In the Middle East, a nation’s attitude to differing religions is a bell-weather to its tolerance of others. It is a strong indicator as to how women are treated, if freedom of speech is available, and if there is an independent press. Brussels, instead of leveraging these human rights issues in return for aid, often overlooks them in its dash for the shortest route to the bank.
Moves to cuddle up to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt were ridiculed in April, when Christian Copts were attacked yet again. The real value of the investment in a new Afghani government was exposed by the death sentence pronounced on a convert to Christianity for his religious beliefs. And who remembers the cries of joy when a trade deal was struck with Damascus?
The most interesting spoiler on the current scene is the “Hamas conundrum”. By late 2005, the European Commission (EC) was boasting how Europe gave around half a billion Euros annually in direct and indirect aid to Palestinians. The electoral triumph of Hamas and its subsequent confrontation with the authority of President Abbas has now put in jeopardy this policy of an open chequebook.
An internal EC analysis established that nearly 50% of any European aid can be accessed by Hamas. Europe wants to protect its venture. It certainly does not want to see a humanitarian disaster in the Palestinian territories, which have become so dependent on its aid.
So, as Hamas is defined as a terrorist organization, Brussels needs a legal loophole to transfer funds to the Palestinian Authority. Ironically, this is made harder by accusations of European foul play by Hamas itself, as it maximizes politically correct newspeak. After all, surely, once democracy has spoken, Europe has a humanitarian obligation to hand over its taxpayers' money to the new government in Ramallah?
And that’s just the point. But in reverse. Never mind the Hamas position towards Israel. Many question whether the human rights record of Hamas, especially on religious tolerance, comes even close to the standards European countries set as a norm.
Officially, Hamas has declared acceptance of Christians living under its jurisdiction. Gaza YMCA board member Hosam al-Taweel was fielded on the Hamas electoral ticket as their token Christian. On his election to the Palestinian legislature, he was quick to reject any hint of Palestinian discrimination against Christians or that Sha'aria law would be imposed by Hamas.
Events on the ground do not justify Al-Taweel’s faith in his Islamic party.
In March, the studios of the private Shepherds' TV in Bethlehem were ransacked. To date, the authorities have not apprehended the perpetrators.
And why have there been no arrests? Just look at Bethlehem city-councilor Hassan El-Masalmeh's interview with the Wall Street Journal. He discussed long-term plans to implement the Sha'aria, including its special jizza tax on non-Muslim residents. "We in Hamas intend to implement this tax someday. We welcome everyone to Palestine but only if they agree to live under our rules."
A month later, the YMCA in Kalkiliya was threatened with violence if it did not close its doors. Kalkiliya has barely 100 practicing Christians in a city approaching 30,000 in number. Muslim organizations in Kalkiliya, including Hamas council representatives, sent a letter to the Hamas Interior Minister, demanding that the Palestinian government immediately shut down the Christian offices. Molotov cocktails have since been directed against the YMCA building.
One internet site quoted an anonymous aide to Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah, who had asked that his name be withheld out of fear of retaliation. He explained that the threats against Kalkiliya’s YMCA should be seen as part of a general trend of Christian persecution in Palestinian areas.
So where are the chivalrous European white knights, riding in to save the situation?
Jack Straw was the first to strap on his armour. He begged Hamas to be nicer and kinder, because Britain wants to have "normal relations" with them. Despite an EU embargo on contacts with Hamas, Straw declared that he was seeking means of unfreezing millions of pounds worth of aid to Palestinians.
President Chirac is never one to be shown up by this type of northern British boeuf. In order to resolve Hamas' inability to meet the inflated wage bill of the Palestinian Authority, he has proposed that a World Bank account should be used to send donors' payments directly to the 160,000 PA employees. Unconditionally. Sounds great, n’est ce pas?
One technical problem, Monsiuer President. This list of dedicated civil servants also includes the same officials demanding the expulsion of Christians. And, as the IMF and World Bank have confirmed, the employee register embraces thousands of members of the Al-Aksa Brigades, who have been involved in countless acts of violence against Palestinian and Israeli citizens. Ooh la la!
Why does Chirac care? He is not just worried about being one-upped by the British. He is concerned that that the new Italian Prime Minister will start prodding him sharply to do something concrete. So he has devised this simple plan. It is not Brussels that will be wasting European taxpayers’ money, but the World Bank. Thus Chirac can safely pass off the responsibility, while appearing to take the initiative.
Back in Britain, Straw’s deputy, Dr Kim Howells has dug in and explained the new rules of the game to Parliament at Westminster: "Hamas will be judged not only on its words but on its actions… It should understand that if it makes that [necessary] change, the international community will respond."
It would be nice to think that at least a token gesture will emanate from Brussels to protect the weaker elements of Palestinian society. A little plea for liberté? A demand for a soupçon of egalité in religious worship? For now, with some help from Paris, intolerance rules in downtown Gaza.
The author is a respected writer and commentator based in Israel