Christians in Gaza face difficult period

JERUSALEM — For security reasons I have not been to the Gaza Strip for quite some time now. But I do keep in touch with Holy Family Parish pastor Msgr. Manuel Musallam and other representatives of Christian organizations and other sources I have come to know there on a fairly regular basis — especially now with the situation in Gaza so tenuous.

Before when I interviewed them they were conciliatory in the way they described the general conditions in Gaza and the situation for the Christians in specific. They were going through the same difficult experiences as the 1.2 million Muslim Palestinians living in Gaza — suffering through the Israeli military attacks and incursions, with the international blockade affecting Muslims and Christians alike.

Even when the attacks against their community began — the Greek Orthodox church was attacked following a speech by the pope viewed as insulting to Islam, the compound of the Rosary Sisters’ school and church was ransacked and looted last summer as Hamas took control of the strip from Fatah, and, most recently, Rami Ayyad, owner of a Christian bookstore was kidnapped and killed — Christians tried to maintain their assuaging outlook.

The militant Islamic group Hamas did condemn the attacks and did beef up its patrol around Christian institutions following the attacks. Moderate Muslims also were outraged about the increasing extremism, but everybody was careful not to speak about specific “anti-Christian” sentiments.

But over the past months the tone has changed, especially noticeable this week after the bombing of the Gaza YMCA. Christians said outright that there were increasing anti-Christian feelings. They admitted to being afraid as Christians but they also were reluctant about leaving their homes. They bemoaned the oppressive religious conservatism under which they are now forced to live.

It frightened me to hear my sources whispering nervously into their phones as they told me about another attack on a Christian youth who was taking a female former classmate home. Granted, he was not attacked because he was a Christian, but because the social norms of the society have changed drastically and he had innocently not yet internalized them.

Even Msgr. Musallam, who generally never before spoke about the specific difficulties Christians have in Gaza but rather liked to emphasize their joint destiny with their Palestinian Muslim brothers, suddenly spoke about a new reality in Gaza.

Everything is an unknown, he said, and the Christians of Gaza along with other moderates are passing through a very difficult period, unsure about their future.

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