Thursday, April 27, 2006

JERUSALEM — An attempt by Muslim clerics to close a YMCA branch office in the West Bank has exposed growing tensions between the Holy Land’s dwindling Christian community and the new Palestinian government led by Hamas.

Firebombs were recently thrown into the office of the YMCA in Qalqilya, a Hamas stronghold, forcing the group to move to new premises.

Muslim leaders have written to the local municipal council demanding that the YMCA branch office be closed. Their letter concludes: “The presence of this office will lead to negative consequences.”

While the religious leaders were not members of Hamas, the failure of the Hamas-run council to protect the YMCA is causing concern among local Christians.

Hashem al Masri, the deputy mayor and a Hamas member, admitted that the YMCA’s name alone was a “challenge to the city.”

“I know it is not civilized to attack it, but it is a challenge to the feeling of our people,” he said.

The YMCA has offices across the West Bank giving work to 140 Palestinians, of whom 84 are Muslim.

In Qalqilya, it provides wheelchairs and prosthetics for children. This year’s budget is $90,000, and if the office closes, the money will be spent elsewhere.

For decades, Christians have felt squeezed and persecuted and have seen their numbers dwindle from about 10 percent of the population to less than 2 percent in Israel and the Palestinian territories. They have been overtaken by Jewish migrants and large Muslim families and have moved on to friendly countries in the West.

The election of the Hamas government adds further pressure on the community. So sensitive is the issue that the YMCA leadership in the West Bank declined to comment.

Norris Lineweaver, the director-general of the YMCA in West Jerusalem, said the problem arose simply because the word Christian appears in the group’s name. YMCA stands for Young Men’s Christian Association.

“It is true that we have a long and proud Christian heritage, but it is strictly against our policy to proselytize,” he said.

“The problems arise because of an unfortunate misunderstanding about our role. We are there simply to help the local councils, whether they are Muslim or Christian, with any youth development programs they might have.”

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