Wednesday, February 13, 2008

'CHRISTIAN LIFE IN GAZA'

By DesertPeace ∙ February 12, 2008

Ben Heine © Cartoons


So little is known about the people in Gaza…. so little news gets out these days. We at DesertPeace try to keep our readers updated on the horrific situation there, one of our best sources is Mohammed Omer, a young photo journalist that actually lives there… in Rafah. The following essay is one he wrote for the latest issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

Gaza’s Christian Community—Serenity, Solidarity and Soulfulness
By Mohammed Omer

AS THE SUN rises in the east on the first day of Advent, the bells of Gaza’s churches fill the air, mixing amicably with the Muslim call to prayer. There is an air of quiet serenity spiced with excitement as the faithful walk to their churches and mosques, the doors swinging open, and Christians and Muslims bid each other good morning on yet another Sunday.

Gaza’s oldest church, the Greek Orthodox St. Porphyrus, dates back to the 16th century. The majority of Gaza’s Christians are served by the Roman Catholic Church on Al Zayotoun St. and the Gaza Baptist Church, which offer living room prayer groups, interfaith outreach, several schools, and humanitarian/medical Christian charities staffed by both locals and internationals. Today Gaza is home to approximately 3,000 Christians, the majority of whom live near these Gaza City churches.

Until November 1947, when the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 181 partitioning Palestine, Palestinian Christians lived peacefully among the Muslim and small Jewish populations of the area. With the passage of the nonbinding resolution, however, Zionist forces began their ethnic cleansing campaign in earnest. At the time Christians represented 18 percent of Palestine’s population, with many families tracing their ancestry back to the time of Christ. Today Christians comprise less than 2 percent of Palestinians, with the loss of Jerusalem’s Christian community being the most profound—plunging from a peak of 51 percent in 1922 to just 4 percent today. By the time of the Deir Yassin massacre in early April 1948, over a quarter-million Palestinians—many of them Christian—had been displaced, either killed or made refugees.

Like their Muslim neighbors, Christian Palestinians sought to find a safe refuge following the establishment of Israel. Because Gaza came under Egyptian rule in 1948, Palestinians of all faiths fled there. As the Zionist militias advanced—razing entire towns, massacring families and confiscating all property in their wake—many Christians fled to Jerusalem, a divided yet still international city. For a time, Christians and Muslims in East Jerusalem, which was under Jordanian control, remained relatively safe.

In 1967, Israel chose to further expand its borders, attacking Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Within six days all three nations had been defeated and Israel had tripled its territory, rendering millions of Palestinians homeless or living under occupation or, in Israel, under martial law. Along with its Muslim neighbors, Gaza’s small Christian community found itself imprisoned between Israel and the sea, and the land swollen with additional refugees. But Gaza’s Christians also discovered they were invisible: unacknowledged, dismissed, denounced or forgotten by fellow Christians throughout the world, especially in the United States.

The Bookseller’s Murder

It is well known that one of the most effective tools for rendering a society subservient is the tactic of divide and conquer. Thus the October kidnapping and murder of Rami Ayyad, the manager of Gaza’s only Christian bookstore, presented a dangerous challenge. Speculations about the motive still abound: was it a hate crime or simply a random tragedy?

Father Manuel Musallam, the senior Roman Catholic priest in Gaza, doubts the attack was religiously motivated.

“Rami was not only Christian,” the priest explained. “He was Palestinian. Violent acts against Christians are not a phenomenon unique to Gaza.”

Immediately upon hearing of what he described as a “murderous crime,” Ismail Haniyeh, Palestine’s elected prime minister, ordered the Ministry of Interior to dispatch an investigative committee to “urgently look into the matter.”

“We are all one people who suffer together for the sake of freedom, independence and restoration of our inalienable citizenship rights,” Haniyeh said publicly. “We are waging a single struggle and refuse to allow any party to tamper with or manipulate this historical relationship [between Muslims and Christians].”

Muslim and Christian Students Speak

“My life is normal and I’ve never felt oppressed,” said Ali Al Jeldah, a 17-year-old Christian student attending a dual faith school. “Being Muslim or Christian is never an issue,” he emphasized, adding, “I have many Muslim friends. We hang out and study together with no differences at all.”

Lelias Ali, a 16-year-old Muslim who attends Holy Family School, agrees. “We have a unity of struggle, a unity of aim—to live under the same circumstances,” she stated. “This land is for both of us, and being a Christian or Muslim should not separate us.”

“I have lots of friends,” said Diana Al Sadi, 17. “Being Muslim or Christian is not an issue. I go to my friend’s homes for happy and sad occasions, including Christmas and Easter,” she elaborated. “They visit mine during Eid.”

Asked if Christians in Gaza are being harassed by Hamas or the Palestinian police, all the students agreed that this is not the case.

“Every society has extremists,” Ali observed. “Like sometimes I’m criticized for not wearing my hijab. But that has nothing to do with being Muslim or Christian. Those people don’t represent our Palestinian society.”

Pausing for a moment to consider the international media’s portrayal of strife between Muslims and Christians, she concluded, “We should not let such ideas sneak into our minds. If we don’t unite, then we lose.”

The Thoughts of Clergy

Father Musallam explained why Christians in Gaza do not feel singled out or oppressed. “Palestinian Christians are not a religious community set apart in some corner. We are part of the Palestinian people,” he asserted. “Our relationship with Hamas is as people of one nation. Hamas doesn’t fight religious groups. Its fight is against the Israeli occupation.”

When asked about Western media reports that Gaza’s Christians are considering emigrating because of Islamic oppression, Father Musallam sighed. “If Christians emigrate, it’s not because of Muslims,” he emphasized. “It is because we suffer from the Israeli siege. We seek a life of freedom—a life different from the life of dogs we are currently forced to live.”

Archimandrite Artemios, the top clergyman in Gaza of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, chooses to live and minister in Gaza. Though Greek by birth he is Palestinian by heart, he insists. Asked what Christians in Gaza pray for, given the circumstances Palestinians must live under, he replied gently, “We pray for peace, wisdom and improvement of the situations in Gaza.” He added that he anxiously anticipates the day when all Christians and Muslims will have free access to all parts of Palestine: “Then we’ll go together to Bethlehem and celebrate Christmas and Eid Al Adha.”

The Christian leader was not optimistic about the effect of the Annapolis conference on Gaza’s current situation, however. “We all know that Gaza is out of the game,” he said sadly. “I pray God will give the wisdom to President Abbas and the Israeli side to find a solution.”

As church pews and mosque prayer halls filled on the first Sunday of December, a pensive hope prevails as faith in God endures. For in Gaza there are no Jews or Gentiles, no Muslims or Christians. In Gaza there are only Palestinians.

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