Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas under Hamas rule - BBC article

Following is a BBC article by Katya Adler

Gaza City Earlier this year, the Islamist Hamas party took control of Gaza, home to a thriving Christian community now preparing to celebrate their first Christmas under Hamas rule.

Palestinian Christians are known as Nasserine - the people of Nazareth. Manawel Musallam - priest, headmaster and Gazan - is a rotund, avuncular man, fond of wearing berets. I have come to his office to ask how Christians in Gaza were faring on this, their first Christmas under the full internal control of Hamas. "You media people!" Father Musallam boomed at me when I first poked my head around his door. "Hamas this, Hamas that. You think we Christians are shaking in our ghettos in Gaza? That we're going to beg you British or the Americans or the Vatican to rescue us?" he asked. "Rescue us from what? From where? This is our home."

Extended family
The pupils at the Holy Family School, Gaza City, all call Manawel Musallam "Abunah" - Our Father in Arabic. His is a huge family of 1,200 children and, although the school is part-funded by the Vatican, here, as in all of Gaza, Christians are the minority.

Our identity is a multi-layered one
Ninety-nine percent of the pupils here are Muslim. This is one of the reasons Fr Musallam says he does not fear the Islamists. "They should be afraid. Not me," he chuckled. "Their children are under my tutelage, in my school. Hamas mothers and fathers are here at parents' day along with everyone else." But there is more that binds Christians and Muslims in Gaza than their children's shared playground. After the bloody scenes of Palestinian infighting this year, it is easy to assume Gazan society is irreconcilably split - both politically and along religious lines.

There were those chilling incidents in June when men with beards were shot for looking like Islamists. Men without beards were shot by Islamist extremists who thought they were non-believers, even traitors. But actually the situation is far less clear cut. Take the music room-cum-prayer hall at the Holy Family School.

Nativity play
On one of the walls hang huge photos of what the irreverent might be tempted to describe as the Gazan Catholic's Holy Trinity - the Pope, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and the (Muslim) Palestinian president. I found a group of 10-year-olds on stage, rehearsing their Nativity play, watched, with great enthusiasm, by a group of their Muslim friends. Mary and Joseph squatted on stage. The girl playing Mary, clasped a tube of scrunched-up brown paper wrapped in a scarf, which, for rehearsal purposes, was posing as baby Jesus. "You see," Fr Musallam told me, as he gazed indulgently at the goings-on on stage. "Our identity is a multi-layered one."
"Of course, I am a Christian believer, but politically I am a Palestinian Muslim. I resist Israel's military occupation, obviously not with weapons. "The Jihad can never be mine but with my words, my sermons, I am a Palestinian priest." On stage, four wise men, instead of three (probably due to a casting struggle) were paying their respects to the paper bag.
"We have lived alongside Muslims here since Islam was born," said Fr Musallam, waving his arm at the stage.

"They have a special word for us, the Christians of Palestine. They call us Nasserine - the people of Nazareth. They recognise that we have always been here.
"Even the more extreme Muslims see a difference between us and other Christians they regard as enemies and call Crusaders."
There is no evidence to suggest the Hamas government here officially discriminates against Christians but its takeover in Gaza - its military wing's leading role in armed resistance against Israel, along with the Islamic Jihad faction - have all led to the increasing Islamisation of Gazan society.

And that has encouraged some extremist Muslims to take action. A Christian bookshop owner was killed here a couple of months ago. There was a kidnap attempt on another Christian recently. And a number of Christian families we spoke to say they had received death threats.
They question Hamas' willingness to take action to protect them. However, it was under Hamas armed escort that we met the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, on a special pre-Christmas visit to Gaza. It was quite a spectacle. The Patriarch, dressed in a purple cassock, stepped out of a black, shiny Mercedes at the Latin Church in Gaza City.

'God's creatures'
A crowd of police cars screeched to a halt all around him, lights flashing and sirens screaming. Bearded gunmen dressed in black jumped out to guard him.
In previous years, the Patriarch's Christmas sermon has concentrated on the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli military occupation but this year he preached steadfastness in the face of intimidation by Islamist fanatics.

Christians have lived alongside Islam in Palestine since its beginnings
"They forget we are all God's creatures," he told a concerned-looking congregation.
"But nobody can tell us Christians how to dress, how to live or how to pray".
The patriarch called on the Hamas government to take responsibility and to protect the Christian citizens of Gaza, along with everyone else.
As the crowded church was belting out hallelujahs, I stepped into the church courtyard for some fresh air. The Muslim call to prayer was beginning to echo from the myriad of mosques all around. I thought how this reflected the situation in Gaza in Christmas 2007 - that while the muezzin were on loudspeaker, the church bells here are played from a cassette tape.
A nervous young nun adjusted the volume - loud enough to peel through the church but not to penetrate its walls - it might risk offending Muslim Gazans passing by.

Gaza Christians Keep Low Profile - AP ARTICLE


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Gaza's tiny Christian community is keeping a low profile this Christmas, traumatized by the killing of a prominent activist in the wake of Hamas' takeover of the coastal territory. Few Christmas trees are on display, churches are holding austere services and hundreds of Christians hope to travel to the moderate-controlled West Bank to celebrate the holiday in Bethlehem. Many say they don't plan on returning to Gaza.
"We have a very sad Christmas," said Essam Farah, acting pastor of Gaza's Baptist Church, which has canceled its annual children's party because of the grim atmosphere.

About 3,000 Christians live in Gaza, an overwhelmingly conservative Muslim territory of 1.5 million people. It has been virtually cut off from the world and its residents driven deeper into poverty since the June takeover by Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States.

Christians and Muslims have generally had cordial relations over the years in Gaza, but that relationship has been shaky since Hamas seized control and tensions were exacerbated with the recent death of 32-year-old Rami Ayyad. Ayyad, a member of the Baptist Church, managed Gaza's only Christian bookstore. In early October, he was found shot in the head, his body thrown on a Gaza street 10 hours after he was kidnapped from the store.
He regularly received death threats from people angry about his perceived missionary work — a rarity among Gaza's Christians — and the store was firebombed six months before the kidnapping. No group claimed responsibility for the killing, and no one has openly accused Hamas of persecution. But Christians fear that the Hamas takeover, along with the lack of progress in finding Ayyad's killers, has emboldened Islamic extremists.
Hamas has tried to calm jittery Christians with reassuring handshakes and official visits promising justice.

Hamas "will not spare any effort to find the culprits of this crime and bring them to justice," said spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. He insisted the killing was not religiously motivated.
At the Baptist Church on Sunday, just 10 people attended the regular weekly prayer service, down from an average of 70. There was no Christmas tree in sight.
Farah said the church's full-time pastor, along with his family and 12 employees of Ayyad's store, have relocated to the West Bank, where President Mahmoud Abbas heads a pro-Western government. Farah said he prayed for forgiveness and love among Muslims and Christians.
Community leaders say an unprecedented number of Christian families are already migrating from Gaza — rattled by the religious tensions and tough economic sanctions Israel imposed on the area after the Hamas takeover.

While no official statistics were available, the signs of the flight are evident. Rev. Manuel Musallem, head of Gaza's Roman Catholic church, said he alone knows of seven families that sold their properties and left the area, and 15 more are preparing to do the same.
Musallem blamed Israeli sanctions and excessive violence in Gaza for the flight.
"In previous years we didn't see this rate of migration," Musallem said. "Now, exit is not on individual basis. 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 of Jesus" hang on the walls. There is no Christmas tree this year.

Ayyad's older brother, 35-year old Ibrahim, said his 6-year old son, Khedr, was nagged in school about 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.
"I tell him Papa Noel (Santa Claus) is coming to see you, and he tells me he wants Papa Rami," she said tearfully during a telephone interview.

Pauline, who is seven months pregnant, said she plans to come back to Gaza for the birth.
But many Christians privately said they would use their travel permits to leave Gaza for good, even if that means remaining in the West Bank as illegal residents. Israeli security officials said they were permitting 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.
Fouad, a distant relative of Ayyad, said he also is packing up. 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 it happened," the 20-year-old police officer said. "We can't be sure how they (Muslims) think anymore."

Those who are staying are trying to limit the risks. Nazek Surri, a Roman Catholic, walked out from Sunday's service with a Muslim-style scarf covering her head.
"We have to respect the atmosphere we are living in. We have to go with the trend," she said.