Friday, February 29, 2008

Endangered Gaza Christians Mull Flight Amid Deaths, Firebombs

Feb. 26 (Bloomberg) -- The stone walls of St. Porphyrius church in Gaza were raised in the fourth century, a reminder of Christianity's long role in the Mediterranean city's history.
The saga may be coming to an end. Christians, a minority of 3,000 among the Gaza Strip's 1.2 million Muslims, are increasingly menaced by Islamic fundamentalists in this besieged Palestinian territory. Christians say they are on the verge of being driven out.
``Never in Palestinian history did we feel endangered until now,'' said Archimandrite Artemios, the Greek Orthodox priest who heads St. Porphyrius. ``We face the question of whether we are part of this community or not.''
Insecurity intensified last June when Hamas, the Muslim-based party at war with Israel, ousted the secular Fatah party, which favors peace negotiations, from control of Gaza. Fatah continues to control the West Bank.
While there are few indications Hamas itself is trying to intimidate Christians, the change brought to the surface underground Muslim groups that are actively hostile to Christians, said Hamdi Shaqura, 46, an official with the independent Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
``One problem is one that affects all: a state of lawlessness that lets extremism raise its head,'' Shaqura said.
On Feb. 15, arsonists firebombed a library operated by the Young Men's Christian Association and destroyed 10,000 books, police and YMCA officials said. Last fall, kidnappers killed a Christian bookstore owner and the shop was blown up twice. In August last year, vandals damaged a Catholic church and school.
Under Threat
Christianity, along with other minority religions, is under threat in several Middle Eastern countries. In Iraq, Christian churches and residents suffered assaults in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul since the March 2003 U.S. invasion, and thousands fled to Syria and Jordan.
Against the backdrop of political turmoil in Lebanon, Maronite Christians are migrating. In Egypt, Copts, an ancient Christian denomination, complain of discrimination. Public Christian worship is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, where foreign workers have been jailed for holding prayer services in private homes, according to Saudi Arabian press accounts.
According to a 2006 survey carried out by the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, the West Bank's Christian population has grown little in recent decades: from about 40,000 in 1967 to an estimated 45,800 in 2006.
Physical Isolation
In Gaza, Christians and Muslims share a walled-off, physical isolation from the outside world, unemployment over 30 percent and anxiety about periodic Israeli armed assaults. Israel has sealed off Gaza in its effort to contain Hamas and keep it from launching rockets at southern Israeli towns.
John Holmes, United Nations undersecretary for humanitarian affairs and relief coordination, said during a Feb. 16 visit to Gaza that 80 per cent of residents depend on food aid.
``If the current state of affairs continues, there is a real risk that what is left of the Christian Palestinian community will opt to go somewhere else, ending centuries of indigenous Christian presence in that part of Palestine,'' said Bernard Sabella, a sociology professor at Bethlehem University.
Christian fears, and attacks on Christian property, pre-date Hamas, said Artemios, 31, the priest at St. Porphyrius.
Street gun battles between Hamas backers and Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, created a climate of anarchy even before the takeover, he said. Periodic Israeli embargoes on the Gaza Strip also occurred under Fatah rule.
``The lack of work has long been the main problem,'' said Artemios. ``If young people get out, they don't come back.''
The Oct. 7 murder of Rami Ayyad, 30, who operated the Palestinian Bible Society Bookstore in Gaza, was the first time that a Christian was killed for religious reason, Artemios said. Five Christian families have fled to the West Bank since, he noted.
Three months before Ayyad's death, a pair of bearded men warned the bookseller, who was a Baptist, to convert to Islam or die, said his mother, Anisa Boutros Francis, 55.
``On the day he was killed, he called home and told his wife, `I'm busy with some people. I will be late home,''' Boutros Francis said. ``That was the last we heard, until the next day when his body was found.''
Ayyad's body was punctured by stab wounds and bullet holes. No one claimed responsibility for his death. After four months, Gaza authorities have found no suspects, said police spokesman Islam Shahwan.
``Before, Israel was the only enemy. Palestinians were together,'' said Ayyad's mother. ``Now, you don't know who is who.''
Names of freelance fundamentalist groups roaming Gaza include Sword of Righteousness and Sword of Islam, said Shaqura, the human-rights worker.
Whoever is at fault, the bonds linking Christians to Gaza are breaking, Artemios said. He observed that, according to legend, the old columns in his church were from a temple destroyed by Samson after his haircut at the hands of Delilah. ``The edifice of tolerance is crashing down over our heads,'' he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Williams in Gaza at .

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