For the first time in 2,000 years, the once thriving Christian population in Gaza is on the verge of extinction due to to the ongoing Israeli blockade of the region, which restricts movement and the flow of goods.
According to a lengthy report from USA Today, the Christian community in the region is declining at a rate of 5 percent per year, with less than 1,200 worshipers currently living in the area. These statistics are prompting fears among many that the region could be entirely devoid of the religious denomination within two decades.
The report notes that Israeli sanctions on Gaza have made freedom of movement and goods almost non-existent, and have contributed to an economy that the World Bank said is on the "verge of collapse." Even more sobering -- the United Nations report this year said the 2014 Israeli-Hamas war and the current blockade will make the Palestinian territory "unlivable" by 2020.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frequently defended the blockade, saying it prevents the smuggling of illegal weapons into the region which could fall into the hands of terrorist factions. However, speaking to USA Today, Jaber Jilder, an official with the Greek Orthodox Church, argued that Christians' exodus out of Gaza cannot be attributed solely to Islamic extremism.
"People might think we're leaving because of Hamas, but no it's because of ... [Israeli] policies on Gaza," he said. "Most of our community have no opportunities. There are no jobs, especially after university," Jilder said. "I hear this Christmas about 50 people will leave Gaza ... but they won't return...As soon as there is a way for me to leave I will go, and I want to send my sons outside if they get the chance," he added.
Many of those leaving the region are young Christians with limited job opportunities who are disillusioned by the ongoing war and hoping to start a new life
"We don't want to leave, but we are forced to because of the economic and political situation here," said a young Christian woman named Luzil Asaree."It's sad, Christians have been here since the beginning of our religion."
Added Ibrahim Tarazi, a engineering graduate, "Nobody would leave if we had a life here...If the situation remains the same then the numbers will keep going down, but I can't see any future where it is better."
Meanwhile, speaking to the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum last week, Netanyahu identified Islamic extremism as the primary reason for the loss of Christians in the region and asserted that Israel is the only nation in the Middle East protecting the denomination.
"You know very well that our region is in flames and Christians in Iraq, Syria and, unfortunately, under the Palestinian Authority, are suffering a lot because of radical Islam. These communities are persecuted, and unfortunately many people have lost their lives for their faith," Netanyahu said, Fides News Agency reported.
The Israeli PM pointed out that extremists target all people of faith who do not agree with their radical ideology.
"Radical Islam does not make any difference between Christians, Jews and Muslims who reject their extremism. They are all infidels who must be killed. For this now more than ever it is clear which is the only State in the Middle East that protects minorities, where Christians live in peace and where their community is growing: This state is the State of Israel," he declared.