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Christians in Gaza

Category Articles
Date June 6, 2008

Readers will recall the murder of Rami Ayyad, a member of the Baptist Church, who managed Gaza’s only Christian bookstore and was involved in many charitable activities. He was found shot in the head, on a Gaza street in early October 2007, 10 hours after he was kidnapped from the store. Ayyad had received regular death threats due to his charitable and evangelistic missionary work. The shop, run by the United Bible Societies, had been firebombed six months before the kidnapping. No group claimed responsibility for the killing.

Christians fear that the Hamas rule in Gaza has emboldened Islamic extremists. Hamas has tried to calm jittery Christians with reassuring handshakes and official visits promising justice. Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, insisted the killing was not religiously motivated. To date, no one has been accused of the murder and no indication of a continued investigation is at hand.

Attendance at the local Baptist Church is down from an average of 70 to 10. The church’s pastor, his family and 12 employees of Ayyad’s store were relocated to the West Bank to wait out the tense atmosphere. An unprecedented number of Christian families, rattled by the religious tensions, are migrating from Gaza, thereby reducing the Strip’s already miniscule Christian population of approximately 3,200, including evangelicals and Roman Catholics, in a population of 1.4 million.

Rev. Manuel Musallem, head of Gaza’s Roman Catholic Church, said that seven families known to him have sold their properties and left, with 15 more about to follow in their footsteps. Musallem blamed Israeli sanctions and excessive violence in Gaza for the flight. ‘Whole families are leaving, selling their cars, homes and all their properties.’

The signs of despair are evident at Ayyad’s home. Posters declaring him a martyr hang on the walls. There was no Christmas tree last year. Ayyad’s older brother, 35-year old Ibrahim, said his 6-year old son, Khedr, was harassed in school over his uncle’s murder. Muslim schoolmates call him infidel. Ayyad’s wife, Pauline, 29, left for Bethlehem a month ago with her two children. She said their 3-year-old son, George, has been shattered by his father’s death.

Many Christians privately said they would use any travel permits issued them to leave Gaza for good, even if that means remaining in the West Bank illegally. Israeli security officials permitted 400 Gaza Christians to travel through Israel to Bethlehem for Christmas. A family of four, refusing to be identified for fear their permits would be revoked, have sold their house and car and packed their bags. The wife has transferred her job to the West Bank and enrolled her son and daughter in school there. ‘We fear what is to come,’ said the husband.

A distant relative of Ayyad, Fouad, said he also is packing. He said his father, a guard at a local church, was stopped recently by unknown bearded men who put a gun to his head before he was rescued by passers-by. ‘We don’t know why they did this,’ the 20-year-old police officer said. ‘We can’t be sure how they (Muslims) think anymore.’

Those Christians who have chosen to remain, or who are unable to leave, are seeking ways to limit the risks. Some leave each Sunday service with a Muslim-style scarf covering their head. ‘We have to respect the atmosphere we are living in’, they explain.

Early on Friday morning, May 16, unknown assailants detonated a bomb outside a Christian school in Gaza City. The school is run by nuns but caters mainly for Muslim students. There were no injuries due to the pre-dawn explosion; it was meant to serve as a sharp warning to the besieged Christian community in Gaza. This is the latest in a string of attacks on Christian institutions in the Muslim territory.

In the past, relations between Christians and Muslims were excellent. This has significantly changed since the Islamic group Hamas routed forces of the secular Fatah movement and seized control of Gaza in June 2007.

From GT News, an electronic periodical on the Jewish Christian scene in Israel, written from a Reformed point of view.

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