The story of congregants from the Gaza‘s tiny Christian community being held against their will and forcibly converted to Islam quickly went viral all across the looniverse, and even made its way to countless mainstream news sites.
The story is false.
First published by the Associated Press, the “forced conversion” tale gained momentum when it was picked up by Reuters, another major news service with thousands of subscribers. Now the AP’s Jerusalem bureau has refused to issue a correction. The Israeli daily Haaretz first published the story with a somewhat misleading headline, Gaza Christians protest ‘forcible conversions’, and clarification in a later story was buried under the headline, Gaza Christians fear the end of their tiny community:
Christians in overwhelmingly Muslim Gaza have long fretted in private about the survival of their tiny community.
But their fears exploded publicly when two members of the flock recently converted to Islam. Christians staged a rare public protest, accusing Muslims of pulling followers from their faith.
The converts, who had been hiding to evade angry relatives, eventually surfaced and said they voluntarily changed religions. Gaza’s ruling Islamic militant Hamas movement reiterated respect for freedom of worship and Christian institutions. [emphasis mine]
But the uproar highlighted the growing sense of vulnerability among Christians here. They are a dwindling minority among a mostly devout Muslim majority, mostly hemmed into the tiny sliver of land because of movement restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt. And they say some Muslims are doubling their efforts to convert them, emboldened by the atmosphere of Islamic fervor fostered by Hamas since it seized [sic] power [correction: through parliamentary elections in] Gaza in 2007.
Because there is so little accountability today, even in the professional media, tomorrow’s sensational headlines and misleading stories will likely continue to poison interfaith relations and demonize Islam in the public imagination. The Electronic Intifada was one of the few sites that bothered to dig up the truth:
“Forced conversion” story goes viral
As expected with a report from the highly influential AP, the “forced conversions” story and headline swept around the world including The Los Angeles Times, Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) of Islamophobic Christian Zionist televangelist Pat Robertson.
CBN embellished the story with its own “analysis” claiming that “Forced conversion to Islam is not a new phenomenon in Gaza.”
It is also now making the rounds of virulent Islamophobic websites such as Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch and has also been disseminated by top pro-Israel official William Daroff of The Jewish Federation…
Except that the story is not true.
Voluntary conversions and no coercion
Given the highly sensitive nature of these issues, it was very important that the matter be investigated independently.
The highly respected Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) said in a statement that it had pursued “the different declarations and allegations regarding this incident that may affect the Palestinian social fabric.”
It confirmed that:
On Wednesday, 11 July 2012, PCHR received a complaint from the family of Hiba Abu Dawood (31). Based on this complaint, Abu Dawood left with her 3 female children to an unknown location. She then sent a SMS to her husband telling him that she had converted to Islam.
On Sunday, 15 July 2012, PCHR received another similar complaint from the family of Ramez al-Amash. Al-Amashhad left a letter for his family in their house telling them that he converted to Islam and asking them to accept his decision.
PCHR detailed the investigations and mediation that it carried out:
Over the few past days, PCHR held meetings with Abu Dawood and al-Amash and their families. On Thursday, 12 July 2012, PCHR met with Abu Dawood. It is clear that Abu Dawood converted to Islam under her own free will without any coercion.
PCHR also met with al-Amash on Sunday, 15 July 2012. PCHR organized another meeting on Monday, 16 July 2012, between al-Amash and his family.PCHR found out that al-Amashhad also converted to Islam under his own free will without any coercion.
According to information made available to PCHR, al-Amash went back to live with his family after they said that they will accept his decision. Today, 19 July 2012, PCHR organized a meeting between the 3 daughters of Abu Dawood and their father at PCHR’s head office.
PCHR reaffirmed that “the right to freedom of thought and religion that is guaranteed in the Palestinian Basic Law and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Christians in Gaza
The position of Christians in Gaza – as in the rest of Palestine – is precarious, not because of forced conversions, but because this is a minority and one that has had a very high rate of emigration.
Gaza Christians interviewed by The Electronic Intifada’s Rami Almeghari in April stressed the good relations they have with their Muslim fellow Palestinians and that their identity as Palestinians supersedes religious identity.
As we reported, for example:
“Anyone who dares to say that Islamists in Gaza have been repressing us Christians is absolutely wrong and false,” Kamal Tarazi, a Christian man in his forties, told The Electronic Intifada at the YMCA.
That does not mean that occasionally people do not experience some petty harassment, as we also reported:
Riham, 22, who only gave her first name, also said that she felt there had been no difference in terms of neighborly or friendly relations between Christians and Muslims in recent years. But, she said that sometimes as she walks down the street she hears comments from passersby because she does not cover her head.
At the time of this writing Atlas Shrugs, Jihad Watch, and even Fox News have failed to correct the story, and no one familiar with incidents past should be waiting with baited breath for that to change. Even if the Associated Press, which has so far refused to correct the story, does eventually relent, the Electronic Intifada’s Ali Albumunah noted bitterly:
Given the speed of information, AP has already taken too long.
And given the levels of Islamophobia in much online media, even if AP does correct, the false claims about “forced conversions” will be recycled and embellished to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment and damage Muslim-Christian relations for years to come.