Palestine

For disputed territories, MEC uses United Nations terminology. UN Resolution 67/19 of 29th November 2012 granted “non-member observer State status” of the UN to Palestine. The population of Palestine is estimated at around 4.6 million (2.8 million in the West Bank and 1.8 million in the Gaza Strip). The population is predominantly Sunni Muslim; the Christian communities are now estimated at less than 2% (in 1967 an estimated 12% of Palestine’s population was Christian). Officially recognised churches are the Greek and Syrian Orthodox churches, the Armenian Apostolic, Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches, the Roman and Greek Catholic churches and the Episcopal and Lutheran churches. In addition, there are some churches that have legal status as societies or associations but not as religious bodies. The Christian communities are predominantly in the West Bank; there are three churches in Gaza: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Baptist. The Catholic Church operates two primary and secondary schools and some clinics, and the Episcopal Church also operates a hospital in Gaza.

The Basic Law establishes Islam as the religion of the State and Islamic law as the main source of legislation. It upholds the principle of non-discrimination, including on religious grounds. Freedom of belief and the performance of religious rites is protected, except where such practices are contrary to public order or morality. Recognised non-Muslim communities are given freedom to govern most personal status issues according to their own rites through a religious tribunal system (though some, including several Evangelical churches, do not currently have the level of legal status required to operate their own tribunals). Under applicable Islamic law, Muslims are effectively prohibited from changing their religion, and women registered as Muslim are not permitted to marry non-Muslims. In 2014 the Palestinian Authority began omitting religious affiliation on newly issued identification documents, a move which has reduced some of the societal discrimination faced by Christians, in particular those from Muslim backgrounds.

Palestine acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 2nd April 2014. The ICCPR upholds the right to freedom of religion, including the right to hold a religion of one’s choice and the right to manifest that religion (Article 18). It also upholds the rights of minorities and the principle of non-discrimination. Palestine’s accession to the ICCPR was made without reservation.

Some of the challenges facing Christians in Palestine vary by area according to the governing authorities. In recent years, Christian communities in the West Bank have generally enjoyed good standing in society and a significantly greater degree of religious freedom than Christian communities in the Gaza Strip which has been governed by the more Islamist Hamas party. There is guaranteed representation of Christians in the Legislative Council (though the Council has not met since 2007), and the mayors of Bethlehem and Ramallah must be Christians, by decree. Some restrictions apply to recognised Christian communities, especially to activities that could be construed as proselytism. Several Evangelical churches continue their application for full legal recognition. There have been a number of vandalism attacks against church properties in Palestine in recent years, some perpetrated by Islamic extremists and others by Israeli nationalists. There is strong family and societal pressure against those who choose to leave Islam. Those considered to be apostates can be referred to the Shari’a courts (facing sanctions such as forcible divorce and removal of child custody), and in extreme cases they can face violent responses from family members.