Sunday 15 May 2005

Bethlehem's star-crossed lovers

Christian girl runs off with young Muslim -- Vatican, U.S., Palestinian president intervene after street violence erupts

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

San Francisco Chronicle May 15, 2005

Bassem Sabat and his family received an apology from the ... David Blumenfeld/Special to The / David Blumenfeld/Special to The

Bassem Sabat and his family received an apology from the family of the Muslim man who romanced his daughter, an 11th-grader. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Bethlehem -- A love feud straight out of "Romeo and Juliet" has erupted in the West Bank over the clandestine romance of a 16-year-old Christian schoolgirl and a wealthy Muslim eight years her senior.

As with the Capulets and Montagues, there was fighting in the streets and intervention by both church and state. But unlike Shakespeare's tale of star- crossed lovers, this modern-day version ended Saturday with thwarted marriage plans and an apology.

Adriana Sabat, an 11th-grader at St. Joseph's School in Bethlehem, disappeared from her home on May 6, two days after her family learned she had a secret sweetheart, 24-year-old Fadi Omar, and warned her to stop seeing him.

The incident -- the second elopement in less than a week involving an underage Christian girl and an older Muslim man -- brought to the surface simmering tensions between Muslim Palestinians and the dwindling Christian community in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Under Palestinian law, buttressed by strong social customs in this still- traditional society, girls under 18 cannot marry without their parents' formal consent. Young women rarely leave home without a chaperone, and Western-style boyfriend-girlfriend relationships are virtually unknown.

When Adriana's father attempted to bring her home from her hiding place in a village near Hebron early the next morning, he was rebuffed by armed men threatening to kill him. Violent demonstrations erupted in Bethlehem as young Christians vandalized homes and businesses owned by the Omar family. At least 15 Christians were injured when Palestinian police opened fire on the crowd. Two of them were hospitalized with gunshot wounds, and Christians complained that the police used undue force.

After two days of frantic searching and diplomatic negotiations involving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Vatican and the U.S. State Department, a convoy of armored vehicles from the U.S. consul-general and the Catholic Patriarchate in Jerusalem swept into Hebron on May 7, picked up the girl and put her and her mother on a plane to the United States.

They are now staying with relatives in Michigan while Adriana's father, Bassem Sabat, a 43-year-old history teacher and tour guide, tries to piece his family back together and avoid more bloodshed.

In Bethlehem, the local governor has deployed armed police to protect Omar's home, and a gas station and two furniture stores owned by his family that were firebombed during two days of riots last weekend.

The governor ordered Omar to apologize to the Sabat family. For their part, Adriana's parents demanded that the young man be prosecuted for abducting their daughter and sought a guarantee that she will be protected from further advances if she returns to the West Bank.

At a sulha (reconciliation) ceremony held on Saturday, the Sabat family reportedly demanded the huge sum of 150,000 Jordanian dinars -- more than $200,000 -- and a public apology. This compares with the usual payment in the case of a killing of less than 50,000 dinars. The sulha was held in private, but Palestinian officials said the Sabats were persuaded to drop their monetary demand and accept the Omar family's apology.

Fadi Omar and his relatives refused to comment on the affair.

"I don't want to inflame intercommunity feeling, but someone has to tell the truth," Bassem Sabat told The Chronicle last week, in his first interview since the elopement rocked the city. "These Muslim men are preying on Christian girls because they are forbidden from going anywhere near Muslim girls. If this had been the other way round -- a Christian man running off with a Muslim teenager -- both of them would be dead within hours, and the man's family would have to leave the country."

Sabat was not exaggerating the passions such relationships set off. A few days earlier, an east Jerusalem man strangled two of his sisters in an "honor killing" -- a traditional Muslim punishment for girls whose morals appear to have been compromised. And on May 2, a Christian father in Ramallah killed his 22-year-old daughter after she told him she wanted to marry a Muslim man, triggering demonstrations by both Christian and Muslim women in that city.

Zahira Kamal, the Palestinian minister for women's affairs, has called for a new law allowing women over 18 to marry without the consent of their parents. She has also demanded increased sentences for men found guilty of killing female relatives. Under present law, Palestinian men convicted of "honor killings" serve only six months in prison.

In Bethlehem, tensions have been rising since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 brought an influx of Muslims into the mostly Christian city and its adjoining middle-class towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour. Christians accuse Muslims of taking over land and jobs and forcing them out of political power. Earlier this month, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both militant Muslim groups, won municipal elections over the secular Fatah party for the first time in Bethlehem's history.

Fadi Omar, son of a wealthy local businessman, was known around town for his lavish lifestyle and his sports car. He apparently spotted Adriana as she was coming home from school one day and obtained her cell phone number. A telephone romance blossomed.

On May 4, Bassem Sabat was summoned to the office of a local Palestinian security chief, where he found Fadi's older brother, Rami.

"He told me his brother loved my daughter and he was going to marry her," said Bassem. "He said she phones him every day. He said, 'Why not accept the love story and let them get married, across the different traditions?' "

But Sabat refused to bless the union.

"There are few enough Christians left in Bethlehem as it is," he said. "If she were older, it would be a different story. But she is still a young girl, and I cannot believe she understands the implications of the cultural tensions that she is stepping into."

Sabat said he reacted like any father concerned for the welfare of his teenage daughter.

"We took away her cell phone and grounded her," he said. "We sent her to stay with her grandmother, who lives in an apartment upstairs from ours, to protect her from outside influences. But last Friday morning (May 6), she told her grandmother she was going downstairs to collect some clothes, left the apartment and never came back."

The next time Sabat saw his daughter was more than 24 hours later. He said she was in a "safe house" in the village of Shayoukh near Hebron and was covered from head to toe in traditional Muslim garb.

"She told me she had come there of her own free will and that she wished to marry this young man, but the law is very clear that she cannot do so without the consent of her parents," said Sabat.

Because Adriana, who was born in Louisiana, has U.S. citizenship, her parents asked the Roman Catholic patriarch in Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, to contact U.S. authorities. Sabbah contacted the Vatican, which alerted the U.S. State Department and the U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem, officials at Sabbah's patriarchate told The Chronicle. Meanwhile, the Bethlehem governor contacted Abbas, the Palestinian president, who ordered Adriana to be returned to her family. She was driven from the safe house to the office of the governor of Hebron, where the diplomatic caravan picked her up and took her to the airport.

Within hours, U.S. and Vatican diplomats were on their way to Hebron to pick up the girl and put her on a midnight flight to stay with relatives in Michigan. The caravan stopped en route at the patriarch's Jerusalem headquarters to receive tickets from the U.S. consul-general.

Christian community leaders at the Al-Amal Catholic Social Club in Bethlehem last week, before Saturday's sulha, expressed their fury at the incident and the refusal of the local Palestinian police to arrest the young man.

"I am not in charge anymore," said Bassem Sabat. "The young men of our community do not want to see their Christian sisters with Muslim men. We are paying the price for this man's actions while he walks free. My family has been split up and my daughter's honor has been compromised. I don't want anyone to be hurt or killed, but I do want to see this man prosecuted. He should pay a price for what he did."

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle