the Rev. Manuel Musallam during a visit to the Holy Family Church.

But others fear the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas will lead to shootouts and greater violence.

Mayor Victor Batarseh, a Catholic who was elected with Hamas’ endorsement seven months ago, acknowledged that he has no control over the Bethlehem police.

“They are like soldiers; they report to the Palestinian Authority Interior Ministry,” he said. “I would like for [the police] to impose the law.”

Dr. Batarseh, a former ear, nose and throat surgeon, said he has been reassuring Bethlehem’s Christians about Hamas’ intentions and the preservation of the “special character” of this historic town perched on steep slopes of olive trees and grape vines.

“There are groups putting rumors into the minds of Christians, that there will be registrations,” for example, said the mayor. “I say, ‘Don’t worry. Hamas has promised not to.’ ”

But there are those articles in the Palestinian constitution. And there is persistent talk about a tax, or “jeziya” that could leveled on second-class, or non-Muslim, citizens.

A Hamas member of the Bethlehem City Council, Hassan El-Masalmeh, told the Wall Street Journal in late December: “We in Hamas plan to implement this tax someday. We say it openly, everyone is welcome to Palestine but only if they agree to live under our rules.”

Time and circumstance have not been kind to the Christian-Arab community that has lived here since ancient times but sees its numbers dwindling.

As ancient iron church bells spread their call across the narrow cobblestone streets, scores of Christians streamed across Manger Square to the Church of the Nativity, one of the holiest sites in all Christendom.

There used to hundreds of worshippers on a crisp winter Sunday, and thousands during the Easter and Christmas seasons.

But today, there are almost no religious pilgrims and even fewer tourists. Only one-third of Bethlehem’s 30,000 residents are Christian.

Tourists who do make it the 15 miles from Jerusalem’s Old City rarely stay more an hour, said Bethlehem merchants, who blame security warnings and an Israeli military incursion in 2002.

Bethlehem is a town in trouble, its mayor acknowledged. Its residents are preyed upon by militias and a Fatah-affiliated mafia, and its municipal services are crippled by age and lack of maintenance.

Donors, he said, have long since halted aid because of Fatah’s unaccountability. Without foreign assistance, Dr. Batarseh said, he cannot clean the streets, improve garbage and waste-treatment facilities, upgrade the marketplace or control traffic in the narrow and winding streets.

“Mine are the problems of any mayor, just like [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg,” Dr. Batarseh said.

“My fear is that the international donors will cut us off again.”

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