Christians face insecurity in Gaza Strip
Gaza City - Gaza’s Hamas rulers exhibit tolerance, at least publicly, towards the area’s Christian community but anti-Christian incidents during their 10-year-old reign make it hard for the minority to feel safe.
Kidnappings involving forced conversion of young Christian men in Gaza began in 2007 and are ongoing, said Greek Orthodox Archbishop Alexios. He said abductions are carried out by armed Islamist groups, but not Hamas.
In 2009, a young Christian man in Gaza was kidnapped to be forced to convert but was later found dead. Investigations failed to identify the perpetrators or prove that he was killed for refusing to change his religion. Alexios said others converted and were released.
Ayman Batniji, a spokesman for the Hamas-ruled police, called the abduction claims “baseless”, and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh insisted that Christians and Muslims in Gaza have “one goal and a common destiny”.
In other incidents, 14 unidentified gunmen attacked the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Gaza City in February 2008 and destroyed its library, burning thousands of books. The library was used by both Christians and Muslims. Guards who were overpowered by the gunmen told police that the assailants reprimanded them for working with “infidels”.
On February 26, 2014, a bomb planted inside the gate of the Roman Catholic Church, one of Gaza’s two operating churches, exploded causing material damage but no fatalities. Islamic State (ISIS) militants claimed responsibility for the attack, in which a note left in the compound, housing a church, school, nursery, a rectory and a convent, vowed: “We’ll get you soon, o worshippers of the cross”.
Records of the Roman Catholic Church in Gaza show that the number of Christians totalled 1,100 individuals in 2016, compared with 3,700 in 2007. They include various denominations, including Anglicans, but the vast majority is Greek Orthodox.
Despite the discrimination against them, Christians point out that more pressing factors are forcing them to flee Gaza, just like many Muslims.
“Christians feel insecure in Gaza,” groaned Abu Elias, a 45-year-old goldsmith.
The reasons, Abu Elias said, were mainly Israel’s blockade, three large-scale wars that greatly damaged Gaza and forced living conditions to deteriorate, plus repression of public freedoms.
Gaza’s Christians are educated professionals, working as teachers, doctors and engineers, some with UN offices dedicated to Palestinian refugees. Others own private business, such as goldsmiths and real estate. Many among them hold dual nationality.
Hamas violently took over Gaza from the moderate Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2007. The enclave endured three wars with Israel which has also imposed a crippling siege and barred Gazans from travelling outside the enclave.
“It was like living in hell,” said Tamam al-Sayegh, 55, a Christian housewife who fled her native Gaza for Egypt with her husband and four children in 2013 and moved to Jordan in 2015.
“It’s not safe to live in Gaza, not even for moderate Muslims,” Sayegh said. She spoke of daily “intimidation” by armed Islamists and “verbal abuse” by young Muslim men in the street “because we’re women or Christians”.
“Some used to mock us as being the worshippers of the cross,” she explained. She insisted, however, that such discrimination did not extend to society at large, where Christians generally lived in peace and coexistence with the larger Muslim community.
“All our neighbours were Muslims and we’ve never had any problems,” said Sayegh’s 32-year-old daughter, Samar Yacoubi, also a mother of two.
“They used to come and celebrate Christmas and Easter with us and we did the same during Muslim holidays,” she pointed out. “We never discussed religion.”
But both Sayegh and her daughter said they were forced to abandon some of their customs and values to “adapt with a highly conservative society”. That included refraining from mixing with men at social gatherings, even at home.
Since Hamas took control, it tried to impose sharia law. It issued relevant regulations, such as amputating hands of thieves and forcing schoolgirls to cover themselves from head-to-toe while in public.
Women are banned from smoking the shisha, unless they have a close male relative as a companion. Women smoking cigarettes in public are shunned as “shameful”.
Further moves to transform Gaza’s once largely secular society into a highly conservative community were fought by intellectuals, politicians, civil society leaders and human rights activists, which forced Hamas to put its plans on hold.
Another Christian, who identified himself as Fadi, a 51-year-old merchant and father of four, said Israel was encouraging the emigration of Gaza’s Christians.
Days before Easter, which was celebrated by Roman Catholics on March 27th, Israel issued permits to 850 Christians to visit relatives in Israel and the West Bank.
“It’s the first time the number is so high,” Fadi said, pointing out that previously Israel had occasionally allowed a maximum of 450 to leave. He said Israel also revoked its restriction on the age, allowing Gaza’s Christian men under 30 to leave.
“Clearly, Israel is giving Christians in Gaza a clear message that it is a golden opportunity to leave forever,” added Fadi, whose family received permits. He said they planned to leave for the West Bank and possibly remain there until conditions improved in Gaza.
Abu Elias, the goldsmith, said he and his family were leaving soon for Ramallah in the West Bank.
“We will stay there because living conditions are much better,” he said.