Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Gaza's Christian population wanes

This is an article from www.washingtontimes.com
January 15, 2008

By Erica Silverman - GAZA CITY , Gaza Strip — A small group of Palestinian Christians stands outside Gaza City's Baptist Church on a Sunday morning, waiting for the generator to power up. The church is cold and dark in the dead of winter, Israel having reduced fuel supplies to Gaza in an effort to pressure Hamas to halt rocket fire into Israel . Freshly bound prayer books, containing traditional American hymns, are tucked into the backs of the chairs in the fifth-floor prayer room. But there are no visible religious symbols in the room or outside the building, constructed about a year ago with the help of Christian donors in the U.S. and abroad. Just eight worshippers are present for the service, compared with more than 100 who attended Sunday prayers six months ago.

Gaza 's small Baptist community is dwindling rapidly. Pastor Hanna Massad, who attended seminary in California , took refuge in the West Bank after congregant Rami Eyad was killed in October. Mr. Eyad's religious bookshop was bombed in April. Mr. Massad and his wife, director of the Gaza Bible Society, which is now closed, still hope to return. Life has become increasingly difficult for Christians in Gaza since Hamas seized control of the coastal strip in June. Most Christians do not hold Hamas directly responsible, but they are calling for increased protection and accountability. "The Hamas leadership, on the political level, wants to live side by side with the Christian community, but we are not sure who is responsible for Rami's murder," said Mr. Massad.

Ihab Al-Ghusain, a spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, condemned the killing but said there had been no progress in the investigation. Some suspect an Islamic extremist group was behind the attack. Church elder Farid Ayad, 67, now leads the Baptist service. "As a child, I learned from the American Baptist Mission that was here since 1954," said Mr. Ayad. The mission left in 2001, but a representative from the Southern Baptist Church remains in Jerusalem . Clergymen in Gaza estimate there are about 3,000 Christians still living in the Gaza Strip. Most are Greek Orthodox, but there are also a few hundred Catholics and a handful of Baptists. They live among some 1.5 million Muslims in the 140-square-mile territory. Some Christians believe the Hamas government is tr yin g to protect them, if only to improve their image in the eyes of the West. But for others, the threat has become too great.

Over the past few weeks, Israel granted temporary permission to hundreds of Gaza Christians to travel to the West Bank for the holidays. At least six families — more than 40 people — did not return. Wael Hashwa and his family of four are now living in the West Bank town of Beit Zahur , near Bethlehem . "We are living here month to month, waiting for the situation to improve," said Mr. Hashwa, who was employed by a now-closed organization of Christian ministers in Gaza . The Baptist community, self-described as evangelical, has been a principal target of the extremists because of its missionary work, which has been halted.

"Christians get killed here, let alone a Muslim who converted," said Ashraf, 36, from Gaza City , who declined to provide his last name. "I stopped going to church even before the coup." Father Artymos, originally from Greece , leads the St. Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church, founded 1,600 years ago in Gaza 's old city. Christians and Muslims live peacefully together in Gaza , said Father Artymos, but conversions and the construction of new churches are prohibited.

The Rev. Manuel Musallan of the Latin Church in Gaza City blamed Israel for the woes of his tiny Catholic community, which also runs a school with 1,200 students, many of them Muslims. "The embargo is inhumane. It attacks the innocent here — children, the sick and the elderly," he said. "If Gaza is to be prepared for peace, this is not the way." Father Musallan meets regularly with the Hamas leadership, but members of his congregation are not as confident. "We are afraid Hamas is targeting Christians," said Issa, who manages a designer-clothing store in the city center. Issa, who asked that his full name not be used, returned on foot from a Christmas holiday in the West Bank with bags of clothing to refill the barren shelves of his store. Attacks against Christians have been rare in Gaza , but the Christians fear that small, well-armed, Islamic extremist groups may see Hamas rule as an opportunity to weed them out. Hamas has increased security in Christian neighborhoods and near churches. "There are groups in Gaza , only a few, that share an al Qaeda ideology, and we will stop them," said Mr. Al-Ghusain, the Interior Ministry spokesman.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

National Geographic Article

National Geographic has an interesting article on Bethlehem posted on the web. http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/2007-12/bethlehem/finkel-text.html

It ends with a quote by the mayor of Bethlehem: "This can't be a place where calm never exists. If the world is ever going to have peace, it has to start right here."

It is long, but well worth the time.

Christmas Party

Posted by one of our team members living in a Middle-East country where Palestinians are a minority.

I had a good time with my Palestinian friend at our Christmas party. In fact, although I invited several friends to the party, only my Palestinian friends showed up. It worked out well, though, because lots of my roommate’s friends came and there wouldn’t have been room in our house for everyone. Anyway, three of my friends heard a very clear presentation of the Way and got books. And it was at the party when I talked to my friend about working with her at her refugee camp. She was very excited about that. Later that week, she called me and invited me to her house. I was really excited about that because it’s almost always me doing the initiating in all of my relationships, but in this case it wasn’t. So we had a good time together and when she gets back from her Eid visit to Lebanon, we’re going to get in contact again. Later that same night, we visited some of roommate’s friends in that camp, and I met another Pal girl whose father is exiled to Libya because he’s been a little too friendly with Arafat and his crew and the government here got suspicious. We’ll see how that friendship will progress!

Christmas visits

Posted by one of our team members living in Jordan

On Christmas Day, because I always expect tons and tons of visitors all afternoon and evening, two of my university-aged, Muslim students came to help me through the time. They are great dishwashers, and also help me in serving guests. Only one family had come and left before they arrived.

While we were waiting for more guests to arrive, I was playing Christmas music, and they were looking through some of my picture albums. During the Adhan, or call to evening prayers from the mosques in my neighborhood, they asked if I would turn off the music out of respect for the call to prayer. After I did so, I asked them what’s the difference between playing music and their chatting, because they did not stop chatting during this time. They were not quiet nor were they praying. They said they didn’t know. It was just something that their parents had taught them to do. They didn’t know why. I told them that through music I can worship God and it helps me feel His presence. They apologized for their request.

I began thinking “What insight this is to all of us!” I hope that gives them reason to think about and examine their faith, why they do the things they do. I’m so glad to see them and other young people thinking about their beliefs and no longer, as generations in the past did, accept everything taught in Islam by their parents and imams, without reasoning and questioning!