Tuesday, January 15, 2008

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — A small group of Palestinian Christians stands outside Gaza City’s Baptist Church on a Sunday morning, waiting for the generator to power up. The church is cold and dark in the dead of winter, Israel having reduced fuel supplies to Gaza in an effort to pressure Hamas to halt rocket fire into Israel.

Freshly bound prayer books, containing traditional American hymns, are tucked into the backs of the chairs in the fifth-floor prayer room. But there are no visible religious symbols in the room or outside the building, constructed about a year ago with the help of Christian donors in the U.S. and abroad.

Just eight worshippers are present for the service, compared with more than 100 who attended Sunday prayers six months ago.

Gaza’s small Baptist community is dwindling rapidly. Pastor Hanna Massad, who attended seminary in California, took refuge in the West Bank after congregant Rami Eyad was killed in October. Mr. Eyad’s religious bookshop was bombed in April.

Mr. Massad and his wife, director of the Gaza Bible Society, which is now closed, still hope to return.

Life has become increasingly difficult for Christians in Gaza since Hamas seized control of the coastal strip in June. Most Christians do not hold Hamas directly responsible, but they are calling for increased protection and accountability.

“The Hamas leadership, on the political level, wants to live side by side with the Christian community, but we are not sure who is responsible for Rami’s murder,” said Mr. Massad.

Ihab Al-Ghusain, a spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, condemned the killing but said there had been no progress in the investigation. Some suspect an Islamic extremist group was behind the attack.

Church elder Farid Ayad, 67, now leads the Baptist service. “As a child, I learned from the American Baptist Mission that was here since 1954,” said Mr. Ayad. The mission left in 2001, but a representative from the Southern Baptist Church remains in Jerusalem.

Clergymen in Gaza estimate there are about 3,000 Christians still living in the Gaza Strip. Most are Greek Orthodox, but there are also a few hundred Catholics and a handful of Baptists. They live among some 1.5 million Muslims in the 140-square-mile territory.

Some Christians believe the Hamas government is trying to protect them, if only to improve their image in the eyes of the West. But for others, the threat has become too great.

Over the past few weeks, Israel granted temporary permission to hundreds of Gaza Christians to travel to the West Bank for the holidays. At least six families — more than 40 people — did not return.

Wael Hashwa and his family of four are now living in the West Bank town of Beit Zahur, near Bethlehem. “We are living here month to month, waiting for the situation to improve,” said Mr. Hashwa, who was employed by a now-closed organization of Christian ministers in Gaza.

The Baptist community, self-described as evangelical, has been a principal target of the extremists because of its missionary work, which has been halted.

“Christians get killed here, let alone a Muslim who converted,” said Ashraf, 36, from Gaza City, who declined to provide his last name. “I stopped going to church even before the coup.”

Father Artymos, originally from Greece, leads the St. Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church, founded 1,600 years ago in Gaza’s old city. Christians and Muslims live peacefully together in Gaza, said Father Artymos, but conversions and the construction of new churches are prohibited.

The Rev. Manuel Musallan of the Latin Church in Gaza City blamed Israel for the woes of his tiny Catholic community, which also runs a school with 1,200 students, many of them Muslims.

“The embargo is inhumane. It attacks the innocent here — children, the sick and the elderly,” he said. “If Gaza is to be prepared for peace, this is not the way.”

Father Musallan meets regularly with the Hamas leadership, but members of his congregation are not as confident. “We are afraid Hamas is targeting Christians,” said Issa, who manages a designer-clothing store in the city center.

Issa, who asked that his full name not be used, returned on foot from a Christmas holiday in the West Bank with bags of clothing to refill the barren shelves of his store.

Attacks against Christians have been rare in Gaza, but the Christians fear that small, well-armed, Islamic extremist groups may see Hamas rule as an opportunity to weed them out.

Hamas has increased security in Christian neighborhoods and near churches. “There are groups in Gaza, only a few, that share an al Qaeda ideology, and we will stop them,” said Mr. Al-Ghusain, the Interior Ministry spokesman.

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