New Exodus Could Wipe Out Christianity in Gaza

( [email protected] ) Jun 26, 2007 09:27 AM EDT
Broken crucifixes and shards from a statue of Jesus have been swept up, but Gaza's tiny Christian community says the violent warning sent by Islamic militants cannot be erased.
A man walks in the premises of the Rosary Sisters School and nearby convent, belonging to the Gaza Strip's tiny Roman Catholic community, in Gaza City, Monday June 18, 2007. The premises were ransacked, partially burned and looted during clashes between Fatah and Hamas around a major security headquarters. Crosses were broken, a statue of Jesus was damaged, and prayer books were burnt at the school and nearby convent, said Father Manuel Musallem, head of Gaza's Latin church. (Photo: AP / Khalil Hamra)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - Broken crucifixes and shards from a statue of Jesus have been swept up, but Gaza's tiny Christian community says the violent warning sent by Islamic militants cannot be erased.

The ransacking of a Catholic convent and an adjacent Rosary Sisters school during Hamas' sweep to power broke more than wood and plaster. It signaled the end of a relatively peaceful, if sometimes uneasy, relationship between Gaza's 1.4 million Muslims and 3,000 Christians.

Despite promises of protection by Hamas leaders, Christians fear more attacks, and some say they want to leave. Gaza's flock already has been hit hard by emigration in recent years, and a new exodus could remove what is left of one of the Arab world's oldest Christian communities.

"We don't trust them. Our time is coming," said a Greek Orthodox Christian, who in the current climate of fear asked not to be identified.

No one has claimed responsibility for damaging the convent and school, and Hamas vehemently denied involvement.

However, signs point to Muslim extremists rather than ordinary vandals. A statue and picture of the Virgin Mary — who is held in high esteem by Muslims — were left untouched.

At a Tuesday meeting with a Catholic priest, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who was fired as Palestinian prime minister by President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas seized control in Gaza, promised to find the perpetrators. However, he played down the attack, referring only to damage to the school, not the convent.

The assailants struck toward the end of Hamas' five-day battle with rival Fatah forces loyal to Abbas. The school and convent are close to a pro-Fatah security compound besieged by Hamas gunmen, who pounded it with rockets and mortars before capturing it on the last day of fighting, June 14. The destruction at the Catholic buildings was discovered a day later.

In the convent's chapel, two wooden crosses were broken and a golden cross was twisted out of place. The face of a ceramic Jesus was smashed and prayer books littered the floor.

Three nuns living in the convent were on vacation, deputy school principal Hanadi Missak said. A rocket had slammed into a bedroom, scorching walls, but other areas appeared to have been deliberately burned by setting fire to curtains.

The school's administrative computers and laptops also were stolen. Missak said Hamas officials returned the stolen computers, but didn't explain where they found them.

Missak suggested the vandals were acting on their own. "They were ignorant people. They don't represent all Muslims," he said.

Other Christians blame Hamas — at the least for not preventing the destruction. One woman said only Hamas militants could enter the convent during the fighting, when Gaza's civilians were pinned down in their homes.

The attack marked a watershed for Gaza's Christians, crushing the belief that a shared Palestinian identity would override Muslim-Christian differences.

Bernard Sabella, a researcher who has conducted surveys among Palestinian Christians, said the problem needs to be dealt with urgently because it tears at the fabric of Palestinian society. "People think seriously about migrating after such sectarian acts," he said.

Christians have held a unique place in Gaza's society as respected members of the territory's small elite, running schools, hospitals and businesses. Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, courted Christians, assigning them top posts in government and his Fatah movement.

Hamas, too, is mindful of Palestinian Christians. The Hamas-led coalition government fired by Abbas included a Christian Cabinet minister, and a prominent Gaza Christian, Hussam al-Tawil, was elected to parliament on the Hamas slate.

In September, after extremists hurled several pipe bombs at Gaza's Greek Orthodox Church during the uproar over Pope Benedict XVI's comments about Islam, Hamas militiamen protected the church.

Many Christians were shaken at the time, but optimistic about relations with their Muslim neighbors. But the tone has changed.

Eight Greek Orthodox congregants, meeting in a church rectory after Sunday services, agreed to discuss their concerns, but only on condition their names not be used, fearing reprisals from Islamic militants.

"We don't know what's coming, and I don't trust them (Hamas)," said one woman. "So far they aren't doing anything to us. But I don't know how sincere their intentions are or how long this will last."

Another said she had been harassed for not wearing a head scarf.

There haven't been any attacks on Christians since the ransacking, but many said they feared it was simply a matter of time.

"Many say the easiest thing is to migrate if they can't feel safe," Sabella said. "But if we all leave, what is left for the nation?"

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