Two days ago the Associated Press published a story that seemed tailor made to go viral, especially on Islamophobic websites and other media only too eager to present Muslims in a negative light.
It carries the headline: “Gaza Christians protest ‘forcible conversions’”:
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Dozens of Gaza Christians staged a rare public protest Monday, claiming two congregants were forcibly converted to Islam and were being held against their will. The small but noisy demonstration showed the increasingly desperate situation facing the tiny minority.
Protesters banged on a church bell and chanted, “With our spirit, with our blood we will sacrifice ourselves for you, Jesus.”
The report does not say definitively that “forced conversions” took place, and carries this caveat:
Gaza police say the two are staying with a Muslim religious official at their request, because they fear retribution from their families converting to Islam. Two mediators said the two — a 25-year-old man and a woman with three children — appeared to have embraced Islam of their free will. Forced conversions have been unheard of in Gaza before.
But it nonetheless includes these emotive quotes from family members:
“If things remain like this, there’ll be no Christians left in Gaza,” said Huda Al-Amash, mother of one of the converts, Ramez, 25. She sat sobbing in a church hallway alongside her daughters, Ranin and Rinad, and a dozen other women. “Today it’s Ramez. Then who, and who will be next?”
On Monday, groups of men and women stood in groups in the square of the ancient Church of Saint Porphyrius, angrily chanting, “Bring back Ramez!” One man angrily hit the church bell.
“People are locking up their sons and daughters, worried about the ideas people put in their head,” said Al-Amash’s mother, Huda.
“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.
AP must correct
It is understandable that AP would consider the protest by Christian families newsworthy.
However given the highly sensitive and inflammatory nature of claims about “forced conversions,” and their potential repurcussions both locally and internationally, AP had a duty to independently verify the claims.
Since the story was published, Diaa Hadid, the AP reporter who wrote it, has acknowledged that there were no forced conversions via Twitter:
But this is insufficient. AP should issue a corrected or updated story that makes clear that – based on credible and independent sources – no forced conversions took place.
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.