- The Washington Times
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

THE WASHINGTON TIMES TEL AVIV — The future of a tiny Christian community in the Gaza Strip is in doubt after the takeover of Gaza by the militant Islamist group Hamas.

Recent attacks and threats against churches and institutions affiliated with the Christian community of about 2,000 have raised questions about the fate of minorities in the densely populated coastal strip of 1.5 million people now under Islamist control.

Christians say the primary danger comes not from Hamas — which has an interest in protecting Christians — but from more-fanatic Muslim groups that are sprouting up amid its rise.

“They are small groups that are very militant and want to enforce Shariah law, and want the Christians to abide with it,” said the Rev. Hanna Massad, pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church.

“Many Christians are nervous and don’t know what to expect. I think many of them, if they have a chance to leave, they will leave,” Mr. Massad said.

He said his congregation of about 200 has been able to worship as normal since the Hamas-Fatah fighting subsided a little over a week ago and calm returned to the streets.

But the congregation has also been shaken by several threats.

The leader of one extremist group, Jihadia Salafiya, said that Christians wouldn’t be safe in Gaza unless they comply with Islamic laws requiring head coverings for women and banning alcohol consumption.

“I expect our Christian neighbors to understand the new Hamas rule means real changes. They must be ready for Islamic rule if they want to live in peace in Gaza,” Sheik Abu Saqer, the group’s leader, told the WorldNetDaily Internet news site in a recent interview.

Jihadia Salafiya, an Islamic outreach movement, recently announced the opening of a “military wing” to enforce Islamic law, the news site reported.

“Even if Hamas, as an Islamic movement, has never really targeted Christians, the problem is not the main faction,” said Labib Madanat, Jerusalem-based director of the Palestinian Bible Society.

“The problem is the people who work under their shadow. The general mood becomes fanatic and militant,” he said.

Mr. Madanat said the reading room of the group’s Gaza branch was destroyed in a bombing in April. A group calling itself the Army of Islam took responsibility for the attack, as well as attacks on Internet cafes.

Mr. Madanat said a seven-member team has resumed nonreligious community activism, such as leadership training and English lessons, but that an air of uncertainty in Gaza remains.

At the height of the Hamas-Fatah fighting earlier this month, a school and convent belonging to Gaza’s tiny Roman Catholic community were ransacked, burned and looted.

At the Rosary Sisters School and convent, attackers burned crosses, damaged a statue of Jesus and ruined prayer books.

The church is located near the former headquarters of a security agency, which was a flash point for the fighting that drove the secular Fatah movement out of Gaza.

Church officials insisted what happened was not a coincidence.

“Nothing happens by mistake these days,” the Rev. Manuel Musallem, head of Gaza’s Latin Church, told the Associated Press.

Hamas lawmaker Salah Bardawil denied that Hamas had a hand in the vandalism.

“The Christians are our brothers in Gaza and everywhere, and we will protect their holy places and school, as we do our Islamic schools,” Mr. Bardawil told AP. “But there are some dirty elements who work to harm Hamas’ image.”

Wishah Jaber, deputy director of the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights, said the group hasn’t received any complaints from Christian Gazans, and he insisted that Christians in Gaza face the same type of danger as the general population.

Still, he acknowledged the rise of radical groups would imperil all groups on the margins, including Christians.

“The ongoing pressure has increased the extremism amongst the people here, which is a normal and natural response,” Mr. Jaber said. “This is cultural extremism that will put the marginal groups in corners under attack.”

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