Rumours or reality? Palestinian Christians in Gaza

Just over a week ago the Jerusalem Post published an article about the persecution of Palestinian Christians in Gaza, saying that a big proportion are trying to emigrate and leave the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory. The newspaper said that the issue was underreported by the Western media, but some people in the Gaza Strip are saying that this so-called ‘issue’ is simply not true. MENASSAT spoke with Palestinians in Gaza to investigate this further.

By OLFAT HADDAD
gaza churches

Palestinian Christians celebrating Easter. ©AFP

Gaza, December 19, 2008 (MENASSAT) The Jerusalem Post published an article about a Palestinian Christian exodus out of Gaza claiming that the small Christian community were victims of “a systematic campaign of persecution” that they said “is taking place in the Gaza Strip, and to a lesser extent in the West Bank.”

But when MENASSAT’s correspondent in Palestine explored this further, she found that the 3,600 Christians in Gaza are not being displaced en masse and that those who do want to emigrate share the same reasons as the rest of the besieged population – a lack of opportunity in the Strip due to the Israeli siege and occupation.

The Jerusalem Post article said that the persecution of Christians is being perpetrated by a number of Islamic groups and referred to it as, “Part of a larger process of Islamization taking place in Palestinian society.”

Fadi Bandali, a Christian living in the Gaza Strip, spoke with MENASSAT and said that the stories written in the media about the small minority in Gaza are not true. “The Christians here are not suffering under anyone in particular. On the contrary all Christians live here without fear and we practice our rituals freely without anyone interfering.”

“Christians in Gaza do not think about leaving the Strip for the reasons stated in the media. Those who do think about emigrating think about it for the same reasons most other young people do – because of the embargo, the bad economic situation and lack of job opportunities.”

According to a poll released last week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 40% of people in the Gaza wish to leave.

Bandali told MENASSAT that the Jerusalem Post article could be an attempt to weaken the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Palestine.

“There are a lot of people who are trying to disrupt the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Gaza. Despite the events that happened against Christians in Gaza before, the relationship did not deteriorate. In fact, it’s at its best.

He said that the Christians have not faced any problems with Hamas’ government in the Gaza Strip, who have been in control of the region for one year and a half.

“There is constant communication between us and Hamas and there is no interference by the party, not in our daily rituals and certainly not in our religious practices.”

Christians are afraid to admit harassment

The Jerusalem Post also quoted an article by the columnist Abd Al-Nasser Al-Najjar of the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam. In his article Najjar wrote about Christian-owned properties in the West Bank, specifically in Bethlehem, Ramallah and al-Bireh, that are being confiscated by high-ranking people, including military personnel and powerful families.

During a phone call with Al-Najjar, the journalist told MENASSAT that the Christians of Gaza are getting harassed but they cannot admit it because they are a minority in the region.

He also said that Christians in the Arab World, including Palestine, are suffering from a lot of harassment but no one is speaking out because of fear. He refers to an article he wrote on this subject, which “was quoted or republished by more than 600 media outlets”.

Najjar is now working on an article about Christians leaving the Strip but says he does not have enough information to publish it yet. “I hear a lot about what happens behind the scenes in Gaza but I don’t want to talk about it until I have real evidence. I don’t want things to get more severe, like the case in Egypt where there is already a strong sectarian divide.”

It’s simply an economical emigration

On the other hand, Father Manuel Musallem, the head of Gaza’s Latin Church said that the mass Christian emigration doesn’t exist at all.

“The issue of some Christians leaving Palestine is not a phenomenon because it’s only normal that some people leave due to the economic situation that the Gaza Strip is going through because of the embargo.”

When asked if he is afraid to say that this emigration is politically motivated, Father Musallem strongly denied any fear of speaking out. He said that the Christian-Muslim relations are excellent and refuses to call the few departures of Christians from the Strip a political emigration. “It is simply an economical emigration.”

He told MENASSAT that two schools in Gaza, Deir Latin and the Holy Family School have more than 1,100 Muslim children attending. “They study all the courses and we even teach them Islam. Some of them are even the children of officials in Hamas or the Islamic jihad.”

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