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Christians in Gaza — The Alarm Has Sounded

Christians in Gaza Palm Sunday 2016
Palestinian Christians take part in the Palm Sunday celebrations at St. Porphyrios in Gaza City, Gaza Strip on 24 April 2016. Photo APA Images/SIPA.

Palestine is the cradle of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Holy Land is mentioned in the Torah, the Bible, and the Quran. Jesus Christ, son of the Virgin Mary, was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, and preached in Galilee and around the Jordan River. Christians believe that Jesus Christ was “crucified and buried and ascended from the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.” These facts, mentioned in the three Holy Books and in classic references, have led Christians around the world to refer to Palestine as “the Holy Land.”

It is estimated that, before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Palestinian Christians accounted for approximately eight per cent of the population. This percentage dropped gradually—with massive emigration and the decreasing birth rate among Christians (compared with Muslims, Jews, and Druze)—to approximately 1.25 per cent throughout the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Christian population now amounts to approximately one million, but more than two-thirds of them live outside the homeland, especially in Latin America and the United States. Only 50,000 Christians continue to live in the Palestinian territories, while some 117,000 live in Arab areas within the so-called 1948 Green Line, which is under Israeli control. Most Palestinian Christians live in the cities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Gaza, and in the cities of Nazareth and Haifa, inside the green line.

Palestinian Christians are the most ancient Christian community in the world; hence they are referred to as “Early Christians” and “living stones,” who were the first to convert to Christianity; this emphasises the role of the original Christians as described by the first pope, Saint Peter, in his messages. Christians in Palestine consist of several sects. More than half of the Christians (51 per cent) within the Palestinian territories are Roman Orthodox. The remainder are Latin Catholics (30 per cent), Roman Catholics (six per cent), Protestants (five per cent), Assyrians (three per cent), and Copts, Abyssinians, Armenians, and other Christian sects who account for approximately two per cent.

Christians in the Gaza Strip are divided into three groups. Some have lived in Gaza for a very long time, others migrated to Gaza during the Nakba in 1948, and yet others relocated to Gaza when the late president Yasir Arafat returned to the Gaza Strip and established the Palestinian National Authority in 1994.

A Peaceful Coexistence

The relationship between Muslims and Christians in Palestine is different from that in other Arab countries, according to some Christians. Suhayl Saba, a member of the Council of Representatives for the Roman Orthodox Church in the Gaza Strip, said in an interview, “The Christians of the Gaza Strip are Christians by religion but Muslims by culture,” and this has contributed to the historic coexistence between the two, making it difficult to tell a Muslim from a Christian. One study noted that Israeli media have begun to spread rumours that Christians in the Palestinian Territories, especially the Gaza Strip, have been subjected to persecution and hence are fleeing the area. Christians from the Gaza Strip deny that, saying that they had not been pressured in Gaza and that they live freely and without fear and practice their religion with freedom. Father Emmanuel Msallam, the leader of the Latin Church in Gaza, confirmed this, saying that Muslim-Christian relations are at their best, rejecting claims that some Christian families left the Gaza Strip for political reasons and saying that they had left for economic reasons only.

Nonetheless, the number of Christians in the Gaza Strip is constantly decreasing. Most have left the Strip to settle in the West Bank because they have married, or they have gone abroad, particularly to Europe, to study. Ten years ago, Christians numbered some 3,400, while in 2015 there were scarcely 1,430. Most of them are Roman Orthodox, according to Father Mario de Silva, priest of the Holy Family parish in Gaza and the spiritual leader of Christians in Gaza.

Various historical factors have strengthened relations between Muslims and Christians in Palestine in general and in the Gaza Strip in particular. Most important of these is that Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab, on conquering Jerusalem in 638 CE, pledged to Saint Sophronius that he would protect the rights of Christians and their places of worship. This pledge was the most important covenant between Muslims and Christians in Palestine. Umar’s covenant was tantamount to recognition by Muslims of Christian places of worship and other property and the independence of churches in running their own affairs.

The second factor is the coexistence of the two religions in residential neighbourhoods in the city of Gaza. Christians have continued to live side by side with Muslims and share their joys and sorrows with their neighbours, and this has strengthened relations between the two groups. Most Christians in the Gaza Strip worship in the Orthodox church of Saint Porphyrius, which is more than 1,650 years old and lies in the centre of Gaza City, in the heart of a popular Muslim-dominated neighbourhood. The church is adjacent to a mosque, and only a wall separates the two.

Civil-society organizations that are active in education, health, sports, and other activities provide services to all segments of society, regardless of religious background, which further enhances coexistence. The Israeli occupation and all aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, irrespective of religious background, have added to Palestinian solidarity and unity. There is no question about the patriotism of Palestinian Christians, their pride in their Palestinian identity, and their contribution to the resistance to the Israeli occupation by sacrificing their lives or risking arrest.

Harmony Disrupted

However, this optimistic picture of relations between Muslim and Christian Palestinian citizens may soon become just a part of history. The priests of the church in Gaza, including fathers Emanuel Msallam and Mario de Silva, maintain that Hamas rule in Gaza does not make them fear for their future but that some incidents in the past few years of Hamas rule have been cause for concern.

Some “isolated incidents” have taken place, such as the throwing of a hand grenade at the Latin Church in the neighbourhood of al-Zaytun, in southeastern Gaza, on 26 February 2014. Some inflammatory slogans have been written on the walls of the church, such as, “In retaliation for the Muslims of Central Africa” and “Days are between us, oh worshippers of Christ.”

Similar incidents took place in February 2008, when the library of the Christian Youth Association was bombed, and in May 2008, when a hand grenade was thrown at the Rosary Sister’s School (causing no casualties). The Palestinian Legislative Council, which consists mostly of Hamas members, condemned the attacks, and, as a form of compensation by the Hamas-led government, the youth association was exempted from all lease fees.

The language used by Salafi preachers on dealing with Christians is also problematic. For example, they ask Muslims not to offer congratulations to Christians on Christmas or trade in goods used during Christian holidays, such as Christmas trees, and they ask young people not to buy clothes or other items that have pictures of the cross, such as T-shirts or bags for the Barcelona sports club.

The announcement in July 2012 by a young Christian man and a woman and her three daughters that they had converted to Islam caused turmoil in Gaza. The Christian woman who converted to Islam considered herself divorced from her husband after becoming a Muslim. Bishop Alexius of the Orthodox Church in Gaza claimed that the woman and young man were coerced to convert to Islam, which Hasan Juju, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Courts, denied categorically. Juju demanded that Bishop Alexius meet with the young man and the woman in the presence of human-rights groups and apologize for making false claims.

Although such events have been sporadic, they may soon deal a blow to the harmony between Gazan Christians and Muslims. There is near consensus that Salafi jihadists in Gaza, such as Jaysh al-Umma (Army of the Umma), Jaysh al-Islam, and Islamic State (IS), are behind the hostile acts against Christians.

The main question in this regard is whether those in charge of the government in the Gaza Strip truly oppose these groups. The vast majority of the Gaza population describe these Salafi jihadist groups as “distorting the image of Islam” and say that “Islam has nothing to do with them,” some explicitly describing them as terrorist groups.

Hamas has expressed sympathy for Gaza’s Christian community. It denounced and condemned the attacks mentioned above and established a “fact-finding committee,” expressed solidarity with the Christian population, and even repeatedly resorted to the use of force against Salafis, detaining their hardliners, despite the fact that Hamas generally avoids confrontations with hardline groups and prefers dialogue instead.

The alarm bells have rung. Some hardline Muslim preachers have begun to show resentment of the coexistence mentioned above. Bizarre phenomena have begun to emerge in Gazan society, especially from those adopting hardline religious discourse who are trying to create a rift in the unity of people, for instance, concerning the celebration of the Easter and Christmas holidays.

Gaza is not alone: the entire homeland of Christ may soon be without resident Christians. In addition to the Salafi actions, Israeli practices—including the blockade of the Gaza Strip, the separation wall in the West Bank, and the continued Judaization policies in East Jerusalem—although aimed at Palestinians in general, have caused the massive displacement of Christians from the homeland of Christ and is a humanitarian and cultural disaster.