• PALESTINE \ Jan 22, 2003
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    Palestinian Constitution: "Islam is the Official Religion"
Palestinian Constitution: JERUSALEM - A proposed Palestinian constitution cedes some power from the president to a prime minister and declares Islam the official religion, according to a partial draft obtained yesterday by the Associated Press.

An Israeli official rejected the document as an effort to preserve Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's rule.

A new constitution is a key element of a US-backed peace plan, described as a ''road map'' to Palestinian statehood by 2005. The completion of the constitution is supposed to coincide with the formation of a provisional Palestinian state.

Those parts of the draft Palestinian constitution made available by Palestinian officials do not address some key issues, including the borders with Israel and a solution for Palestinian refugees.

The strongest figure in the government would be the president, who appoints the prime minister and would be the main policy-maker. The prime minister would run daily government.

Arafat has been president since the Palestinian Authority was created in 1994 as a result of interim agreements. Israel and the United States have called for Arafat to be replaced.

Another key element of the constitution is the declaration of Islam as the official Palestinian religion. The state would guarantee the sanctity of places of worship and respect other religions, according to the draft.

Most of the 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are Muslims, and about 50,000 are Christians. The Palestinian areas contain sites holy to Christians, especially the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Neither the Vatican nor the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem would comment.

The Rev. Shawki Batirian, a patriarchate spokesman, said a meeting with Palestinian officials to discuss the issue was canceled because of Israeli travel restrictions.

Palestine would have a 150-member parliament of two houses, with one representing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The second would represent Palestinians living abroad but would lack national decision-making powers.